Friday, May 30, 2008

A photograph

I have a photograph in my gallery that makes me feel wretched every time I loook at it. It is a poor quality photograph in black and white, taken in the early 1940s. The image is fuzzy, but stark. It shows three figures, etched against a vague background. Three human figures: a woman, whose body is bent at her hips and knees; a small child in her arms, cradled protectively; and, behind them, an SS soldier with a rifle pointed at this helpless pair, ready to fire. The woman and child, if I am right, were Jewish. Well, that doesn't take much guesswork. We don't know for sure what happended in the seconds or minutes after this photograph was taken. But we can all too painfully hear the crack of the rifle, and perhaps a second shot as the soldier despatches the little boy or little girl. It is a photograph to haunt us. It speaks directly to us, because we know only too well the context.

A photograph like this raises a lot of questions. Seeing it, every decent-minded person wishes someone had been there to save the woman and child. In all likelihood, we are witnessing part of a mass killing by an einsatzgruppe, a detachment responsible for killing Jews in the days before mass killings in the camps were developed. There will have been other soldiers present, including officers, and they will have been acting on orders from higher command. No mercy will have been shown to any of the victims. Now, here's the hard bit. Those who disapprove of the use of violence (and they aren't wrong in abhorring the taking of life) would ask permission to negotiate this killing with the soldier or his superior officer. Now, it is far from impossible that is someone — a priest, say — were to speak with the soldier and set out the revulsion with which most men would regard his intended action, the soldier might have a change of conscience and set down his rifle. In doing so, however, he would know that he has added his own life to those already threatened or snuffed out. He might die on the field, or be arrested and sent to headquarters to be hanged. Few men have the courage to adopt such a position. And, admirable as such a sacrifice might be, it would be ineffective. The officer would order another soldier to carry out the deed, or would carry it out himself. Under such circumstances, lives cannot be saved.

Which takes us to the other possibility, that had the einsatzgruppe been surrounded by Allied troops or partisans, they would have been forced to surrender or would have been shot. Shooting men engaged in the taking of innocent life does n ot awaken sentiments of outrage except in the minds of those who are already morally corrupt.

After the war, many Jewish rabbis and intellectuals engaged in a debate focussing on the Hebrew phrase hester panim, which I understand to mean 'the covering of the face of G-d'. The Holocaust presented the world's surviving Jews with a theological dilemma of masssive proportions. How could a loving Creator have allowed his chosen people to go to the gas chambers, yet (apparently) protected Hitler from several suicide attempts? Had God broken with the Jews, severed his covenant with them, abandoned them? I can't answer any of those questions, but I am very aware that the general response among Jews was to re-assert the connection. Two thousand years of persecution had innured them to a sense of abandonment while giving them the strength to find meaning in the indifference or cruelty of the world through which they journeyed.

But something had changed. That something is best expressed in the words of American rabbi and novelist, Chaim Potok, in his history of the Jewish people, Wanderings. Writing of the post-Holocaust era, he writes: 'There are no more gentle Jews'. Now, there are plenty (especially on the left) who take that badly. They don't much like Jews getting uppity, and when they see Jews fighting back against military attack or terrorist assault they take the moral high ground and declare it to be something unnatural. Jews, they seem to think, are G-d's and the world's victims. Whichever, they are born to be victims. To walk to the auto-da-fe reciting the Psalms or to the gas chamber with the Shema on their lips personifies, for many, the Jew of their choice.

That takes us back to the woman and child. This, when we add it together, is Potok's referrant. The gentle Jews did not, could not save those innocents. A troop of Sayaret Matkal fighters might well have done so. And given the SS a bloody nose into the bargain. The truth is that the Allied troops didn't turn up until it was too late for most of those who had gone through the camps. As we all know, the Allies placed the Jews very low on their list of priorities. Anyone who has read Tom Bowers's A Blind Eye to Murder or The Allies and Auschwitz will have seen in detail how stopping the killing in the camps carried no weight in the eyes of those responsible for prosecuting the war. Now, some of that failure may be set at the gate of anti-Semitism among politicians and civil servants, and some of it may have been due to a sincere belief that the defeat of the Third Reich was the priority, whatever the cost. That's not what concerns me here. Whatever the motives and whatever the correctness of saving all firepower for the Russian or Italian front, the fact is that the Jews could see that it wasn't just G-d who had hidden his face, it was much of humanity. And subsequent British antagonism to Holocaust survivors entering Palestine and the decision to keep survivors in camps on Cyprus brought many up with a jolt. How could those who had fought so hard to bring down the most evil empire in history, knowing now that 6 million Jews had died in death camps, now turn aside from those whom they and their allies had saved, turn their boats back from the shores of the Holy Land, let them drown only a short distance from the one place they had longed to make their homes in?

And then God took the veil away from his face and the state of Israel came into being. I'm not a believer, but I write that with full awareness of how the creation of a Jewish state was seen by a majority of the Jewish people. It was — and perhaps this is pushing things a little — almost a divine reward for the suffering the Jews had just passed through. And one of the many things Israel allowed was the creation of an army, an air force, and a navy. Time and again, when Israel's enemies have attacked her, threatening genocide, they have had their noses bloodied. Many have died, but there has never been a second Holocaust, however much the Arab and Muslim worlds may long for one. A strong Israel is the answer to the horror of that photograph. Today the world whines about the actions Israel takes to defend herself and her people. That same world would have stood next to our woman and child and told her to take it and not complain.

Today, rockets land in Sderot and Ashkelon. Hizbullah and Hamas amass armaments that would pose a threat to any country on earth. Their leaders echo the Nazi-speak of 1930s Germany. Back then, Jews felt powerless, and sat and waited for an indication that the worst was over, that Germans would come to their senses, that the rhetoric would come to nothing, that Der Sturmer was a sick joke at best. Who can blame them? But today, who can blame the Israelis for thinking their lives and their nation are at serious? Who can deny that, once again, the nations will look on, will pass by on the other side of the road, will deny they are anti-Semitic while they shake hands with Hamas and Hizbullah and the rulers of Iran? Today, Israel is a women, bent at the knees and hips, a child in her arms, waiting for the bullet that will pound through her head. But today, she will put the child on his feet and turn to face the SS soldier, and she will hold an Uzi sub-machine gun in her hand. Is it grotesque for that to happen? So many left-wingers, Jews and non-Jews together, say that it is, that Israel has less right to exist than our woman in the photograph. If rockets were landing in their back gardens, they mightg well ring for the police and ask for some sort of action by the military. They would not be supine in the face of an existential threat. But they will not go out there, sniper's rifle in hand, to shoot the SS guards who threaten innocent women and children. That will be their eternal shame.

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