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Chatroom for pupils at Jewish schools
Text for 9 November 2000, the day of the Shoah

Remembering the victims of National Socialism:
For Jews, this is an integral part of their identity 
- and what does it mean for non-Jews?

[Get this text in German]

Peter Finkelgruen

Jüdische Buchhandlung Morascha - Zürich - Bücher zum Judentum, Ritualia...
Radio Praha!
Recently I had the opportunity to listen to a lecture on the theme "Culture - superego and the holocaust commemoration religion". You can tell straight away from the title that the lecturer was a psychoanalyst.

As I listened I gained the impression that the lecture had a certain similarity to that of Martin Walser, in which he admitted that he could no longer listen to people talking about Auschwitz.

The psychoanalyst asserted, for example, that it has so far been forbidden to talk about other cases of genocide in school lessons. I myself learned for the first time about the genocide of the Armenians when I was at school in Israel, so I know that this assertion is untrue. So why was it made? If we equate the psychoanalytical concept of the superego with Martin Walser's moral club, then we begin to see the point of the assertion. The memory of the Shoah is, so to speak, "sanctified". No other memories should be allowed apart from this one. In this way it becomes part of a society superego and thus turns into the moral club that Martin Walser and others complain about so much.

The remembrance of "that which took place" (this was the cautious phrase that the poet Paul Celan usually used to express the events of the "Third Reich", especially the murder of the Jews) really does have a religious element to it, at least so far as the intensity and the emotional aspect of the remembering is concerned. The concept of commemoration does suggest a religious attitude. And the fact that a certain day has been set aside on which this common commemoration takes place each year represents a ritualisation that contains religious elements, such as prayers.

Up to this point it is possible to be in agreement. But when we come to the structure of this ritualised remembrance, and the significance that can be deduced from it, then we notice some differences.

People in religious and theological Jewish circles have been thinking about the connection between "that which took place" and the question of faith for a long time. In both orthodox and reformed circles. This is not just confined to the most recent statements by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem, Ovadia Josef. He is supposed to have said that the victims died because of sins that they had committed in an earlier life. So far as I know, this thesis was first formulated in a yeshiva in the Shanghai ghetto, where it was said that the persecution of the Jews was a divine punishment for the process of assimilation in Germany. I also remember reading in the 1960s that reformed Jewish circles in the United States had put forward the idea that the persecution of the Jews in the Third Reich would one day have a place in the history of the identity of the Jewish people comparable with that of the exodus from Egypt.

Pesach, Purim, and Chanukah are religious festivals on which the persecution of the Jews in different periods of their history is remembered. But on each of these occasions, it is not just the persecution and the danger of extermination that is remembered, but also the triumph of deliverance and the dignity of resistance. The Yom Hashoah in Israel - and in the diaspora - is no different. In Israel the day of remembrance occurs in the midst of other commemorative days, such as the day when the dead and fallen of Israel's wars are remembered, and falls right next to the national day of independence. It draws on this remembrance, a part of the identity of Jews.

Seen from this point of view it is understandable if non-Jews are irritated by this "sacralisation". For recalling the victims of the persecution necessarily also means recalling the perpetrators. And they cannot be mourned for or included in the remembrance in a positive way. And when the non-Jews are also the descendants of the perpetrators - with an inherited responsibility, but without collective guilt - then, while they do feel that the remembrance of the victims is correct and necessary, they are unable to share it with the descendants of the victims. Many of them seem to be seeking a way out of this dilemma. Examples of this can be seen in a number of embarrassing incidents that we have experienced in previous years, such as the speech by Philipp Jenninger, the former President of the German parliament, who was eventually forced to resign his post because his attempt to explain what had taken place could have been understood as a plea for understanding for the seizure of power by the Nazis. Another case is the debate about erecting a memorial to the holocaust in Berlin, which has dragged on for years, and where even now there are doubts about whether it will finally be built or not. But some people react to this dilemma with aggression. Like Martin Walser, like the psychoanalyst I mentioned at the beginning. And like the numerous anonymous neo-Nazis.

Peter Finkelgruen / haGalil onLine 25-10-2000


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