Never again? Those who exploit the Holocaust betray its lessons
A few years ago, I taught a course on Holocaust literature in a prison. One of the books that the students and I discussed was Fatelessness (1975), by Imre Kertész. It’s not the best-known work when we look at the selection written by survivors of the camps. However, it’s the most original, in that – perhaps given the distance between the horror and the publication – the author was able to tinge it with the darkest of humour, the most painful of ironies.
Kertész remembers, most strikingly, “the joy of the concentration camps.” When a bunkmate died, he had an extra blanket. When he was poked and prodded in the camp hospital, he had an exquisite moment of rest. It’s a fitting narrative for those who read and live in an institution where you are completely and utterly vulnerable.
In 2002, Fatelessness won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. And, in 2020 – four years after the author passed away – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán quietly removed it from his country's schools. It was the last required reading in the Hungarian curriculum that dealt with the Holocaust.
When an apartheid project uses a historical event to justify its actions – and when that same project builds walls around a people, throws them out of their homes, bans their books, burns their trees, burns their children, carpet bombs their apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, bulldozes their homes, has teenage soldiers strip them, dances on their cemeteries, extinguishes their churches and mosques – the historical event in question loses all meaning. It becomes a brand, a slogan. “Never again.” Never again?''
I mention this erasure for context, since the students had no internet access to keep up to date with regular news, let alone to look up niche matters of literature and history. One young woman expressed that it was a shame how a country like Hungary – which happily collaborated with the Nazis – first destroyed Kertész’s family and life, and then, upon his death, dishonoured him again. “What kind of home is that?” she lamented.
In fact, it hadn't been his home for a while. Kertész moved to Berlin in the late-1990s. He even left his archive to the German state. The author felt more hurt by the betrayal of his fellow Hungarians than by the Germans, who orchestrated the destruction of his people.
She could not understand how he could have gone to Germany – of all places – nor how the Germans had elevated him. I admitted that I couldn’t understand, either.
But the world is full of ironies, isn't it? So perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised about these things. For instance, despite having survived the Holocaust, Kertész did not live his life as an outspoken defender of human rights. Amidst the 2015 refugee crisis, Kertész penned an op-ed, in which he stated: “I’d like to talk about how the Muslims are flooding, invading, and destroying Europe.”
Just as Hungary erased Kertész, he was also capable of erasing humanity.
As bombs rain down on Gaza, I find myself going through many of the books that I have loved, usually disappointed to find that the authors – if they are still alive – have remained silent about the acceleration of the genocide. Upon flipping through Fatelessness, I wondered if Kertész had ever expressed an opinion on the Occupation of Palestine.
I only found one essay he penned on the matter. It was clearly a Zionist essay, with a bit of mockery when it came to the Palestinians. A half-hearted defence of the colonial project, which appears to have been written as a kind of thanks to his hosts, who wined and dined him in Jerusalem the year after he won the Nobel. He describes his pleasure at the sight of Israeli tanks, detailing the hotel more than the city. He notes that there’s a war going on…but he doesn’t mention who is being killed, who the war is being waged against. The Palestinians are mentioned as an irritation in passing, much like the Syrians he would dismiss a decade later.
In the essay, he has the honesty to admit that he does not feel at home, and he’s looking forward to going back to Europe.
The Israeli settler project and the Europeans have a similarly strange relationship. Leaders of the apartheid state tend to travel to the Bloodlands – where the vast majority Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust, beyond Germany proper – and hold hands with the men who rule over the shabby countries today. In Hungary, Orban often receives the Israeli leaders, expresses his support for their state, and encourages Jews to get out of Hungary, as quickly as possible, and go to Tel Aviv. Within both the government and the opposition, proud Nazis are present. They couldn’t care less about antisemitism…but they certainly care about kicking the poor old Arabs around. And they certainly want as much Jewish emigration as possible.
It’s a relationship of twisted convenience, a very strange relationship. Or, again, maybe not. Israel – the self-proclaimed “Jewish State” – even manages to maintain excellent relations with Germany, the country that destroyed half of Europe's Jews as part of the world’s first industrialised genocide. Ironically, without Hitler and the aftermath of Hitler – without the ruins and guilt left behind by the Third Reich – it’s unlikely that the Zionist movement would have had the strength and support to purge the Palestinians in 1948. There’s a gruesomeness that underlies the partnership.
Nowadays, Germany's foreign policy is an extension of Israeli foreign policy. German cultural institutions do as the Israeli ministers tell them, banning Palestinian books, artworks and flags. The Israeli regime purchases hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of traditional weapons and chemical weapons from German companies every year. Berlin is the second-biggest supplier of weapons to the Israeli Occupation Forces, after the United States (although the American government technically gives everything to the Zionists in exchange for favours, not for money).
Kertész also learned to stifle whatever bad feelings he had for Germany, even settling there. Just as many Israeli settlers learned to walk away from what happened to them in Europe and Russia. The Zionist militias learned to accept weapons from Americans, Russians, Czechs. They learned to accept all that they were going to be allowed to take – Palestine – and they learned to smile at and forgive those who had tried to destroy them, and those who had stood by and said nothing.
Today, the European authorities permit tours of the defunct concentration camps. The Poles permit the Israeli flag to be draped all over Auschwitz. Some monies are transferred to the Israelis, trade agreements are penned. And the European leaders, as well as the American and Russian leaders, who call the shots, find all of this (along with Palestinian land) to be sufficient compensation for the past. And the Israelis have accepted this. Declining was never an option.
A 75-year-long genocide of the Palestinian people was and is seen by the West as a kind of transfer of guilt, as noted repeatedly by Israeli historian Ilan Pappé including in his most important work, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006):
“It was much easier to rectify the Nazi evil vis-a-vis a Zionist movement… it was less complex and, more importantly, it did not involve facing the victims of the Holocaust themselves, but rather a state that claimed to represent them. The price for this more convenient atonement was robbing the Palestinians of every basic and natural right they had and allowing the Zionist movement to ethnically cleanse them without fear of any rebuke or condemnation.”
In the year 2023, I do wonder if any government officials have the Holocaust front of mind, or if they really care about it at all. They haven't read about the Holocaust, and they certainly haven't read Holocaust literature. They don’t truly grasp the Holocaust, neither from a historical standpoint – they applaud Ukrainian Nazis in the House of Commons of Canada, a country whose older white population and institutions are obsessed with World War II (although apparently ignorant over who fought for whom) – and from a moral standpoint, given that genocides have erupted or continued since 1945, oftentimes with support from the former Allies and the Axis nations alike. We see this now, with the eradication of Gazans from the sky, with the execution of Palestinians across all the occupied lands.
The Holocaust has become a tool, not a lesson. Western leaders use the Holocaust to threaten voices who speak for Palestine. Most people in power have learned nothing, absorbed nothing. And, as the Israeli regime has become more and more entrenched, those who defend it have often been paid handsomely in return. Generous funds reach the world leaders who bow before it. Here is yet another irony to this story: the beggar state of ragtag settlers now has nuclear weapons. It can now bully white countries, not just brown and Black ones.
It’s foolish to argue that the support for the Israeli Occupation is rooted in sincere guilt or memory. Memory, in particular, is very selective. From the 1890s up until the early 1930s – when the first victims of the Holocaust, those with physical and mental disabilities, began to be killed – between 15 and 20 million people in the Congo were subjected to a campaign of mass murder, mutilation, rape and slave labour. This was first done by King Leopold’s mercenaries, then by the Belgian government. While the Holocaust saw a total of 11 million murdered – both Jews and non-Jews – the Congo saw even more death and destruction. Yet, the genocide of the Congolese people hasn’t even been included in Western curriculums, or in any curriculums. It hasn’t been erased, it wasn’t even there to begin with.
Today, the world continues to rape the country, seeking metals for electric car batteries. But now, as with Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur, Iraq, the slave trade, we don’t need a curriculum or a government’s approval to learn about these nightmares. Everyone can explore the depths of human history, quickly, with an internet connection. Still, for most of those in power, it seems impossible to care about anything other than the 1930s and 1940s in Europe…and perhaps the events in eastern Ukraine since 2022.
When the genocides before and after the Holocaust are ignored – and when the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust are omitted, as the Israeli lobby is keen on doing – we arrive, exhausted, at Aimé Césaire’s conclusion, which still rings true, especially when you compare the Western response to the invasion of Ukraine versus the ongoing annihilation of Palestine:
“Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the 20th century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the blacks of Africa.”
Holocaust survivors such as Kertész were able to recognise the exploitation of the Holocaust through kitsch. Many have criticised the Holocaust industry, which churns out books and movies that are error-ridden and insensitive. Worse than the commercialisation is the fact that renowned human rights activists and Holocaust survivors such as Elie Wiesel, never said a word about the Palestinians.
And when you realise that many European settlers gang-raped Palestinian girls for days and days just a few years after the Holocaust ended, during the Nakba, is it possible to conceive of the idea that, for the Israeli rulers and their allies, from the United States to Germany, from Canada to France, the Holocaust has become meaningless?
When an apartheid project uses a historical event to justify its actions – and when that same project builds walls around a people, throws them out of their homes, bans their books, burns their trees, burns their children, carpet bombs their apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, bulldozes their homes, has teenage soldiers strip them, dances on their cemeteries, extinguishes their churches and mosques – the historical event in question loses all meaning. It becomes a brand, a slogan. “Never again.” Never again?
Some, like the brave protestors from Jewish Voice for Peace, have honoured the memory of the Holocaust. They have used their demonstrations to shame the propagandists; they have fought the cruelties of Zionism with the true values of Judaism. Unfortunately, the Zionists, who have no such piety – who target Jews who speak up for Palestinians, who try to banish them from their faith – also happen to have all the institutional power.
But power does not erase truth. Sara Roy – the daughter of Holocaust survivors who lost 100 relatives in the camps – wrote about the parallels between the behaviours that flourished in the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s, and the reality for Palestinians since 1948:
“Standing on a street with some Palestinian friends, I noticed an elderly Palestinian walking down the street, leading his donkey. A small child no more than three or four years old, clearly his grandson, was with him. Some Israeli soldiers standing nearby went up to the old man and stopped him. One soldier ambled over to the donkey and pried open its mouth. “Old man,” he asked, “why are your donkey's teeth so yellow? Why aren't they white? Don't you brush your donkey's teeth?” The old Palestinian was mortified, the little boy visibly upset. The soldier repeated his question, yelling this time, while the other soldiers laughed. The child began to cry and the old man just stood there silently, humiliated. This scene repeated itself while a crowd gathered. The soldier then ordered the old man to stand behind the donkey and demanded that he kiss the animal's behind. At first, the old man refused but as the soldier screamed at him and his grandson became hysterical, he bent down and did it. The soldiers laughed and walked away. They had achieved their goal: to humiliate him and those around him. We all stood there in silence, ashamed to look at each other, hearing nothing but the uncontrollable sobs of the little boy.
I immediately thought of the stories my parents had told me of how Jews had been treated by the Nazis in the 1930s, before the ghettos and death camps, of how Jews would be forced to clean sidewalks with toothbrushes and have their beards cut off in public. What happened to the old man was absolutely equivalent in principle, intent, and impact: to humiliate and dehumanise. In this instance, there was no difference between the German soldier and the Israeli one.”
Beyond the daily humiliations that they gleefully engage in, the Israelis have tried – with all their subsidies and bombs and apologists – to erase the Palestinian people. What they have done instead – by flying in settlers from Brooklyn and Kyiv, by trying to sell nuclear weapons to apartheid South Africa, by blaming the Arabs for what the Germans did, by cosying up to the countries that despise Jews, by calling children and disabled refugees Nazis, by shooting autistic boys, by raping Palestinian women and girls, by raining chemical weapons down from the skies and by denying three-quarters-of-a-century of land theft and ethnic cleansing – what they have done instead is erase the Holocaust. They have denigrated it. They have turned suffering into a talking point, a lobbying narrative, a fundraising memo. A dishonouring of memory.
Edward Said wrote that the Palestinians were “the victims of the victims.” However, while Palestinians are certainly the victims, the Israelis are not. The monsters dropping thousands of bombs on Gaza are not victims. They have no ties to victims, they have ceased to be victims, they never were victims. They are genocidaires, nothing more.
This dehumanisation was to be expected. Liberal Zionists such as author Yishai Sarid have grudgingly noted that the young Israelis have been brought up in a culture that teaches them that the victimisation of the Jews of Europe gives them the right to commit atrocities when they grow up. “That’s what we should do to the Arabs,” one of Sarid’s adolescent Israeli characters notes, when he exits a government-sponsored tour of Auschwitz. They’re doing it now, it’s a Google search away. This is the first live-streamed genocide.
I will always remember the children left alone in this world, burned, torn open, flailing in bombed hospitals on my screen. I will always remember the leaders of every so-called democracy, from Canada to the UK, from France to the US, from Germany to India, who cheered it on, who used the crimes of past generations to cover up the war profiteering and massacres of the present. I will always remember every powerful country, like Russia, or China, that staked nothing. I will always remember how piddling little mayors and university presidents and attorney generals and CEOs prioritised the feelings of those who support genocide, those who smirkingly claimed that they “felt unsafe”, over those who were being subjected to genocide. And I will always remember how they chanted at us in school “never again.”
When I teach again, I may be asked what the point of all this was. What was the point of all this history, all these books, all these stories, all this learning, if they can do this to the Palestinian people? I could give some answer about memory, or about the need to document. I could abandon history and talk about religion, about faith, or I could cling to action, mention a charity that we can donate to in Gaza, another demonstration we can attend. Or, better yet, I could say nothing.
But what I really want to answer is that I don't know what the point was. As we all see evil on our screens, in perfect quality, every day, every minute, as we get to hear the voices of the people being killed as they say goodbye to us, I will admit that no words will bring us comfort. No one will be able to say anything or write anything to make it better.
That's what I will answer. Of course, there are no guarantees that someone will want to know, or that I will be clear-headed enough to reply amidst all of this misery. Fatelessness ends with a line that tempers my imagined response: “If indeed I am asked – and provided I myself don’t forget.”
Avik Jain Chatlani is an author and historian.
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