Holocaust Survivors and 7 October 2023

December 14, 2023 by George Foster
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In the words of the great man, Elie Wiesel, our first spokesman from the camps: “In 1945, on the ruins of Europe, on the ruins of theologies and philosophies, on the ruins of all societies and all ideals that existed before, there was nonetheless a kind of hope that surfaced in us.

Dr George Foster, President of the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors & Descendants

Yes, all of a sudden, we had become optimists because, paradoxically, we were convinced that the world had learned something. That never again will children die of hunger. That never again will there be wars because we know how wars turn out. That never again will hate prevail. That never again will Jews, nor other minorities be persecuted.” However, we now know that in our lifetime, we will spend our lives combating antisemitism. We were convinced that antisemitism died in Auschwitz. Now we know: the victims are dead, but antisemitism is still alive. And Wiesel continues: “And this is how we end up with a pessimistic conclusion. If Auschwitz did not succeed in curing the world of the ancient evil that is antisemitism, what can cure it? And what will cure it?”

One cannot imagine how he would feel in today’s atmosphere. Survivors and their families are distressed, angered and bewildered by the events of the past two months beginning with the barbaric atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October and the explosion of antisemitism that has ensued since that time. The pogrom of 7 October brings to mind the persecution of the Jewish people throughout history, with pogroms being one of the most violent forms of that persecution, culminating in the Holocaust. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pogroms against Jewish people were widespread in Russia and eastern Europe and were often tolerated by the surrounding population perhaps mirroring some reactions to the recent atrocities committed by Hamas.

As described by the eminent historian Prof Yehuda Bauer, the Holocaust is unprecedented among genocides and, therefore, resists comparison with any other event. Recent events very much bring to the minds, thoughts and emotions of survivors in particular the events preceding and leading up to the Holocaust over the period of 1933 to 1939 in Germany and its allies as well as massacres of local Jewish populations, such as in Kaunas, Lithuania and Jedwabne, Poland. During this period Jews were stripped of their citizenship and their dignity, they were dehumanised and scapegoated being blamed for all manner of social ills and global unrest, they were ostracised and made to wear yellow stars and their businesses were boycotted. Finally, six million Jews were murdered while the world looked on.

The rise in antisemitism began before 7 October, however, there has been an explosion of antisemitism since that date often masquerading as anti-Zionism. There have been open expressions of hatred against the Jewish people beginning the day after the massacre in Israel. Even in Sydney on the steps of the Sydney Opera House there were calls to “gas the Jews”, an expression which sends shivers down the spines of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. There have also been calls to boycott Jewish businesses and to deprive the Jews of their ancestral homeland which is the meaning of the cry “from the river to the sea”. There has been anti-Jewish propaganda emanating from Hamas which the press seems too ready to accept and Jews have experienced intimidation and physical threats just walking down the street. In fact, we have been encouraged not to visibly identify as Jews, a contrast to the wearing of the yellow star but still a chilling indication of the potential danger facing us.

Over many years, survivors have encouraged the establishment of Holocaust Museums. The Association was intimately involved with the establishment of the Sydney Jewish Museum, which is one of our proudest realisations. The role of such museums is to educate about the Holocaust itself, the obvious dangers of racial discrimination and to fight Holocaust denial, minimisation, and obfuscation. Unfortunately, such denial continues to exist. It is highly disturbing that there is already such denial, attempts at minimisation and obfuscation surrounding the 7 October pogrom.

As Omer Bartov of Brown University wrote on 30 October: “For many Jews, the specific nature of Hamas’ attack – the mass slaughter and the way in which Hamas gunmen went systematically from house-to-house murdering families, and, in some cases, brutally butchering people – evokes deep, traumatic memories of the Holocaust.” For Holocaust survivors it carries an added impact because they lived through the personal experience. That such an occurrence would be repeated is unimaginable. These events have revived for survivors the memories of their horrific experiences, increased their disturbing dreams, and heightened their anguish and anger. There is a return of the feelings of isolation and loneliness and incredulity at the double standards applied to Israel and by extension to the Jewish people as a whole. The overwhelming feeling of survivors who have shouted “Never Again” for many years is that “Never Again” is upon us today.

However, there are significant differences between the Nazi era and today. Israel is a strong and vibrant nation, and we have many friends who have been outspoken in their support for our people and for Israel. It is vital that we remain vigilant and forthright in our response to current events. Perhaps we must accept that humankind is flawed, and such atrocities will be repeated, if not on the Jewish people, then upon others. Nevertheless, we must continue our resolve to fight injustice, to fight the forces of evil and to fight for the brotherhood of man.

We conclude with a quote from the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in A Single Person with a Single Heart, a letter to friends in Israel, October 2015: “The fear is real, and the pain is deep, and yet that faith that carried our ancestors will carry us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death into the light of the promised future that still awaits us, when an anguished people will finally know peace, the last of all our blessings, but still the greatest, speedily in our days. This is the moment when the prayers of all Jews – like a single person with a single heart – are with the people of Israel in the land of Israel, the people and the land that give us so much strength and pride. Let us be strong and strengthen one another, until the city whose name means peace at last becomes a true home of peace.”

Our thoughts and feelings go out to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives and whose loved ones are still held hostage. We hope and pray that the hostages will be returned safely to their homes and that this war will end as soon as possible.

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