Reflecting on the Holocaust

by tobybee

Last night, April 19th, was the Bund’s Holocaust commemoration. And this speech, in full below, was given at that commemoration by a very good friend of jewonthis, Dave Slucki. It’s a truly important and momentous speech, I think – the best bits are after the jump, so make sure you read on. (And it’s also worth reading Arnold Zable’s piece from The Age on the weekend about Edelman, the Bund, and the Holocaust.)

Marek Edelman, who we honour tonight along with his fallen comrades in the Warsaw Ghetto, once said that to be a Jew means always to be with the oppressed, never with the oppressor. He lived his life in a constant struggle against the oppressor, whether it be Nazism or Soviet communism. No doubt this is a lesson he learnt through his bitter experiences as a resistance fighter during the Second World War, and that was confirmed throughout his life as an anti-communist activist in Poland. What does it mean for us today? Have we learnt the same lesson? Against whom do we struggle in the fight for justice? There is certainly plenty of injustice in the world today, but have we, Jews, forgotten our responsibility to work towards a less violent world? Is Khaver Edelman an inspiration for us only because of his bravery as a commander of the oyfshtand, or also because his whole life was characterized by that kind of bravery? Given his experiences, Khaver Edelman had every right to spend the rest of his life in quiet anonymity. But he chose a more courageous path, risking his professional life, his livelihood, and his reputation in the fight for justice. Is this not ultimately the most important thing for us to learn as descendants of Holocaust survivors?

It’s important for us to remember all those who perished during the Holocaust; the heroes who died in battle, and the heroes who went quietly to their deaths. Geto akademye is a time to honour the memories of those who were murdered for no other reason than their Jewishness. We should also take it as an opportunity to remember all those that have died as a result of state-sanctioned violence. It is our chance, once a year to reflect on what it means to be survivors and descendants of survivors; what it means to be directly affected by genocide; what responsibility that gives us. Khaver Edelman has left us an important legacy. He has taught us that bravery is not characterised only by armed struggle, and often not at all through such means. Importantly also, he has taught us that as Jews, we now carry a grave responsibility to work towards ensuring that no-one suffers the same fate that many of our closest relatives did. He has taught us to be activists in the struggle for justice. He has taught us that remembering the Holocaust and honouring the memory of those who died is not simply a passive act, but also a call to action. As David Rosenberg, leader of the Jewish Socialist Group in London wrote in his obituary to Khaver Edelman, “He refused to allow the historical experience of the Ghetto fighters to be claimed by any group/nation exclusively. On the contrary, he argued that this history belonged to everyone and carried a universal imperative to fight for equality, democracy, human rights and dignity wherever these were threatened or suppressed.” What is our responsibility today to ensure that we honour Edelman’s legacy? When we say “Never Again”, do we mean that those should never happen again to Jews, or to anyone?

In our own backyard, violence is a fact of life. We hear it daily in the violent rhetoric against migrants and refugees in the media and from politicians. We see physical violence against migrants from Sudan, Lebanon, India, Afghanistan, and dozens of other countries. Most damning perhaps is the reality that the Indigenous population of this country, the original inhabitants of this land, have for over 200 years been subjected to oppression—physical, economic, social, psychological. There are so many stories – too many. We can read stories of children being stolen from their parents, and of people dying in police custody; of massacres, and of lynchings; of ‘interventions’ and welfare money withheld; of bans on alcohol, and bans on congregating in the streets of Fitzroy. And we can read about what happened on the very land on which we stand, on the land of the Boonerung people and the Wurundjeri people, two groups who are part of the Kulin Nation.

Here, first there was the invasion: ships came to shore and set up camp. With them came disease and uncertainty. There was an exchange of goods and of names; there was trust and distrust. There were encounters and negotiations between colonisers and Koorie people. And then there was brought the disease, displacement, and massacres, so that in by 1840 there were only 83 Boonerung people left. There was physical violence, as well as the violence caused by the loss of way of life. And then there were missions, and definitions of identity based on blood. And, of course, there was resistance. And this resistance continues, as does the displacement.

We here tonight might easily say that we bear no responsibility; that as post-war migrants, we are not accountable for the crimes of those that came before us. We are quick to point out that we live in the lucky country, but ignore the fact that it is not lucky for all; that the luck that we all experience has been built on the communities, homes, cemeteries, ritual grounds, and lives of those that have lived on this land for 40,000 years. We have directly benefited, and continue to benefit, from the genocide against the original inhabitants of this land. We are complicit in the ongoing violence that is being committed against indigenous communities. As former Prime Minister Paul Keating said in his famous Redfern Speech in 1992,
“The starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins…with the act of recognition; recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.”

What does it mean then, as Edelman argued, to be a Jew? How can we not only side with the oppressed, but work towards their liberation from oppression? There are many ways we can be involved, but as Keating said nearly two decades ago, it starts with the act of recognition that we are part of the problem. We cannot be bystanders when, in our own country, such terrible violence continues daily.

There’s another pressing reason for us to think about the issue Edelman raises, about what we, as Jews, learn from our historical experiences as victims of state violence, and millennia of anti-Jewish oppression. As well as tonight being the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, on the Hebrew calendar it is the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. It’s not often that our akademye falls on the same night as Yom Ha’atzmaut. Perhaps we can take this rare opportunity to reflect on the nature of power, of Jewish power. Right now, whilst we mourn once again the tens of millions of Jews and non-Jews that have been subject to oppression and state-sanctioned mass murder, there are thousands of Jews in our own community celebrating the advent of a Jewish state. Perhaps tonight, when 19th of April coincides with Israel’s independence day, we can question and examine what does Jewish political and military power mean? What are the responsibilities of a Jewish state towards its own minorities (which in Israel’s case is rather substantial at 20% of the population)? How can we, Jews, justify the ongoing, illegal occupation of another people?

Khaver Edelman had a tense relationship with the State of Israel. Through his life, he was not a nationalist, and remained true to his Bundist, internationalist principles. His account of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, originally published in Yiddish and Polish 1946, was not published in Israel for more than 50 years. The most prominent Israeli historians of the Holocaust often criticized him for his frank account of the events that he witnessed, and his refusal to buy into the mythology that Israel created around the uprising. For Edelman, no-one went “like sheep to the slaughter”. Those that went quietly to their death in the death camps were equally as heroic as those that took arms (“These people went quietly and with dignity,” he said. “It is an awesome thing, when one is going so quietly to one’s death. It is definitely more difficult than to go out shooting.”). Khaver Edelman strived for peace in Israel. In 2002, he wrote an open letter to Palestinian military leaders urging them to pursue a diplomatic path in their struggle. “Nowhere in the world,” he wrote, “can a guerrilla force bring conclusive victory, nowhere can it be defeated by weapon-full armies. Neither can your war attain any resolution. Blood will be spilled in vain and lives will be lost on both sides.” Edelman was critical of both Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and of the violent response of Palestinian militant groups. He was frustrated with the direct link that Israeli politicians drew between the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the rise of Israel.

Israel and its Jewish population are not facing another Holocaust at Iran’s hands, as Prime Minister Netanyahu recently suggested in a speech at Yad Vashem. Israel is a country with a military, an air force, and a nuclear arsenal. It is a grave responsibility to control such a vast and powerful military machine. Just as we do in Australia, we have a direct interest in ensuring that a Jewish state fulfils its obligations to protect the human rights of its citizens, and does not continue to commit acts of violence against civilians. We know better than most the terrible consequences of collective punishment. We must remain steadfast, as Edelman was until his death, that Jews never become oppressors, and that they lead the struggle for human rights wherever they live.

I’d like to finish by once again quoting former Prime Minister Paul Keating from his 1992 speech at Redfern:
“Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless. Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight. Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war and were then ignored in history books. Imagine if our feats on sporting fields had inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice. Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed. Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it. It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice then we can imagine its opposite. And we can have justice.”

We, Jews, can imagine all of these things. Some in the room tonight have lived these very experiences. Most of us have at least grown up surrounded by stories of these terrible events happening to our families. But we have come out the other side, secure in a democratic country, free now from persecution and almost completely free from the violence that our parents and grandparents faced. We must not now cower into comfortable anonymity; we must heed the words of our Khaver Marek Edelman, that being Jewish means that we always side with and struggle on behalf of the oppressed, fight the structures of power that lead to state-sanctioned mass killing, and remain vigilant against becoming oppressors ourselves.

Koved zayn ondenk, koved di ondenk fun di zeks-milyon, un koved di ondenk fun ale korbones fun gvald un unterdrikung, say yidish, say nisht-yidish.