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The dead live long

A Jew is arrested by German soldiers in April 1943 after the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto during WWII
AFP/File
'Ownership' of the Holocaust is a contentious issue in a country where all sectors compete over victimhood

“The dead live long,” says 88-year-old Ziuta Hartman in a new documentary retelling a relatively unknown chapter of the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. This heroic, but brief moment in Jewish history is of monumental importance, and the date it started was selected by the nascent State of Israel as the date on which the country would mark Holocaust Memorial Day, with a focus on the legacy to remember. But the question of who is to be remembered, remains.

Hartman's cynical remark about the living dead came after she found out, shortly before her death, that for her whole life she had been registered as dead in the archives of the first Holocaust Museum in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot (“Ghetto fighters”), established by the survivors of the uprising. The reason - Hartman, who was very much alive, belonged to the wrong political underground movement of Jewish fighters in the ghetto.

This was due to the deep divide between the two ideological groups in Poland – the left-affiliated youth movements, and the right-wingers who they viewed as fascists. Not even common faith in the ghetto and the looming danger of extermination were strong enough to bring those two together. Not for over 70 years.

The known narrative is partial. It glorifies the bravery of the Jewish Combat Organization, led by the legendary Mordechai Anielewicz and his friends, but completely omits the role of the other organization, the Jewish Military Union. Their role in the uprising was underplayed in favor of the socialist Jewish Combat group.

Wikipedia Creative Commons

It is a known fact that survivors and winners write history. More of the leftist Jewish Combat survived and came as heroes to the then-new State of Israel, which was established by leaders with a socialist orientation. They were in charge of the narrative and gatekeepers at the doors of the pantheon of collective memory. The others were denied entry. Even after Professor Moshe Arens, former Minister of Defense from the Likud Party, published a book depicting the role of the other, more militant movement.

He had a good source for the book: the daily diary of Jorgen Stroop, the SS commander delegated by Himmler to put down the ghetto uprising. He knew. So did Polish historians. In Israel though, politics trumped all.

It took the makers of the movie, Simon Schechter and Yuval Haimovitch –Zusser seven years to complete their documentary because no foundation was willing to support it.

"The leaders of the Jewish Combat were willing to cooperate in the ghetto with communists, anti-Semites and anti-Zionists; just not with Beitar [the revisionist youth movement] who they defined as fascists,” says Arens, speaking to i24NEWS on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day. He still sounds bitter and angry talking about this distortion of this chapter in history of the Holocaust which is painful to many. And then he quotes George Orwell saying, "he who controls the past, controls the future.” It is not only about the narrative. When the Holocaust becomes a political tool, control of the past is more important than ever.

The underlying assumption that the Holocaust is the unifying factor in an otherwise torn Israeli society, is no longer true. Maybe it never was, but nobody dared talk about it. The sanctity of the Holocaust kept it away from domestic controversy, safely locked under the tight lid of common narrative.

In the age of post-truth, when these narratives disintegrate, an updated version of the Holocaust is being written in Israel. Some myths are undermined, and many options are on the table.

Popular wisdom says that the victims of the Holocaust were European Jews, meaning Jews of Ashkenazi origin. That is not what Sephardi Jews, mainly from North African countries have known for decades. They were also victims of the Nazis. History was on their side of the truth, but nobody listened. For years, Sephardi Jews – first and second generation – felt that Ashkenazi Jews appropriated Holocaust, with all its important symbolic and minor financial benefits.

Some prominent Sephardi voices bitterly reiterated this, saying: “their holocaust” in reference to Ashkenazi Jews. Theirs, i.e. that of Sephardi Jews, was “the forgotten Holocaust.”

Yet “From Benghazi to Bergen-Belsen” is not just a book recently published by Israeli author, Yossi Sucary, depicting the painful fate and extermination of Libyan Jews. It was their fate. Decades earlier, when they tried to claim their part in that tragedy, the Ashkenazi establishment responded saying they were hoping for a free ride by exploiting the Holocaust, and brushed them off.

Yad Vashem

It took 70 years for this historic distortion to be recognized and rectified by Israeli government. The unrecognized victims are now entitled to modest benefits (that seem to never reach all survivors), and the story of North African and Iraqi Holocaust is to be taught in all schools.

In a country where all sectors compete with each other over victimhood, the recognition means more than just making justice. It carves a new place for the incomers in the Israeli ethos.

But others choose to stay away from it. In an interview with a religious radio station, Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Sephardi orthodox party, recently said that the date chosen by the secular state to mark Holocaust Day, “does not compel us, the orthodox.” He did not mean that they don't care - he just chose to stay out of the common circle of grief.

This is 2017's version of Holocaust Memorial Day. In between, 12,000 survivors die every year, most in painful poverty and alone. The memory of the Holocaust is abused by politicians for political gain and often presented as the raison d’etre for the existence of the state. “I want to love this country for its sun and fruits and the Hebrew language,” says Holocaust historian Professor Hanna Yablonka. "I don’t need to love it as an alternative to Holocaust.”

The third and fourth generations will inherit the burden of redefining the commemoration of the Holocaust. One thing is for sure - it will be different.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."

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