This article was published in ReformJudaism.org
The Arc de Triomphe, the grand monument at the heart of Paris, was build to celebrate victory. It honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolution and in the Napoleonic Wars, but their memory is part of a happy moment of enjoying their achievements, a symbol of their victory.The many tourists that come to see the Arc every day are reminded that in spite of the many sacrifices, France won.
The drive to celebrate a triumph in an act or gesture which has no practical aim other than demonstrating the joy of winning is part of our culture. It can be a collective act, like building a monument or throwing a grand ball, or it can be a personal expression, or decision. The Romans had Songs of Victory; in the Middle Ages rulers sometime celebrated a triumph with a popular fair. Military parades often follow a victory—in 1945 the Allied soldiers marched in the streets of Berlin in a victory parade.
As a child, I often wondered why my father smoked. When I asked him what had made him take the first cigarette he replied: when I heard that Nazi Germany had surrendered I felt a need to do something that would demonstrate that the constant oppressive strain of the war was over, so I lit a cigarette. Though unfortunately it was the source of an unhealthy habit, I could always imagine this moment of utter relaxation—the war is over, Germany was defeated, now is a time to smoke a cigarette.
The need to celebrate the victory over the Nazis still exists in contemporary Israel. Various delegations travel to concentration camps, walking with flags of Israel and conducting ceremonies in memory of Holocaust victims. High schools, universities, the Israeli army – they all send hundreds of young men and women to Poland, mainly to Auschwitz.
I always feel some resentment at this demonstratively triumphant walk in the concentration camps. I certainly understand its motivation; growing up in a Zionist home, I was often told by my parents that our true victory over the Nazis is the very existence of the Jewish state. But walking with Israeli flags next to the gas chambers seems to me unfitting.
There are some instances in which speaking of victory is simply impossible, it is a categorical mistake. Any referral to the Holocaust in terms of a triumph is, in my opinion, completely erroneous. Victory is applicable to a struggle between two forces that even if not equal, are at least comparable. First there is a confrontation, then one side wins. The Allies defeated Germany in World War II. But in the case of the industrialized genocide of the Jewish people, men, women, and children were simply led to their death, with only a remote possibility of escaping the gas chambers. Thus, there is no room for a spiritual “Arc de Triomphe” in the concentration camps; it should evoke contemplation, and perhaps also tears.
And also, if the triumph over the Nazis is to be celebrated, why there? Why in the concentration camps? If the true victory is the state of Israel, there is no point in celebrating it in Auschwitz. It is not a cemetery; the victims were not buried respectfully but murdered and cremated. If the collective memory is the purpose, the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem has an impressive collection of artifacts and documentation of the Holocaust. And as for education, one doesn’t have to travel around the globe to learn about historical events.
After many deliberations on this matter, I believe that my resentment springs from a sense that the very need to come to Auschwitz reveals the depth of the trauma the Holocaust has created, even in young people, whose grandparents were possibly its victims Those ceremonies and flags seem to me more like an exposure of weakness than like a resounding victory. They are driven by a desire to prove to others, even if they are not physically present, that we prevailed.
Youngsters and also adults often write about their experience in the concentration camps. They describe themselves clinging to each other, shivering as they see the horrors of the industry of death. Frankly, what each and every one of them is thinking is: what would have happened if I had been here? Would I have behaved differently? Would I have revolted? Would I have tried to escape? Would I have attempted to save my parents and siblings? Would I have died, like everyone else?
It is here that a true victory is needed; and no ceremony in Auschwitz will grant it. This battle is an extremely difficult one. As the great English poet William Blake wrote: “Father, Oh Father, what do we here/ In this land of unbelief and fear?”