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march 12, 2024- 2 Adar ii, 5784

03/11/2024 12:29:47 PM


Remembering the Holocaust, and more significantly, teaching the Holocaust, remains a significant part of the Jewish present. Beyond the trials that began at Nuremberg after WWII ended, and set new parameters in international law, or the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann in Israel that led to the only execution in the State’s 75+ year history, came the early screenings of the mini-series Holocaust (1978) that raised awareness of an entire generation. Later works, like Schindler’s List (Spielberg) and Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985) and many, many more led to the founding, development, and construction of a worldwide institutionalization of research centers and exhibit spaces focused primarily on the genocide committed in Europe by the Third Reich between 1933 and 1945.

The remembrance movement found rich support from the many survivors who became aware that the shattered culture from which they came into life was permanently destroyed—and would be forgotten were the eyewitnesses not ready to offer their personal testimony to all who would listen. With the passage of time, a great many of those eyewitnesses have reached the limits of the human lifespan and are mourned by those whose lives they touched. The youngest survivors—now in their 80s or older—continue to offer testimony in the hope that genocide can be eradicated by the pen and words. (The specific wording that "the pen is mightier than the sword" was first used by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839). Hallevai—that is to be wished for.

Accounting for events that shatter the image of individuals or nations is no easy task. The unprecedented nature of the destruction of European Jewry creates realms of questions that are new. Over the decades, even after the new country of the Federal Republic of Germany launched its quest for ‘reparations’—which they termed Wiedergutmachung—other European nations have delved into their citizens’ past only to discover that resistance was not universal. The long, painful process of weeding out collaborators, opportunists and home-grown antisemites—led by survivors like Simon Wiesenthal (Vienna, Austria) or Serge and Beata Klarsfeld (France) spent many years uncovering the criminals next door, often leading to highly publicized trials of perpetrators of terror, concentration camp guards and traitors against the democracies overrun by military force.

Late to the project, the Netherlands wrestled with the incontrovertible fact that of all the nations affected, their small and generally liberal one saw the highest percentage of deaths for Jews in the apparatus of death. That extremely painful knowledge has colored post-war Dutch legislation, attitudes, and the status of Jews in the country. In the 1980s, the older Jewish part of the inner city of Amsterdam saw restoration of several defaced and stripped synagogues into the Jewish Museum, and the preservation of the venerable Sephardic Synagogue that remains in use. Dedicated monuments have appeared in many places throughout the Netherlands, but the events following the May 1940 invasion of the Low Countries that specifically affected Jews who were long-established citizens, as well as more recent refugees from Nazi harassment, were only side issues in museums and exhibitions recalling WWII.

This week, at long last, the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam is set to open. It seeks to tell the stories of Jews who lived in the nation, and significantly, the thousands deported to camps at Westerbork, to Auschwitz, to die rapidly in gas chambers or more slowly as starved, mistreated slave laborers. If you have read the Diary of A Young Girl, excerpted from writings of teenaged Anne Frank while hidden in the rear annex attic of her father’s business premises, you are aware that her tragic fate has been memorialized at the Anne Frank House on that site and has been consistently taught in American Schools (Elsewhere, too. I visited a strong exhibition in Basel, Switzerland a few years back, the city her father Otto Frank made his post-war home).

There were many hundreds of Jews hidden—like the Frank family—despite the strict Dutch rules for address registration. I met survivors of those tenuous conditions in Israel, South Africa, and elsewhere. I still know a few formerly ‘hidden children’, and recall being told that during the war years Aliyah Bet—the under-the-radar arrival of Jews in Palestine—was aided by children taking over passports of children of the Yishuv when they entered the Mandatory territory. 

Why, then, is this new Netherlands National Holocaust Museum so significant? In the Netherlands Jews still live, work, and strengthen the fabric of national identity. The past, during which a few Dutch citizens aided the enemy, remains an open wound in the national psyche. As is true for every one of the 6,000,000 Jews—named or nameless—their tragic fate is to be remembered.

Last November, Dutch national elections saw the xenophobic Geert Wilders lead an extremist party to electoral plurality in the Dutch Parliament; they are not in the ruling government that was formed. The voices of the victims of Nazi terror still echo in a nation that takes pride in the acceptance of the humanity of all.

I think I have a next European visit to plan.

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784