Many victims of the Holocaust remain nameless today, and the text of a new commemorative book of 1,250 pages consists of one word, "Jew," repeated 6 million times. "That's how the Nazis viewed their victims," Phil Chernofsky, the book's creator, told the New York Times. "These are not individuals; these are not people. They are just 'a mass we have to exterminate.'" No one would have believed what happened to them (and some still don't) if there hadn't been liberating soldiers to see for themselves and survivors to speak of the atrocities after the Third Reich was dispatched to the trash bin of history. We remember for their sake -- and for our own.
One grim memory was retrieved with the recent discovery of the unpublished letters of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, offering another footnote on the "banality of evil," in Hannah Arendt's descriptive phrase. In a letter to his wife, Himmler juxtaposes his visit to a death camp with a commonplace acknowledgement for her: "I am traveling to Auschwitz," he wrote. "Kisses, your Heini." Her affection was returned in an ironic characterization of their love: "I am so lucky to have such an evil good man, who loves his evil wife as much as she loves him."
It's another reminder of how glibly evil can be trivialized. Layers of the horror of the Holocaust continue to unfold as dedicated researchers discover new killing sites. Auschwitz remains the best-known symbol of the Nazi evil, having seen over a million deaths by the gassing of men, women and children. But historians have now documented that more than a third of the 6 million Jews were slain in their homes, forests, city streets, country roads and hidden quarries. Most of these murders took place behind the Iron Curtain, where even after the war, it was more difficult to speak up than in the West. As survivors age, these fading memories become a compelling source of history.
Anti-Semitism is an ancient hatred that seeks to camouflage its shame by calling itself "anti-Zionism." It's a transparent deception. The state of Israel was created by the United Nations in 1948 to enable Jews to return to a homeland as protection against the anti-Semitism that persisted in Europe through the 1930s.
Millions are still exposed daily to rants and raves that blame Israel for all the world's ills. David Nirenberg, in "Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition," which describes the problem, suggests that such prejudice, if harnessed to military power, could be as deadly for the Jews as it ever was in the 1930s. Iran, which boasts that it will destroy Israel, now enjoys an easier yoke of sanctions and continues to pursue nuclear weapons. "Never again!" sounds as much a prayer as a cry of defiance.
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