Can the Holocaust Be Understood?

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


"Holocaust" Survivor


Eli Wiesel repeatedly said that he was sorry to have used the word Holocaust to describe the mass slaughter of the European Jews. Wiesel thought that the word had become commonplace and was being used to describe almost any discomfort, disaster, military action, or anything else that the user might find obnoxious. As a result of making everything a holocaust, the unique and unprecedented crime which the Europeans inflicted on their Jewish population seemed to lose its meaning.

This is also true of the phrase Holocaust Survivor. This phrase has been used so often that it has lost its meaning. Moreover, those who truly experienced the Nazi horrors are in the end the only ones who know what is meant by the word holocaust.

Like people who tell others about their cardiac bypass or other operations only to find that the listener interrupts the “organ recital” by talking about his own medical condition, those who seek to describe their experiences during the Holocaust soon discover that no one wants to hear this and that the listener is likely to start talking about the suffering of his grandparents, third cousin twice removed, or other relatives. In short, Jewish listeners to Holocaust recitals seek to make victims of themselves by referring to these distant relatives.

It is of course understandable that someone who suffers from cancer, or lost his job, or was recently divorced or was otherwise discomforted is in no mood to listen to descriptions of the Nazi horrors.

There is yet another reason why “Holocaust Survivor” is an unpopular label. Those of us who truly merit that term are now old. It has been 71 years since the end of the Second World War and many members of the subsequent generations find it obnoxious to have to listen to stories relating to times so long ago. Furthermore, American ageism dictates that old people are bores and congenital idiots whom one best avoids.

And so in the end, those of us who live with these nightmares every day of our lives need to keep all of this to ourselves. Indeed, other Holocaust survivors understand this, but we need not talk to them about what they already know.

Today, three generations after that great crime, the Holocaust is commemorated once a year by having “important” members of the American Jewish community hold speeches about something they know nothing about, mainly to gain publicity. And yet, we cannot ignore that aspect of Jewish history, however it may be commemorated. In some synagogues, “Kaddish” is recited every Shabbat morning in memory of the six million slaughtered in the European gas ovens. This is important and is all that can be expected of American Jews.

Therefore, it is best if Holocaust survivors keep their memories to themselves and live with that which history has imposed on them. They must carry their burden alone, for there is no one  else who cares.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including End of the Patriarchy (2015).

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