A Lesson from the Holocaust for Us All

The Independent

At a second-hand book stall in the Rue Monsieur le Prince in Paris a few days ago, I came across the second volume of Victor Klemperer’s diaries. The first volume, recounting his relentless, horrifying degradation as a German Jew in the first eight years of Hitler’s rule–from 1933 to 1941–I had bought in Pakistan just before America’s 2001 bombardment of Afghanistan.

It was a strange experience–while sipping tea amid the relics of the Raj, roses struggling across the lawn beside me, an old British military cemetery at the end of the road–to read of Klemperer’s efforts to survive in Dresden with his wife Eva as the Nazis closed in on his Jewish neighbours. Even more intriguing was to find that the infinitely heroic Klemperer, a cousin of the great conductor, showed great compassion for the Palestinian Arabs of the 1930s who feared that they would lose their homeland to a Jewish state.

“I cannot help myself,” Klemperer writes on 2 November 1933, nine months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. “I sympathise with the Arabs who are in revolt (in Palestine), whose land is being ‘bought’. A Red Indian fate, says Eva.”

Even more devastating is Klemperer’s critique of Zionism–which he does not ameliorate even after Hitler’s Holocaust of the Jews of Europe begins. “To me,” he writes in June of 1934, “the Zionists, who want to go back to the Jewish state of AD70 … are just as offensive as the Nazis. With their nosing after blood, their ancient ‘cultural roots’, their partly canting, partly obtuse winding back of the world they are altogether a match for the National Socialists…”

Yet Klemperer’s day-by-day account of the Holocaust, the cruelty of the local Dresden Gestapo, the suicide of Jews as they are ordered to join the transports east, his early knowledge of Auschwitz–Klemperer got word of this most infamous of extermination camps as early as March 1942, although he did not realise the scale of the mass murders there until the closing months of the war–fill one with rage that anyone could still deny the reality of the Jewish genocide.

Reading these diaries as the RER train takes me out to Charles de Gaulle airport–through the 1930s art deco architecture of Drancy station where French Jews were taken by their own police force before transportation to Auschwitz–I wish President Ahmadinejad of Iran could travel with me.

For Ahmadinejad it was who called the Jewish Holocaust a “myth”, who ostentatiously called for a conference–in Tehran, of course–to find out the truth about the genocide of six million Jews, which any sane historian acknowledges to be one of the terrible realities of the 20th century, along, of course, with the Holocaust of one and a half million Armenians in 1915.

The best reply to Ahmadinejad’s childish nonsense came from ex-president Khatami of Iran, the only honourable Middle East leader of our time, whose refusal to countenance violence by his own supporters inevitably and sadly led to the demise of his “civil society” at the hands of more ruthless clerical opponents. “The death of even one Jew is a crime,” Khatami said, thus destroying in one sentence the lie that his successor was trying to propagate.

Indeed, his words symbolised something more important: that the importance and the evil of the Holocaust do not depend on the Jewish identity of the victims. The awesome, wickedness of the Holocaust lies in the fact that the victims were human beings–just like you and me.

How do we then persuade the Muslims of the Middle East of this simple truth? I thought that the letter which the head of the Iranian Jewish Committee, Haroun Yashayaie, wrote to Ahmadinejad provided part of the answer. “The Holocaust is not a myth any more than the genocide imposed by Saddam (Hussein) on Halabja or the massacre by (Ariel) Sharon of Palestinians and Lebanese in the camps of Sabra and Chatila,” Yashayaie–who represents Iran’s 25,000 Jews–said.

Note here how there is no attempt to enumerate the comparisons. Six million murdered Jews is a numerically far greater crime than the thousands of Kurds gassed at Halabja or the 1,700 Palestinians murdered by Israel’s Lebanese Phalangist allies at Sabra and Chatila in 1982. But Yashayaie’s letter was drawing a different kind of parallel: the pain that the denial of history causes to the survivors.

I have heard Israelis deny their army’s involvement in the Sabra and Chatila massacres–despite Israel’s own official enquiry which proved that Ariel Sharon sent the murderers into the camps–and I remember how the CIA initially urged US embassies o blame Iran for the gassings at Halabja.

Indeed, it is easy to find examples of one of the most egregious lies uttered against the 750,000 Palestinians who fled their land in 1948: that they were ordered by Arab radio stations to flee their homes until the Jews had been “driven into the sea”–when they would return to take back their property. Israeli academic researchers have themselves proved that no such radio broadcasts were ever made, that the Palestinians fled–victims of what we would today call ethnic cleansing–after a series of massacres by Israeli forces, especially in the village of Deir Yassin, just outside Jerusalem.

So what is there to learn from the second volume of Klemperer’s diaries? Just after he received word from the Gestapo that he and Eva were to be transported east to their deaths, the RAF raided Dresden and, amid the tens of thousands of civilians which the February 1945 firestorm consumed, the Gestapo archives also went up in flames. All record of the Klemperers’ existence was turned to ash, like the Jews who preceded them to Auschwitz. So the couple took off their Jewish stars and wandered Germany as refugees without papers until they found salvation after the Nazi surrender.

Just before their rescue, they showed compassion to three distraught German soldiers who were lost in the forests of their homeland. And even during their worst ordeals, as they waited for the doorbell to ring and the Gestapo to arrive to search their Dresden home and notify them of their fate, Klemperer was able to write in his diary a sentence which every journalist and historian should learn by heart: “There is no remedy against the truth of language.”

ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Fisk’s new book is The Conquest of the Middle East.



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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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