In his pioneering work on the Nazi mobilization of the German bureaucracy to systematically murder every Jew under their control, Raul Hilberg outlined three goals of those who had oppressed Jews. Christian missionaries effectively declared: “You have no right to live among us as Jews.” Secular rulers who followed, asserted: “You have no right to live among us.” The Nazis proclaimed: “You have no right to live.”
Previously, Jews could convert to Christianity, flee for their lives, or remain in their cities and towns, hoping to prevail by using survival techniques that had sustained them throughout much of Jewish history. This included petitioning government officials or rulers in writing or in person; purchasing protection; ransoming Jews who had been kidnapped or taken prisoner; rescuing Jews who were being persecuted; establishing relief committees to raise funds for Jewish individuals and communities in need of help; reconstructing communities in new areas or in their old residences; anticipating a bad decree and complying with it in the hope it would preclude an even harsher statute; or evading the law or orders, but if that failed, immediately to comply— in short, all the measures chosen were calculated to avoid danger, or if force had already been employed, to ensure the least damage and injury.
“A Mirror of Modernity”
Intellectual historian Paul Mendes-Flohr said that In Germany the Jews struggled “to live with a plurality of identities and cultures.” From the time Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) left the ghetto to become part of the enlightened educated German middle classes in search of mutual interests, German Jews were not naïve about the challenges they would encounter. In describing these obstacles, Hannah Arendt, a German philosopher and political theorist, said that “the precarious balance between society and state, upon which the nation state rested socially and politically, brought about a peculiar law governing Jewish admission to society.”
German society, she said, “confronted with political, economic, and legal equality for Jews, made it quite clear that none of its classes was prepared to grant them social equality, and that only exceptions from the Jewish people would be received. Jews who heard the strange compliment that they were exceptions, exceptional Jews, knew quite well that it was this very ambiguity—that they were Jews and yet presumably not like Jews which opened the doors of society to them. If they desired this kind of intercourse, they tried, therefore, ‘to be and yet not to be Jews.’”
On the eve of the Nazis assuming power in 1933, Jews continued to believe that their approach to persecution, which had enabled them to endure, would once again allow them to prevail. The conviction that their success in medicine, science, commerce and the arts had made them “indispensable,” since “one does not kill the cow one wants to milk,” turned out to be an illusion.
Nobel Laurate Elie Wiesel explained why, in Sighet, Hungary at least, the Jews believed they were so essential to the wellbeing of their town. In Legends of Our Times, Wiesel remembered: “During the first years of the war certain rumors reached us concerning what was happening in Poland. Among the Jews of Sighet, these rumors roused very little anxiety—and even that was quickly forgotten. The rabbis said: ‘Nothing will happen to us, for G-d needs us.’ The merchants said: ‘The country needs us.’ The doctors said: ‘The town needs us.’ They all considered themselves indispensable and irreplaceable.”
In 1943, when “certificates” for Palestine were available, only one person from Sighet decided to go. “The others smiled: Why leave? We are all right here, the people are friendly, they cannot do without us and they know it.”
Danger of Simplistic Comparisons with Other Genocides
There is a tendency among historians, noted Richard J. Evans, to view the Holocaust as a genocide with parallels in other countries and at other times. This is not a “contest to measure pain or degrees of victimization, ” historian Henry L. Feingold noted. “What is being measured,” he maintained, “is the importance of the event in history, and there clearly the Holocaust is an entirely different order of events in terms of its historical weight. History is not democratic, it does not assign equal import to like events. To forget that difference, to permit it to be subsumed in facile comparisons with every trespass human flesh has been heir to, is to risk losing the possibility of retrieving some meaning from the event. When that meaning is found, it will be in its specificity rather than in what it shares with other catastrophes.
Though these comparisons assist us in understanding the Nazi period, Evans said, “they can also blur distinctions by homogenizing all acts of mass murder until it is impossible to tell them apart…. For Hitler, the Jews were not merely subhuman to be eliminated in the interests of an allegedly superior race, they were the ‘world enemy’ of the ‘Aryans’, endowed with almost superhuman qualities, to be hunted down and ritually humiliated… before they were killed without exception. That is why modern neo-Nazis find it so important to deny the atrocities of Auschwitz, and that is the reason above all others why the Nazis linger so powerfully and persistently in our collective memory.”