Friday, May 21, 2010

The man in the photograph

It's time I wrote a new blog: the last one is dated August 2009, whenever that was. This evening, I chaired a panel at an event held by the Anne Frank Trust (the UK partner of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam). This evening's discussion was part of a month-long festival being held by the Trust in Woodhorn Museum, near Ashington in Northumberland. The main focus of the festival is an exhibition (one of several) devoted to Anne Frank, her family, their fate, and the events taking place in the world around them. Of her family, only one person survived, her father. She and her sister died in Bergen-Belsen, not that long before the end of the war.

During the discussion, people spoke of ways in which bigotry and hatred could be eliminated, and many worthy things were said about education and asylum seekers and terrorism. But before joining the panel, I had gone round the exhibition again, and two images out of hundreds had stayed in my mind this time. One, which many of you will have seen, shows a man standing half-way in a pit while a bunch of German soldiers idle and chat. One soldier stands next to the man, holding a pistol pointed at his head, and we know that once the picture has been taken, he will shoot his prisoner and let his body tumble into the pit on top of others, no doubt to be followed by many more. It is a disturbing photograph, not least because the prisoner – a Jewish man, we presume – stands awaiting death without cringing, with what little dignity is left to him. There is no-one to bid him farewell, no-one to whisper a prayer in his ear, only the soldiers, who have lost their humanity. Perhaps some of those soldiers are alive today, old men, near enough to death themselves. Are they riddled with guilt? Will there be someone to say comforting words to them and hold their hands on their deathbeds? Who knows? I just know that I wouldn't want to be one of them.

Another photograph in the exhibition is less well known. It shows a Jewish man with a beard. Behind him a German soldier is laughing. Unseen except for his hand, another soldier holds a long razor against the man's neck. Did he cut his throat with it? Or did he let him walk away, secure in the knowledge that, sooner or later, all Jews would die, that he would not even have to stain his uniform with Jewish blood because neater, more humane ways of killing had been introduced? Who knows?

Looking at those two photographs, I come away, like any normal person, with mixed feelings of pity and rage. And I come back to the discussions we had tonight and the assumption that all can be put right so long as we adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All well and good, but I know that being kind to these thugs, seeking to enlist their help in educating their fellow Nazis, or (had it been written then) reading to them slowly from the Universal Declaration would end in raucous laughter and, quite probably, a bullet in my brain. The raw truth is that the only thing that would stop those killers as they go about their duty would be exactly that: a bullet in each of their heads. Against all my normal qualms about killing, I set the fact that, behind the man with the pistol, there is a long line of men, women, and children, each of whom will be made to stand in that pit, and that he means to kill them. And after him, another man with another pistol will down another hundred or thousand until the pit is full and the bodies are buried from sight. Like most of you, I would happily fire the gun.

Chaim Potok once said 'There are no more gentle Jews'. Of, course, there are, millions of them. But what he meant is clear. The next time a thug with a pistol sets out to snuff out Jewish lives, he must reckon with Jews who will not just stand waiting for the bullet, but who know how to use guns themselves. And this, more than anything, is the logic behind Israel. Every time the IDF takes on Hamas or Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad, it makes a statement, that Israel was created as a safe haven for Jews.

Israel is not a nation founded on brute force, but it is a nation made up of individuals who, should they see others at the mercy of brutes and sadists will step up and bat. And every time someone sheds a tear for a Hamas gunman cut down or a suicide bomber put out of action or a missile-firing child-killer shot before he can send his missile aloft, I think to myself that they would not have shed a tear for that man teetering in the pit or that other trying to stop screaming as the razor caresses his neck.