Never Say Never Again

Today's intersection of May Day and Yom HaShoah has me feeling ashamed. Ashamed because the clenched fist of May Day, attached to my arm, becomes a hand covering my eyes at the spectacle of Jews being herded into gas chambers 65 years ago, and at the spectacle of other mass slaughters in the decades since.

Last night I watched the National Geographic Channel piece called "Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell," which dwelled for an hour on two sets of photographs: one showing the Nazi officers of Auschwitz (including Mengele) at their leisure, singing, smoking, flirting, playing around; the other showing some of the nearly half a million Hungarian Jews who were transported to the Auschwitz compound over the course of 54 days in 1944. The commentators, mostly staff at the National Holocaust Museum, kept telling me how to feel: stunned and outraged and disturbed. But mostly I felt shame.

Shame even for watching the show — with its slow, tear-jerking pans of those sad photographs of worn-out Jews, men, women and children, who were fresh off the cattle cars and about to be sent to the gas chambers. I've seen their faces before; I've spent time with those photographs; I recognize these people! What was I gaining by looking at them again, besides indulging my grief as I sat there on my comfortable couch?

I felt ashamed for having to explain to myself several times how it was possible that six million people could be done to death in five or six years by handsful of killing squads: how the Nazis staged the process and broke us down, and how I would have been right there on line with them all, taking off my clothes rather than biting the throat of an SS guard ...

I thought about The Partisan Hymn, Zog Nit Keyn Mol, 22-year-old Hirsh Glik's anthem, which we stood to sing, as always, at our first-night seder this year — on the very night of the start of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, 65 years ago. "Never say that there is only death for you," says the opening line. But maybe acknowledging that "there is only death for you" is the critical realization that enables you to fight back. So it went in the Warsaw Ghetto: It was not until there were only some 50,000 left, with no real chance for survival, that the Uprising was finally sparked. (Even then, I would have probably headed for the sewers instead of the bunkers.)

Oh, I am so attached, not only to life, but to my comfort, my habits, my egotism, my self-interest. On a daily basis, I get a lot more disturbed about my Internet connection misfunctioning, or about my book not getting reviewed somewhere, or about the temperature outside being a few degrees colder than I want on May 1st, than I get about the fact that 250,000+ people have been murdered in Darfur ... or that people are starving in Haiti ...

And you, are you much better? By what degree?

Killing and apathy have their own force of inertia. Things in motion remain in motion; things at rest remain at rest. The National Geographic Channel will be slow-panning that camera until kingdom come.

That, at least, is how May Day/Yom HaShoah is making me feel this year: that "Never again" is bullshit.

Nevertheless, I'm headed this weekend to a Jewish activism conference in Boston — and already I'm muttering about the four-hour drive . . .


Blogger Lao Qiao said...

One wishes that "never again" were not bullshit, or as we say in Chinese, "goupi" (dogfart). But at the seder, one reads from the Haggadah, "In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us ...." I alternate between atheism and believing that anti-Semitism is so ubiquitous that it must be a miracle, a negative miracle, and that God is an embittered anti-Semite. It really looks as if Ahmadinejad will succeed in getting nuclear weapons. Would he be willing to sacrifice the lives of 75 million Iranians, his own included, if he could kill 5 million Israelis? Of course he would. He is totally selfless.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

"Never again" -- indeed, kind of an odd luxury, isn't it? Because it was never never, the Jews are a neverless people. We're lucky to run enough the media that our holocaust is The Holocaust, the big-aitch catastrophe that defines a century. Somewhere between the quotidian strife of being anybody & the situations in history whose exceptionality we can't deny, the Jews have sold themselves the myth of a rich never -- messianism repackaged as politican prerogative -- that distorts everything. That's what "chosen people" means. In Deuteronomy, God threatens to make of us a "lo-am", a "no-folk", cipher among nations. And this powerful fiction of us as a force for eternity amounts to an impasse: one must learn a little bit of nothing to be able to get anywhere.

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yep... "never again" seems like a cruel, stupid joke when you take a look around today and see how the powerful still oppress and the powerless still succumb.
- A. Weinberg

2:39 PM  
Blogger rokhl said...

Also, a huge bunch of Jewish religious leaders are officially protesting China and its human rights abuses and urging us to boycott the Olympics. Abe Foxman promptly stated (via the ADL) that he was not supporting such a boycott and that China was an important trade partner for Israel. Umm... so much for principles???????

8:51 AM  

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