Primo Levi was right when he said it happened, so it can happen again

Eisenhower visited the concentration camp at Ohrdruf so that he would be able to challenge anyone who labelled the Holocaust as ‘propaganda’ — a word that is once more being used

November 02, 2023 11:44

On 12 April 1945, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, visited the concentration camp of Ohrdruf, the first German camp to be liberated by US troops. Eisenhower described the “visual evidence… of starvation, cruelty and bestiality” as so overpowering, that “it left me physically sick”. Then Eisenhower added something highly significant. “I made the visit deliberately,” he said, “in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of such things, if ever in the future there develops a tendency to describe such events as mere ‘propaganda’.”

As a people, we are currently living through a cauldron of emotions. Shock, pain, anger, disbelief. Shock and pain at the horrific massacre of our people — and anger and disbelief at the increasingly unsupportive reaction of much of the world to Israel’s fight for its very existence. Even worse are moves to somehow contextualise the slaughter in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Our initial reaction is to respond to all this with emotional outrage. But in wartime, facts matter. Without facts — and the accurate transmission of those facts — shock quickly fades, as the innate human incredulity that such things could have actually transpired begins to take hold. 

For the shocking truth is that even in those first months after the liberation there were people who began to develop that very tendency towards “propaganda” that Eisenhower was afraid of. One reaction to a screening in London of the shocking newsreel footage of Bergen Belsen made by the British Army was as follows: “The atrocity film was followed by a Walt Disney — Donald Duck — people are laughing again within a minute. And its all mixed up with a propaganda film about noble London… it felt as if the whole show was propaganda.”

Often, as described by Michael Jones in his important work After Hitler (2015), these reactions stemmed from a sense of incredulity and disbelief at the possibility of such evil, rather than flippancy. The crimes of the Nazis were so horrific that people found it hard to believe they had actually taken place. American Sergeant Eugene Schultz confessed that he had always considered the stories of Nazi atrocities to be works of “imaginative embellishment”. His view changed for ever once he had seen Ohrdruf. 

But what difficulty people had in absorbing the truth was undoubtedly assisted by media attempts to sanitise the details, ostensibly to “protect” their audiences. Paul Winterton was a British war reporter with the BBC who entered Majdanek concentration camp with the Russians at the end of July 1944. He deliberately avoided sensationalism in his reporting, sticking entirely to the facts. Winterton described how the furnaces at Majdanek could each hold four to six bodies, which meant that together they could process 2,000 corpses a day.

Winterton duly submitted his report, but the BBC waited a month to broadcast it and even when it was broadcast, it was heavily edited and only broadcast on the overseas service. Winterton himself later recalled that he was given, “a kind of reprimand …they told me they didn’t want this atrocity stuff. They seemed to think it was Russian propaganda”. I have taken numerous groups to Poland with March of the Living and attended many ceremonies at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Yom HaShoah. These are very moving. Yet I have always found the words “Never Again” to be devoid of meaning — and worse, naive. Far more powerful are the words of Primo Levi, which I try to convey when standing at the site of a grave of 500 children in the forest outside Tarnow, or a crematoria in Majdanek: “It happened, so it can happen again — this is our message.”

If there was anyone who had any doubt about the prescience of Levi’s words, they have surely been disabused of this over the past three weeks. After living through a massacre of such horrific brutality, with echoes of the worst crimes of the Nazis once again committed by those who seek to destroy us, our perspective on Poland must permanently change. For if we simply stand and pledge “Never Again”, we risk allowing ourselves to fall into the trap of believing that this will certainly be the case — and possibly even open the pathway towards denial of the facts themselves. Instead, the tendency towards human incredulity must give way to fact: “It happened – so it can happen again.” 

Today, as we pray for peace and security in our Land, we must ensure that this remains our message long into the future. “In every generation they arise to destroy us,” we say in the haggadah, the most powerful retelling of the tragedy and triumph of our national story, “and God saves us from their hand.” It will be our solemn duty to accurately tell this story too — so that the world will never be allowed to forget.

Yoni Birnbaum is rabbi of Kehillas Toras Chaim, Hendon

November 02, 2023 11:44

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