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Mole's Progressive Democrat

The Progressive Democrat Newsletter grew out of the frustration of the 2004 election. Originally intended for New York City progressives, its readership is now national. For anyone who wants to be alerted by email whenever this newsletter is updated (usually weekly), please send your email address and let me know what state you live in (so I can keep track of my readership).

Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

I am a research biologist in NYC. Married with two kids living in Brooklyn.

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  • Friday, April 16, 2010

    Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day

    This last week was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. By sheer coincidence, or through some sort of subconscious trick, I just finished re-reading the book Voyage of the Damned, the story of the ship carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in 1939 that was refused entry into Cuba or the United States and so most of the refugees were returned to Europe...mostly to their ultimate deaths in concentration camps. I want to mix in my thoughts on Voyage of the Damned with something I wrote last year on Yom HaShoah, and remind us all that "Never Again" has yet to be achieved and that we bear a responsibility to not fall into the same trap that people fell into in the 1930's and 1940's.

    And the anti-immigration mood in the United States of the late 1930's bears a considerable resemblance to the anti-immigrant mood today, and Voyage of the Damned is as much a condemnation of the inaction of the United States as it is a condemnation of what was happening in Europe.

    It is Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is the time we remember the 11 million people (including he 5 million non-Jews too often left out of our remembrance) who were killed by the Nazis in WW II.

    Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freight Car

    Here, in this freight car,
    I, Eve,
    with my son Abel.
    If you see my older boy,
    Cain, the son of Adam,
    tell him that I...

    --Dan Pagis, as quoted in Ariel Hirschfeld's chapter in Cultures of the Jews, David Biale (ed.)

    I read this poem, evoking the emotions of a woman crammed into a freight car on her way to the death camps during the Holocaust, right before I read Elie Wiesel's most recent edition of his book Night, describing his own experiences in the Holocaust. His book is, needless to say, chilling. But the additions in the latest edition make it even more so. If you read earlier editions, you might want to read the intro to the new one because he mentions things edited out of the original.

    In Night Wiesel describes in considerable detail the experience of the freight car taking him to the Auschwitz. Everything about the experience was dehumanizing, mile by mile stripping away the humanity of the Jews not only in the eyes of the German guards, but even in the eyes of the Jews themselves. In many ways Dan Pagis' poem is rehumanizing those who went through the experience, by framing it in terms of a Biblical incident that supposedly frames human origins. When I read the description of the freight cars in Night I kept returning to this poem, contrasting these two portrayals of the same experience in my mind. Both are born of the same experience but in many ways they are mirror images: the dehumanizing, humans as freight experience, and the experience that encompasses all of humanity, thus rehumanlizing those who experienced those freight cars. They are not contradictory versions, but are two sides of the exact same experience: the narrow one of what the experience meant right at the time to those directly involved, and the expansion of that highly personal experience to put it into the context of human nature and human history in general. What we do to each other now replays the family tragedy of the Biblical myth.

    We are Jewish because there are people out there who would kill us for being Jewish.--Joy Romanski

    At a time when I was simultaneously becoming more agnostic/atheist AND more Jewish (perhaps in the tradition of Isaac Deutcher who recognized a place within Judaism for non-believing Jews), I quite naturally posed the age-old question of just what it means to be a Jew. Parts of my quest to answer this question for myself have become diaries on various blogs. Genetic, cultural, tribal, religious, nationalistic and historical definitions of Judaism all combine into a mishmash that must be confusing to non-Jews, but that I have come to see as a very key aspect to Jewish identity. I have come to see this identity crisis as one core part of Judaism that goes back as far as we can trace. Even within the Old Testament Jews have an ongoing identity crisis.

    That's how I think. I immerse myself in the complexity and maybe even add to that complexity some paradoxes: atheists can be perfectly good Jews, identity crisis can be a defining feature of identity, etc.

    My wife thinks differently than I do. And her response to the question of Jewish identity was characteristically terse and to the point:

    We are Jewish because there are people out there who would kill us for being Jewish.

    That definition has stuck with me over the years since she said it. Because it defines Jews probably more than my identity crisis as identity does.

    Night tells the story of those who wanted to kill us because we are Jews. Voyage of the Damned tells the almost equally chilling story of those who would turn us away, sending us back to Germany, because we are Jews.

    The Spanish Inquisition (which still exists today in a more benign form) had several targets. Jews and Protestants could be brutally killed at will. But their main target was neither. Their main target was generally the Conversos, Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism by the Spanish. Somehow these ambiguous people, once Jewish, now not, were seen as the biggest threat by the Spanish Catholic Church. At first the Papacy did not agree and was happy to welcome converted Jews, but some Popes, like Paul IV, took the attitude of the Inquisition and saw these converts, no matter how Christian, as suspect and was known to burn them alive from time to time. In fact, it didn't even matter if your family had been good, practicing Catholics for generations, the taint of having once been Jewish remained and the Inquisition was always a threat. No surprise that many Conversos left Spain. What may be surprising to some is how integrated the Conversos actually became in Iberian society. Recent genetic evidence has revealed that a full 20% of all modern Iberians (people living in Spain and Portugal) have Jewish ancestry in their male lineage. This is based on Y-chromasomal analysis, so only applies to the male lineage. It would be interesting to know how many are descended from Jews in their femaile lineage but that would take a separate analysis using mitochondrial DNA. That is a huge percentage of the population and shows that the Conversos were a significant part of the Iberian population.

    Most of that 20% of Iberian people who are descended from Jewish men have been perfectly good Christians since that conversion. Yet, to Nazi Germany they would have been Jews, as stated by their own slogans.

    The intellectual underpinnings of Nazi Germany's anti-Semitism partly came from a British author named Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Supposedly a historian (yet seemingly ignorant of much history) Chamberlain hypothesized that civilizations and great nations rose by expelling Jews and fell when they became "polluted" by Jews. Needless to say, people like Himmler pissed themselves with glee when they read this and used it as one basis of their policy towards the Jews. One wonders what those 20% of modern Spanish and Portugese who are descended from Jewish men would think of this philosophy.

    The 1935 Nuremburg Laws enshrined what many Jews already knew. It didn't matter who you were, what you believed or even what you worshipped, if you had any Jewish ancestry you were Jewish. Or, put more popularly in 1930's Germany:

    Was er glaubt is einerlei
    In der Rasse liegt die Schweinerei.

    Translated in Melvin Konner's book Unsettled as:

    It doesn't matter what his faith,
    the piggishness is in the race.

    Which, in effect, says the same thing my wife says:

    We are Jewish because there are people out there who would kill us for being Jewish.

    And, again, I wonder what those 20% of modern Spanish and Portuguese who are descended from Jewish men would think of this.

    The first step towards genocide is to define your target as less than human. The dehumanization of perfectly normal and nice human beings is the first step to exterminating those perfectly normal and nice human beings. This is a common motif in all of human history. We Americans are not immune to it. Americans did it regarding blacks and Native Americans. Japanese have done it regarding Koreans and Chinese. And, of course, many have done it regarding the Jews.

    The Germans used freight cars, stuffed to overflowing with perfectly normal and nice human beings, given little food, water or bathroom facilities, to dehumanize the Jews as completely as possible on the way to the camps. When the Jews arrived they had not bathed, they were half starved, dehydrated, weak, smelling of urine and feces that they were not allowed to dispose of properly. This made it so much easier for the Germans to send them to death…and so much easier for the Jews to go quietly.

    Here, in this freight car,
    I, Eve,
    with my son Abel.
    If you see my older boy,
    Cain, the son of Adam,
    tell him that I...

    Voyage of the Damned turns this a little on its head. In this book, many of the German characters spent a great deal of effort actually treating the Jews like human beings, while many of the Americans and Cubans in the book dehumanized them. Even fellow Jews trying to help wound up dehumanizing them while trying to set a price to bribe Cuba to let them land.

    This story is one where a German shipping company, Hapbag, collaborated with Goebbels propaganda machine, the German intelligence service that was trying to get secrets out of the United States, a corrupt Cuban politician and some Jewish relief agencies to load an entire German cruise ship with German Jews and send them to Cuba where they could hopefully await entry into the United States. At the time almost no country was letting Jews in. No nation in Europe wanted them. The US didn't want them. Cuba didn't want them. But the German shipping line would make money. The corrupt Cuban politician would make money. Goebbels planned from the start to use the unwillingness of Cuba and the US to take the Jews in as a propaganda coup to show that NO ONE wanted the Jews. And the German intelligence service had an agent, a real prick named, quite appropriately, Otto Sheindick, who was using the trip as cover to get secrets from Cuba back to Germany.

    The book is based on diaries, interviews and records from the time. It follows the plight of the Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba, the refusal of Cuba to let them in, the refusal of the United States to help, and finally their acceptance, just before being sent back to Germany, in England (thanks partly to the efforts of Joseph Kennedy, the father of John, Robert and Ted), France, Belgium and Holland. This all occurred in June 1939. Within months WW II would begin and those refugees in France, Belgium and Holland mostly wound up in concentration camps because Cuba and the US wouldn't accept them.

    The vast majority of the German crew of the St. Louis, the ship taking these refugees treated those refugees well and did all they could for them. The captain of the ship, Gustav Schroeder, in particular tried to help them, at the risk of his own life. And he resigned his captaincy over the incident. Although there are plenty of German Nazi pricks (like Sheindick) in the book, the people who did the most for these Jewish refugees were Germans. The people who come off the worst are the Cubans and the Americans.

    Never Again

    That is the refrain I grew up with as a Jew. No more genocides. And yet we have not lived up to this refrain. And, in fact, the very first reaction the world had to the Holocaust was denial. Even in Israel the act of intentional forgetting played out from 1948 through 1961. Many Israelis down played the Holocaust or in part blamed the victim for remaining in the unsafe Diaspora rather than joining the aliyah, the return. It was the 1961 public trial of Eichmann that led many Israelis (as well as Americans) to realize the full scope of the Holocaust and to face it honestly. But in the longer scheme of things, as, not only survivors, but, just as importantly as witnesses, the liberators die off, Holocaust denial and downplaying revives. It isn't just the President of Iran who loves to downplay the Holocaust. I hear similar downplaying by Americans as well, usually with some kind of political agenda (for example, the Institute for Historical Review and the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust). And of course the constant mis-use by right wing Americans of the term Nazi and comparisons of actions of Obama to the Holocaust are another way people downplay the Holocaust. To fulfill "Never Again" we have to never forget. How are we going to keep the memory strong enough as those who were first hand witnesses and survivors die?

    But there is another aspect to "Never Again." We must recognize the role America played in refusing to help the Jews because of racism WITHIN America. This passage from Voyage of the Damned reminds me all too much of anti-immigrant hysteria in America today and even the worst of the rhetoric of the right wing Teabaggers:

    The decision to bar the refugees reflected widespread feeling in the United States toward immigrants. By June 1939, with some 30 million unemployed, opposition came from labor leaders, who claimed that work markets were being depressed by foreigners willing to accept minimum wages. Among the unemployed, as in the rest of the country, there existed a xenophobia which made the United States not so much a melting pot for racial and religious differences but rather a pit for racial and religious antagonisms. On the edge of this cauldron perched the 100% Americanm determined to return the nation to Anglo-Saxon purity. Despite having descended from immigrant stock, they now regarded themselves as native Americans, and were determined to exclude anyone of doubtful origins.

    By 1939, the refugees of Europe had fallen into that category. While the average American decried Nazi policies, he was equally opposed to offering its victims a home. For some organizations, like the notorious [KKK], which claimed a membership of 4.5 million "white, make, persons, native-born gentile citizens of the United States of America," the European refugee posed a greater threat than the Negro. Imperial Wizard Hiram E. Evans explained: "The Negro is not a menace to Americanism in the sense that the Jew or Roman Catholic is a menace." Increasingly, those two groups were to bear the brunt of the Klan's sectarian violence.

    Such demagogues [editor's note: These were the "shock-jocks" of the time] as the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin found willing response among the millions who saw refugees like those on the St. Louis as a further threat to the "purity" of the United States.

    Racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia in America was a contributing factor to our shameful inaction regarding Jewish refugees, and we condemned many to death because of our own irrational fears and prejudices.

    "Never Again" requires that we shed much of that racism and xenophobia.

    "Never again" can never be literally fulfilled, because humans are humans and genocide has been part of our civilized story from the very beginning of "civilization". But "never again" CAN mean never again turning a blind eye, never again LETTING it happen without opposition and never again sitting back and refusing to help those fleeing from genocide as America has done way too often. It is in this context that Elie Wiesel's Nobel Peace Prize (remember, that thing that so many right wing extremists on Fox News denigrated because Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Barack Obama are recent recipients) is so meaningful.

    And speaking of Nobel Prizes (in Medicine, not Peace), I will end with an experience I had at work some 2 years ago. The NYU School of Medicine has many excellent seminars. One of them is the annual Menek Goldstein memorial lecture in Psychiatry. Two years ago Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize winner, was the speaker, and a damned good one at that. What caught my attention separate from the science was that the three scientists highlighted, Menek Goldstein (being honored by the lecture), Eric Simon (who introduced Eric Kandel) and Eric Kandel (the speaker) all experienced the Holocaust. If I got the stories straight, Menek Goldstein lived through the concentration camps while Eric Simon and Eric Kandel both lived through Kristalnacht but escaped before the full force of Nazism could hit them. Three such distinguished and famous scientists, all Jews targeted by the Nazis for extermination, all survived to old age, and one won the Nobel Prize. Meanwhile, those Nazis who targeted them for extermination, and petty thugs like Otto Sheindick, who terrorized the Jewish refugees on the St. Louis, are now dead and/or despised, becoming one of the political schoolyard taunts thrown around by left and right to describe those they don't like, and admired by almost no one except a handful of outcast nutjobs. Those targeted are among the most admired members of our society...those who did the targeting are recognized as some of the biggest and most pathetic losers of history. Even if "never again" is never achieved, at least we know that those who committed genocide were solidly defeated at least once and therefore can be again.

    Let us not forget, not let xenophobia and fear control our logic and compassion, and not sit back again and let genocide happen unopposed.


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