Holocaust trauma

August 25, 2023 by Jeremy Rosen
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We all experience traumas of different kinds. Some are obviously far more serious than others.

Jeremy Rosen

Jews, in particular, have been subjected to constant horror and conflict. In the past 100 years, we have experienced the Holocaust and in Israel, the proportionately huge loss of life, much of it civilian, in defence of our homeland has also caused far deeper psychological scars than is often recognized.

I have been fortunate not to have suffered anything like what other Jews have. And yet I too was, in a small way, traumatized when, I accidentally came across a book, as a child, exploring my father’s library. It was a graphic and highly disturbing picture book published by the Daily Mail of photographs taken of liberated German concentration camps. I later learned that the publication had been almost immediately withdrawn as unseemly for public consumption. I was terribly upset and indeed, I recall how my father was deeply upset that I discovered it.

Some years later, the first popular book to appear after the Holocaust, detailing its horrors, provided a visual history of German Nazi war crimes. The Scourge of the Swastika by Edward Russel 2nd Baron of Liverpool, was published, and this month is the anniversary. It featured horrifically graphic photographic evidence of the horror. Emaciated corpses piled high, bodies thrown into mass graves on top of each other, corpses suspended on wire electric fences either shot or suicide, and children’s bodies and body parts in crematoria. The book quickly became an international bestseller and remained one for years. It has been referred to in several novels by Howard Jacobson and it has been cited by numerous writers, dramatists, and directors as having a profound influence on them.

What I find unforgivable is that the book’s publication resulted in such uproar that such pictures should be shown to the public. Russell was even ordered by the government to withdraw the book’s publication.  Rather than capitulate, he resigned his position of Assistant Judge Advocate General. Thankfully, the book was distributed, and Russel was eventually recognized and celebrated.  How does one explain officialdom’s desire to suppress the reality of what happened? And how does one explain why it was that almost all of the so-called civilized world tried so desperately to hide the evidence of collusion, let alone the refusal to provide refuge?

Was it guilt? Cowardice? Prejudice? The most popular excuse was that the Cold War led people to excuse the Germans because the West needed them to help fight the Communists. So better not offend them?” Don’t mention the War.” Even survivors found themselves silenced, blamed, or discriminated against. It took years before things began to change.
In Israel too, the establishment tried to hide the horrors or dismiss them as the sins of the diaspora.  Many survivors were berated for not standing up to the Nazis. It was not until the Eichmann trial in 1961 that the Israeli public acknowledged and began to come to terms with the catastrophe.  So, it is hardly surprising that elsewhere they just wanted to forget the past and just get on with living. The fact was that it took many years before the catastrophe came to be spoken about, memorialized, and recognized. Some even protested it was being commercialized. Not, I hasten to add, that the new enthusiasm for remembering seems to have had much effect even on many so-called Jews.

What was it that so shocked me beyond the horror of death and cruelty? And so profoundly that it still haunts me. First of all, it was the clear realization that if Britain had lost the war, or if I had been born fifty miles to the east across the English Channel, that would have been my fate too. And why? Why did people who did not know me hate me so much they wanted to destroy me? What had I done to deserve it? And then it was disgust at the hypocrisy of so many outwardly religious Christians and supposedly cultured civilized polite citizens of a modern world. The Archbishop of York was the only voice amongst the senior Anglo clergy who voted to allow children to be welcomed as refugees from Germany. Was this the sort of example I should follow? The people I should admire or educate our children to aspire to? Of course, my brain also told me not everyone was bad and the more I ventured out into the world the more I discovered wonderful exceptional human beings.

But I was overwhelmed by a powerful determination that I would devote my life to ensuring Jewish survival as the only answer to such hatred. And that still animates me profoundly. I can still feel the trauma. The only way I can think of how to respond is that we must do whatever we can to strengthen ourselves and to survive, bear witness to evil, and be determined to adhere to the moral and spiritual values our people have committed to no matter what others do. The clichéd slogan ‘Never Again’ continues to be ignored or betrayed by others. But we must teach our grandchildren not to forget. Rather as we say in the Shema “ to speak about it.”

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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