Auschwitz, they tell me you've become popular.

Haaretz 26-12-04

Rudolf Vrba , who escaped from Auschwitz to warn his community, only to be erased from the Israeli collective memory, becomes a symptom in this excellent book - a symptom of what? Of the way in which the collective memory is more important than the personal memory.

By Yitzhak Laor

Ruth Linn, Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting
Cornell University Press, 155 pages

“Two years before the Holocaust / It did not have a name”, wrote Meir Wieseltier in the early 1970s, and he concluded: “What was the word holocaust / Two years before the Holocaust?/ It stood for a lot of tumult , / Something that meant a big uproar ”. This of course is Wieselterian humor, an attempt to scrape some fat off the bulky linguistic load words are made to carry and restore them to an earlier layer that had been destroyed by history “only”. To his credit, long before Israeli high-school students were sent on regular visits to Auschwitz, Wieseltier was aware of the damaging impact of “Shoah education” on the Israeli experience. An earlier poem, opens with the following two lines: ‘ Auschwitz, They tell me you’ve become popular / Some nice people talk very highly of you”. The problem with a poem like this is not that it is in “bad taste” but that it is bold, particularly when read today. Somehow the poet already saw what was to happen to Hebrew literature a generation later, from the kitsch of David Grossman onwards , and especially in academe speak

With her book Past Lesions, Iris Milner elevated this drive to unsurpassed heights in Hebrew literary criticism. Leaning on Dan La’or and Anita Shapira, Milner decided to take a close look at two novels, one by Grossman and one by Benny Barabash, neither of them the offspring of Holocaust survivors, i.e., biographically not belonging to the “second generation”. Thus Milner set out to prove that all Hebrew literature is “second-generation literature”, after we were saved—all of us of course, the survivors and the saviors— from the “trauma” (Milner derived this piece of wisdom of the single trauma shared by survivors and saviors, from Anita Shapira; her great concern for the image of the “saviors” she took from the writings of Dan La’or). Whatever: hurrah – the lesion has been healed. The trauma has vanished. Now we have the university..

The Israeli memory of the Holocaust, from this perspective, predates the Holocaust itself. Zionist ideology aligned all parts of the national story and harnessed them to a rational timetable: “Of course the events came first, but then we took over and now all of you know the story the way we’re telling it.” The knowledge our national ideology is able to arrive at creates a clear advantage for those who have been put in charge of the formation of memory. The importance of the events starts only at the place where “we”—that is, the “saviors”, and the survivors— but these only so long as they go along with the “saviors”—narrate them. A whole chain of silenced voices, lost in the clamor of much louder ones, can here help highlight the importance always accorded to those who narrate the story from “among our midst”, that is, from among Zionists, if not Israelis. How long did it take before we finally learned that there had been anti-Zionists among the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising? Who was Marek Edelman? Why could he show up from time to time at Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot (“Ghetto Fighters”) to sit down and chat with his soul mate Antek Zuckerman, while we, as readers, were kept in the dark as to the man’s charm and greatness? Because the collective memory was unable to tolerate people who had consciously chosen not to identify with the Zionist enterprise, even in the context of Holocaust memory.

Slowly but surely, there has been a steady fostering of “Shoah-as-part-of-our-lives”. Much as been written about it, but what has been written is not always published in Hebrew, and what has been published in Hebrew in not always published the same way in English. Ruth Linn , in this truly wonderful book, analyzes one particular case, that of Rudolf Vrba, someone who when we look at his own writing on the Holocaust is by no means anonymous, but who for many years somehow “managed to” remain anonymous in Israel. Significantly, his escape from Auschwitz has been well documented. He wrote while the war still raged. Vrba not only succeeded in escaping from Auschwitz; with unbelievable courage he made it back to his home town, Topol’ čany ’ in Czechoslovakia, in the spring of 1944 to warn his community of what was in store for them. The report he and his fellow escapee Wetzler, were able to deliver was the first eyewitness account of what was going on in Auschwitz. It was smuggled to the West during the very same days that Kasztner was negotiating with the Nazis, and Linn claims that, even though he knew of its existence, Kasztner took no part in helping the report reach the West. . This of course is putting it mildly and rather cautiously. Loud is the barking of those who have chosen to side with Kasztner. After all, his train did not carry dead people, and neither are dead people elected to Israel’s Knesset, appear on TV shows, or sit on the editorial boards of newspapers.

Here is what Ruth Linn has to say about the attitude to the escapees, who were paid no attention at all in Hebrew literature and whatever else is published in Hebrew: " There are two ways the escape from Auschwitz features in textbooks in Hebrew: first of all, technically, the escapees are mentioned anonymously or not mentioned at all; second, conceptually (i.e., by way of marginalization), their names and deeds are mentioned but their contribution is minimalized.” Linn is careful. At the same time, exactly because her argument is so brilliant, she does not sidestep any of the mines along the road. In this excellent book Vrba becomes a symptom— a symptom of what? Of the way in which the collective memory is more important than the personal memory.

It is not the memories of the survivors that count—as Vrba’s case makes clear—but the collective memory. There is no collective memory without pushing “awkward” elements into oblivion. A people’s collective memory does not arise out of or by itself, certainly not in modern states. Collective memory is constituted by people with special interests, i.e., collective memory is a political act. Any confrontation with it will always be revisionistic, so to speak.

Linn prefers to take recourse to psychological theory—the “family secret”—to explain memory lapses, but I think that this tendency to explain occurrences in the field of memory as imaginary events—“the family is like the nation”—can be misleading. What father wants to be forgotten is different from what the state wants to be forgotten, even if one can draw parallels between all forms of political authority and the role of the father. The state, after all, not only prevents memory, it puts in place an entire system of different codes where memory starts getting blurred or is being blurred. The state does not necessarily constitute memory by means of outright lies, but it will apply different forms of sublimation and introduce different shades of emphasis.

Linn insists of returning to the way in which Vrba and his escape partner Wetzler have been consistently sidelined even by important Holocaust scholars, who in the best case have written about them without mentioning their names. — even when their contribution to the composition of the first report on Auschwitz is not put in doubt —

Can this be accidental? Linn doesn’t think so. She believes that the story of the erasure of Vrba and Wetzler from the Israeli collective memory belongs to an entire system of defensive measures to counter accusations against the behavior of the Jewish establishment at the time of the Holocaust. Vrba has forgiven neither the Jewish leaders he met in Slovakia after his escape, nor Kasztner. He came out in defense of Hannah Arendt in the great debate with Talmon after she published her book on the Eichmann trial, again in connection with the controversy over Jewish behavior during the Holocaust. Even in the context of Arendt, it is impossible to simply dismiss Vrba’s accusations as though it was Tantura.

Here we reach the core of the matter that makes reading Linn’s brilliant book so worthwhile. The collective memory cannot expel the memories of other memory bearers. The Holocaust memory is a maelstrom of memories that flooded the streets of Israel until the late 1950s, and none of them were decisive. Let us call those memories “real”. Only later did scholars of greater or lesser erudition begin to code the “traumatic” involved in them. Some did so at the instruction from the leaders of the Yishuv and the state—the leaders of the Jewish communities abroad had been in alliance with them or became so after the war, so they had to be defended. Here too, all roads lead to Mapai. This was the party that built the widest coalition of Jewish public dealings before and after the establishment of the state. It is impossible to understand how millions of Jewish immigrants could be made to the political line without grasping this fact. This is not a question of wrongdoing, but not one of “psychology” either.

What we have here is the political necessity of the state—always and every state—to turn its agents, i.e., its emissaries among “the people”, into people who are above all suspicion. The connection between Kasztner and Mapai, and the profound hatred towards Mapai among so many Hungarian Holocaust survivors because of Kasztner, cannot be fathomed without explaining the importance of the system—any system—attaches to turning its agents into representatives of the good and the just, i.e., history as a process of success: life becomes proof of why the dead had to die, “to arise tomorrow morning with a new song in their heart”.

It is very easy to see things this way when it comes to the French, say, the Russians, or other elites. It is very hard to see things this way when dealing with “ourselves”. But it isn’t about “ourselves”, but about institutions that manipulate our memory: literature, academia, government, language. And beneath all these lies bleeding the private memory of those who have no tongue and cannot speak.