16 August 2012
Belgium has marked the 70th anniversary of the first round-up and deportation of Antwerp’s Jews to the German death camps. During the night of 15/16 August 1942, 845 persons were arrested by the Nazi occupiers and their Belgian helpers and sent to military barracks in the nearby town of Mechelen (Malines). It was the first of three ‘razzias’ that took place in the northern Belgian city during the summer of 1942, which led to the deportation of 4,000 Antwerp Jews to the death camps. Local authorities had played a supporting role in the round-up of Jews.
At a remembrance ceremony, Antwerp Mayor Patrick Janssens said that the city authorities at the time had lacked “responsibility, courage, force and a moral compass.” In 2007, Janssens, on behalf of the City Council, had issued an official apology to members of the Jewish community for the first time.
Julien Klener, president of the Jewish Consistory of Belgium, the officially recognized religious umbrella body of Jewish communities in the country, said: “Better late than never. Perhaps it is done now because it is being felt now, because we are witnessing a certain anti-democratic radicalization in our society.”
Mayor Janssens also announced plans to buil a Holocaust memorial in Antwerp: “It is unacceptable that unlike other European cities, the municipality of Antwerp has never erected a single monument in memory of the history” of the Holocaust, he said at the ceremony.
Read the speech of Baron Julien Klener:
The word razzia is sad and repellent. The razzia like a police-orchestrated manhunt of the innocent is the repulsive act that we are remembering this evening. Those who remember stand still and look back. To remember is to interrupt, briefly, the flow of the everyday to recall together events or people from the past. It was on the 15 August 1942, a Sabbath, here in this city on the river Schelde, that the first national open hunt, the premeditated round-up on the Jewish people, was organized.
This is what we wish to remember, it is why we take a moment to pause and contemplate this evening, in part thanks to the initiative and the effort of the Antwerp City Council. Better late than never.
While I was reflecting on my spoken contribution, the 28-year-old Etty Hillesum came to mind. She was gassed at Auschwitz around the 30 November 1943 and had written in her diary: "Dante's hell is a frivolous operetta compared to this.”
I also thought of Abel Herzberg and his novel Three Red Roses, in which he wrote, approximately: "He, Salomon Zeitschek, was part of a community that was written off the balance sheet of existence. You felt no sorrow for what you were going through, you felt sorry for a humanity to which, in spite of everything, you still belonged."
Sorrow for a humanity to which you still belonged in spite of everything. We would be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful, or indeed more heartbreaking, way to express it.
The people we are, despite everything; the humanity to which, I believe, we all belong. We are indeed the people who find ourselves too often having to live in an oppressive world in which we, in spite of everything, must act meaningfully. We are people who, in the words of Elie Wiesel, "must invest hope in a world that offers none."
How do we do that? My first answer would be: "I don't know any more." My second answer is: "We must never resign ourselves to that first answer." As early as the 19th century, the German Rabbi Samson ben Rafaël Hirsch wrote, roughly translated: "There is something inside us that calls out in full despair: you can never despair. Nobody can. Our tradition doesn't allow it. Even less so does it allow a person to squelch the hope of human betterment in our fellow humans."
Never falter and never give up is therefore the logical message because it is also possible to contemplate that despairing of the world is effectively the same as assuming the attitude of the deeply abhorrent national-socialism. Nazism also started from the sentiment that the world is inherently worthless, that nothing good can come from human kind and that unmitigated power, merciless discipline and bloodthirsty guile are the only values that apply. This kind of belief and herd mentality appeals, as history demonstrated to our deepest disgrace, to human kind's most basic animal instincts. Paradoxically, people who are driven to such a desperately nihilistic attitude subscribe deep down to an implicit assertion of Nazism, even in a global village where eagerly anticipated springs turn to ice at a bewildering speed.
To still believe in and have hope for humanity after the Shoah was and is not easy but those who wish to be consistent in their anti-horror attitude will accept the challenge and must communicate it both mentally and effectively.
The late Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, a Hegel specialist, when struggling with the pathological heathen nature of the Shoah terror summarized his contribution to the ideas of the post-war Jewish generations by adding a 614th commandment to the 613 commandments and interdictions of Judaism: "Thou shalt survive" because the authentic Jew of today and tomorrow may not give a posthumous victory to absolute evil.
Of course, there are these questions: How do we live and act to prevent genocidal crimes? Was the holocaust a spontaneous eruption of a gang of criminals or did the Nazis mostly act from a deep-rooted, time-spanning European tradition? A repressed disease that becomes and is visible, audible, tangible and readable again with even the smallest socio-economic recession.
It should be recalled how the destructive doctrine of Nazism was not only the work of perverse sadists or incurable Jew-haters, the massacre was also carried out by impeccably tidy public servants and armchair intellectuals, goaded and poisoned as they may or may not have been by contemporary media, because hate seems to be more contagious than brotherly love.
There are indeed good and bad conspiracies, even in the cursed time when I, as a Jewish child and with no masochistic parading about, was doomed. Those were years of darkness in which time and time again alliances were built by people who were willing to take the greatest risks to save lives. It is undeniably true that this was a minority and that in the meantime a more populous group of official and private accomplices were ideologically and opportunistically conspiring in degrading vicious acts while the majority remained at the sidelines watching the persecuted being chased into the gutter.
A Jewish legend speaks of 36 honest people, unaware of the remarkable nature of their acts, who save the world every generation. These are stories of men and women who, each from their own place, had the decency to let care for others prevail over their own safety and cool self-interest. These stories do indeed maintain a highly educational content. They illustrate that human kind is never condemned to impotence or the tyranny of political correctness, not even when faced with advanced killing machines or manifest ethical neglect.
It is of course true that it may be one of the depressing lessons to draw from history, that history, in effect, teaches us nothing.
That states, ideologies, and so people, cannot or will not fully curb their predilection for brutality. And then there are the doom and gloom merchants with their gaudy pomposity and the pedantic bar philosophers with their ideas that remembrance education gives rise to nothing!
But doing nothing in this case may and can never, even against better judgment, be a moral option.
It is untrue that time is a flowing stream. Time stands still in our head and we travel from memory to memory along the intricate roads of emotional logic. Past and present, partly because of this, lie along the same line of thought.
Yesterday and today are pieces of the same mental image. A meta-political commemorative plaque like this and, perhaps in the future thanks to the municipal commission ‘Beeld in de Stad’ and the unrelenting effort of the Forum for Jewish Organizations, a monument memorializing the Jewish people deported from Antwerp will, to avoid disastrous recidivism, elucidate yesterday's doom in the service of a never-again-tomorrow. Warning beacons and reminders in case there are ever again times in which the ruthless darkness tries to grab hold of us. Because, as was said before, hate is more contagious than love.
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