A statue of Dimitar Peshev, who saved 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from deportation during WWII. Credit: Creative Commons

On November 14, 2013, a street in Washington D.C. was renamed Dimitar Peshev Plaza in honor of a man credited with saving the lives of 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from deportation during World War II. Peshev had been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial so the honor appeared to be, if anything, overdue.

Bulgaria has long been lauded for saving its Jewish population, but the U.S. Holocaust Museum used the Peshev memorial proposal to point out that while no Bulgarian Jews were deported, over 11,000 Jews from Macedonia and part of Greece, then occupied by Bulgaria, were sent to the camps.

Radu Ioanid, a director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, said “The callous and devious attempts to distort the history of Bulgarian Jewry is insulting to the victims of the Holocaust and is damaging to the image of Bulgaria…”

It was like interrupting a memorial service to announce that while the deceased was a splendid fellow his brother was once arrested for manslaughter.

Bulgaria’s ambassador to the United States, Elena Poptodorova, was insulted by what she called the museum’s “very rude” response.

There are thirty-six Holocaust museums in the United States, including the major one in Washington D.C. There are five in New York State, four just in Los Angeles. There are Holocaust museums in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Terre Haute, Indiana. Many more in other countries. Isn’t that excessive, even to commemorate such a monstrous crime as the Holocaust?

Of course, a full and accurate account is essential for an understanding of history, but there seems to be something else going on here. The proposal, after all, was to honor one individual. Why use that to tarnish the whole country’s reputation? It smacks of what someone said when asked if another Holocaust museum was needed. “Yes,” he replied. “We should rub their noses in it.” By they he meant the whole non-Jewish world.

Remembering the Holocaust as history is one thing; remembering it as a memorial to its victims and a tribute to the brave people who saved many from the Shoah is another, but brandishing it as a shield against criticism (Don’t talk to me about suffering), or as justification for the state of Israel is inappropriate. And to chastize the innocent – those who were not even born at the time of the Shoah – is wrong.

For non-historians, the Holocaust is a festering sore, as damaging to Jews as it is insulting to the innocent. It is what Avram Burg tried to tell us, especially Israelis, in The Holocaust is Over/We Must Rise from Its Ashes (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Burg’s credentials are impeccable. He was a paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Force, and has represented it as speaker of the Knesset. He was born in Israel; his father immigrated from Germany to escape Nazism; his mother survived a massacre of Jews by Arabs in Hebron in 1929. He lives in a village near Jerusalem with his wife and family. Yet The Holocaust is Over has been largely ignored, and Burg marginalized as a utopian. (“I am not a Jew just for myself. My Judaism is part of my responsibility for the world, nature, creation and humanity. Yes, I am a utopian Jew and I love the entire creation.)

His despair is evidenced by his original Hebrew title, translated as Hitler Won, by which he meant that the crimes of the Hitler regime were so great they left permanent scars on the Jewish people. It was finally published in Israel under the title Victory Over Hitler. That is, what began as a warning that the Holocaust was continuing to oppress Jews became instead a prescription for Jews in general and Israelis in particular to free themselves from the past. Constantly reliving the Holocaust makes one bitter and unforgiving not just of the perpetrators, but by extension of everyone who allowed it to happen, and then of anyone who might cause or allow it to happen in the future. As Burg writes: “Israel accentuates and perpetuates the confrontational philosophy that is summed up in the phrase, ‘The entire world is against us.’”

This attitude gives some Jews a sense of entitlement. It feeds the dangerous idea that the establishment of the state of Israel is a form of compensation for the Shoah. Dangerous because it eventually leads to other people thinking Enough is enough; or, We didn’t perpetrate the Holocaust so why should we pay for it?

Israel has a right to exist regardless of the Holocaust. The history of Zionism goes back to the nineteenth century, and the history of modern Israel to the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Even before World War II Jews were about one-third of the population. But even if Israel was born from the pains of anti-Semitism and the horror of the Shoah, it is time not to forget or forgive, but to move on. Burg writes: “I believe wholeheartedly that if we do not establish modern Israeli identity on foundations of optimism, faith in humans and full trust in the family of nations, we have no chance of existing and surviving in the long run…”

Instead, there is a tendency to keep the memory of the Holocaust burning in the hearts and minds of young Israelis, and to rub everyone else’s faces in it. “It is a past that is present, maintained, monitored, heard, and represented.” Schoolchildren are sent on field trips to Auschwitz; Holocaust museums are proposed for every major city in the world. Every visitor to Israel is expected to make a pilgrimage to Yad Vashem. After a visit by the previous Pope, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, complained that Benedict had not said, “I’m sorry for the tragedy that befell you.” The Pope had merely described it as “a horrific tragedy” and expressed his “deep compassion” for the victims. Not remorseful enough for the chairman. (here and here)

Burg also deplores the My-tragedy-is-worse-than-your-tragedy attitude. It leads, he believes, to a lack of compassion for other victims, such as the people of Rwanda and Tibet, and, yes, the occupied Palestinians. He does not accuse Israelis of being like the perpetrators, but he blames them for apathy in the face of those crimes. When he was speaker of the Knesset he planned to host a visit by the Dalai Lama. An official from the foreign ministry demanded he cancel the invitation so as not to offend the Chinese. “If Israeli foreign policy is based on arms-dealing interests with the murderers of Tiananmen Square,” Burg writes, “I want no part of it.” He proceeded with the invitation.

It was not always that way in Israel. The Eichmann trial, he contends, changed everything. Burg would have tried Eichmann by an international tribunal to show that the Holocaust was a crime not only against Jews (as well as Gypsies, homosexuals, and political dissidents) but against humanity. That would also have placed Israel more firmly in the family of nations. He has some sympathy for Hannah Arendt’s view that Eichmann was not so much a villain as a banal bureaucrat. At first, that seems to lessen his crime, but in fact it proclaims the disturbing thought that everyone is capable of it. (Although few are guilty of it.) Instead, by making it an all-Israel show trial, it portrayed Israelis as vengeful victims. “The tough native Israelis sat quietly in the corner of the hall while the Jews from ‘over there’ [i.e., Europe] took center stage.”

It comes down to this: stoking the bitterness of the Holocaust keeps us Jews from our paramount task of helping to repair the world.

Still, what do you say to people who invoke the Holocaust? We cannot forget; we should not forgive, and it would be callous to say “get over it.” One can only say, yes it was a crime and horror of immense proportions, but, in Burg’s words: “It is time to leave Auschwitz behind and to build a healthy Israel.”


Jerome Richard is the author of the post-Holocaust novel, The Kiss of the Prison Dancer. His website is: www.jeromerichard1.com.

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