Last week, my wife Laura and I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau before attending a conference on democratic governance in nearby Krakow. The two large camps, about four kilometres apart and preserved by the Polish Parliament in 1947 as monuments to the Holocaust/Shoah, are undoubtedly the most inhuman scenes we visitors from around the world have ever seen.
Our guide told us many things, including the fact that last year alone the two sites received about 1.2 million visitors. If only many more people of all ages from everywhere, including Canada, would come, some of the world’s Holocaust deniers might mute at least this feature of their antisemitism.
Here are some of my notes, taken during the several hours we were in both camps:
On Jan. 27, 1945, Russian soldiers freed approximately 7000 surviving inmates, including 400 children-many of them barely alive from starvation. The photographer who entered with them said the “perfectly organized” facilities were “the most shocking thing I saw and filmed (during) the war”.
On arrival in train cattle cars at Birkenau after 1942 (the year Hitler and his top Nazis decided on their ‘Final Solution’ for Europe’s Jewish communities) from virtually all of the about twenty European countries the German Wehrmacht had occupied, Jewish victims were separated immediately by medical doctors on staff on the basis of whether or not they looked able to work as slaves in factories located in the nearby communities.
Those deemed unsuitable, including 230,000 children and babies, were taken immediately for “showers”, which proved to be cyanide gas released by soldiers on the building roofs. Approximately one million Jews were murdered at these two facilities alone. They were the largest and became the best-known symbols of the Holocaust, but there were many others, where another five million Jews perished.
We were shown samples of victims’ possessions, although most had been sent to Germany during the war. These included 800,000 women’s dresses, 348,000 men’s suits, millions of pairs of shoes, pots and pans, which the victims, told by the Nazis that they would start new lives elsewhere, had optimistically brought with them on the trains. After their deaths, their belongings were packed for shipment to Germany in an area called “Canada” because our country had a good reputation as a place to relocate. Even bodies were searched and gold was removed from teeth and sent in bars to Berlin.
Ninety per cent of the victims at Auschwitz-Birkenau were Jewish, but as early as 1940 there were 728 Polish prisoners there, including persons the Nazis thought might lead resistance to their occupation of Poland. Later, thousand of Russian prisoners of war, non-Jewish Poles, Roma gypsies and other disapproved communities/persons came as well. Non-Jewish inmates were required to have their ‘offences’ heard by courts, but the “summary court” handled up to 200 cases per hour, so one can imagine what kind of justice was provided. Execution was by firing squad or hanging.
It must be said immediately that many in my own spiritual community-Christianity-stood by during the worst catastrophe in history inflicted on sisters and brothers of Jewish faith. There were exceptions, but many Christians in Canada, Europe and elsewhere did virtually nothing to honour the second great commandment -- to love one's neighbour as oneself. Canada's official role-or more accurately non-role- before entering the war is well set out in None Is Too Many by Irving Abella and Harold Troper.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler provided much about his personal worldview. He was a confirmed antisemite as early as 1904 when he was only fifteen, partly because of the influence of antisemitic teachers at his schools. For him, Jewishness was only a race, not a people with a religion. His views were virtually indistinguishable from the antisemitism of the Middle Ages and, when combined with the fact that he was a sado-masochist, the results were lethal.
I quote the late Lucy Dawidowicz's excellent book The War Against The Jews, 1933-1945: "It has been my view-now widely shared-that hatred of the Jews was Hitler's central and most compelling belief and that it dominated his thoughts and his actions all his life...It became his fixed idea, one to which he remained steadfast all his life...The documents amply justify my conclusion that Hitler planned to murder the Jews in coordination with his plans to go to war for lebensraum (living space) and to establish the Thousand Year Reich."
David Matas of Canada, also a Holocaust scholar, thinks that obtaining access to Jewish citizens was Hitler’s main motivation for invading other countries.
The world must keep in mind what Hitler as the 20th century’s worst antisemite had done by the time of his suicide in 1945. According to Dawidowicz, the best estimated number of Jews Hitler and his followers murdered in Europe was 5,933, 900, or 67% of the continent's pre-Holocaust population, including three million Poles, or 90% of the Jewish population of Poland, 90% of the Jewish population of Germany, the Baltics and Austria, and high percentages in many other countries.
The late Professor William Nicholls of the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Religion published Christian Antisemitism-A History of hate in 1993. A lecture he gave a year later in Ottawa is also full of insights. For example, on the Christian myth that Jews killed Jesus, Nicholls replies, “The Jews did not kill Christ. They had no reason to do so for he was guilty of no religious offence, certainly not of blasphemy…On the contrary, he was a faithful and observant Jew…The Romans killed him for their own political reasons.”
On Hitler’s role in the Holocaust, Nicholls concludes, “(He) moved from solutions to the Jewish problem to a Final Solution. He knew that Jews were bad from the Christian past…Because he hated Christianity too, in part because it was too Jewish, he was not bound by any Christian limits. Hate could now achieve its ultimate goal. There were to be no more Jews.”
Denis MacShane, a UK MP and minister for Europe in Tony Blair’s cabinet, who was arrested years ago in both Poland and South Africa for his work with independent trade unions against communism and apartheid, links Auschwitz-Berkenau and antisemitism on the final page of the 2009 edition of his book Globalising Hatred-The New Antisemitism: “ Gordon Brown, when Chancellor, provided funds for thousands of young British students to visit the end stations of anti-Jewishness...namely the single-line rail tracks that come to an end in a far-away field in eastern Europe with just the doors of a gas chamber waiting to open.” His book notes that at last count there were more than 40,000 published works on antisemitism.
Globalizing Hatred pulls few punches. In 2005-06, MacShane chaired the first-ever UK All-Party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry to look into the problem of antisemitism. Let me stress four of the points his book makes:
1. As he tells his 10,000 Muslim constituents, who he describes as people of peace, proud of family, faith and their attachment to Kashmir, Yemen and other places they or their forefathers came from, Islam the faith is not the issue. “It is Islamism the ideology that must be discussed openly and when it supports anti-Semitism or the denial of democracy and human rights it must be opposed”. He refers to the Tunisian-born French Muslim intellectual Abdelwahab Meddeb, describing movingly in a recent book “how Muslim families in wartime Tunisia protected Jews from both German Nazis and French collaborators. Thus antisemitism is not born of Islam or in the DNA of Muslims.”
2. In April, 2009, President Ahmadinejad of Iran in the council chamber at the UN European headquarters called for the elimination of Israel and described the Holocaust a ‘dubious’ event. As MacShane notes, had Hitler done the same rant against Jews in the 1930s when appeasing him was the popular cause, one hopes that many ambassadors would have walked out. In 2009, however, there were commentators who condemned the walk-outs and boycott of the antisemitic ravings by Ahmadinejad. The year 2009, MacShane notes, “saw the first party list seeking election to the European Parliament based only and exclusively on being anti-Jewish.”
3. Debating Israel and its policies is perfectly legitimate always, notes MacShane, but “what is not legitimate is to turn criticism of Israel into a condemnation of Jews and to paint them today, as in the past, in negative stereotypes that deny their faith, their birth, their right not to be frightened and their right to support their affiliations and causes.” He quotes Martin Luther King observing decades ago, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking antisemitism.”
4. A fightback against antisemitism, says MacShane, has begun, including the first Inter-Parliamentary Coalition Conference against anti-Semitism held in Britain last year. It attracted ministers, MPs, deputies and senators from across Europe, the US, Australia and a “high level delegation from Canada”. The struggle against antisemitism, he says, had taken on a “truly global expression.”
Both of the experts referred to in this talk are realists about combating the scourge of antisemitism. Nicholls in mid-1994: “Even if hard-core antisemites will not be convinced by our efforts to substitute truth for falsehood, there are waverers who can be. Above all, there is the great hope in all of us, the young people are not yet irrevocably contaminated, and still in touch with natural human compassion for those who have suffered so much from falsehood and injustice.”
MacShane: “I am confident that democracy and universal human values will triumph over antisemitism, misogyny, denial of free expression and homophobia. Racism has not been defeated, still less intolerance. But the fight is always worthwhile. And in having to write this book, I have to conclude that the struggle never ends, nor does the duty, in Auden’s words, to ‘show an affirming flame’.
Which of us here today can disagree?