November 13, 2009
Violence fuels anti-Semitism
When they were finally liberated, thousands of Polish Holocaust survivors traveled back to their places of origin to see what, if anything, was left of their families, their villages, their civilization. For the Jews who returned to Kielce, what little they found was then destroyed in July 1946, in a pogrom.
"Maybe as many as 50 Jews were murdered," Prof. Doris Bergen told a packed Beth Israel Synagogue Sunday night, at the annual Kristallnacht Commemorative Lecture. "But, of course, that pogrom and others like it resulted in over 100,000 Jewish survivors leaving Poland, taking refuge in displaced persons camps in Germany."
Bergen said the Kielce pogrom may have been an example of "the anti-Semitism of a bad conscience."
"People for whom the existence of Jews was simply a reproach, a reminder of their own failure, of their own brutality, of the terrible things they witnessed or participated in or perhaps benefited from, of their own complicity," said Bergen. "It was simply easier to chase the Jews out."
Before, during and after the war, anti-Semitism served multiple purposes, Bergen said. It was used as a cover for self-interest and other opportunistic motivations, but most significantly as an "adhesive" that could unite disparate bedfellows and serve diverse purposes.
"Anti-Semitism provided a common ground between Germans and Poles, Germans and Lithuanians, not simply because negative attitudes toward Jews meshed, but because attacks on Jews provided a way to solve some very pressing problems for non-Jews in those regions," said Bergen, who holds a chair in Holocaust studies at the University of Toronto.
Poles who had been anti-German but wanted to curry favor with the new German occupiers? asked Bergen. "They could do so by leading attacks on Jews."
When Nazism supplanted communism as the German army moved toward Moscow, Bergen said, some Poles wanted to take revenge for their suffering under the Soviets between the wars.
"The Soviets were gone; they'd retreated," Bergen said. "Blame the Jews. And they did. There were terrible pogroms."
She added, "They had their own motives, but anti-Semitism provided the glue that fused them together."
Characteristic of another strain of anti-Semitism, she explained, is the attribution to the victim of the sins of the perpetrator, a logical inversion justifying a moral inversion. Bergen said Hitler made the case in a 1939 speech that "if the Jews should succeed in unleashing another world war, the result will not be the destruction of Germany, but instead the annihilation of the Jews of Europe."
"Think about the logic of that speech," Bergen said. "Who was plotting war? We know that, by January 1939, Hitler had decided upon war that year. But in his speech, it was the Jews who were plotting war. Who was surrounded, trapped, threatened, slated for destruction, in Hitler's logic? The Germans, not the Jews."
With this inversion, Hitler attempted to justify his war on Jews as a defensive one. Such inversion was similarly versatile after the fact. Bergen said perpetrators could rationalize their opportunistic or violent behavior by adopting a posture of extreme hatred.
"Usually we think of extreme hatred producing extreme violence. I want to ask you to think about an alternative, in addition to that, the way in which extreme violence reinforces and exacerbates hatred," she said. "The more the perpetrators did terrible things to Jews, the more they concoct accusations against them.... People who were eager to justify their own behavior, or the behavior of members of their families, found that they could do that by blaming the victims. Because otherwise, perhaps, the reality of what they had been part of would be too awful to contemplate."
Bergen maintained that much remains to be studied about the role of anti-Semitism in the Holocaust and after.
"Anti-Semitism, rather than being simply a static hatred, was a dynamic process that was fuelled by violence itself," she said.
Prior to Bergen's lecture, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson read a proclamation from the city. As well, six survivors – Rita Akselrod, David Ehrlich, Chaim Micner, Claude Romney, Alex Buckman and Peter John Voormeij – accompanied by six members of the second and third generations – Daniel Akselrod, Perry Ehrlich, Jack Micner, Marc Romney, Tslil Shtulsaft and Mary Goldie – lit six candles in the annual solemn memorial to the Six Million.
The commemoration is an annual joint project of Beth Israel Synagogue and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
Pat Johnson is, among other things, director of programs for Hillel in British Columbia.