Thursday, 11 November 2010

From The Catholic Herald, November 5, 2010

A demonic scheme to destroy the Dutch Jews

Reprinted from The Catholic Herald

Ashes in The Wind, The Destruction of Dutch Jewry
By Dr Jacob Presser
Souvenir Press, £15

In the popular imagination, when one thinks of the fate of Dutch Jewry in the Second World War, the lives of Anne Frank, Edith Stein and Charlotte Saloman spring to mind. More recently, Paul Verhoeven's 2006 film
Zwartboek (Black Book) has raised consciousness as to the miserable fate of Jews in Holland during that conflict.

Zwartboek received many awards and accolades internationally, reaction to it in The Netherlands was decidedly mixed. This owed to the fact that the movie was a tale of ambivalence, in which not all Germans were portrayed as evil, many Dutchmen were showed as being complicit with the Nazis, and in which some Jews were depicted as collaborating against their own people to save themselves. By eschewing a Manichaean narrative, Verhoven's film proved difficult to digest among compatriots who wanted to believe that their grandparents had behaved better.

Ashes in the Wind, first published in 1965 and released in a new edition, had a similar effect on the reading public. Its central theme is that war can make good people do bad things, and how ideology can make good people behave with appalling inhumanity - and not just the perpetrators of an ideology, but sometimes its victims, too.

In a world where the boundaries between good and evil are perennially questioned and doubted, the Holocaust is often invoked as an ethical reference point, to affirm that morality is not perspectival and provisional. This is one reason why discussing the Holocaust has become problematic. But long before postmodern historians and far-right anti-semites came to be accused of belittling the Holocaust, Dr Presser - a Dutch Jew who survived the ordeal - reminded us that we cannot comprehend this catastrophe with childlike simplicity.

The Jew/German Nazi dichotomy collapses here on many fronts. It was not only Nazified Germans who were responsible for effecting the Holocaust, such as the concentration camp
Kommandant who gave his son fifty Jews for target practice as a birthday present, but ordinary Germans who sank to levels of barbarity. In the Amsterdam house raids of July 1942 "German female employees hung out of the windows taking snaps for their albums and, judging by their screams of laughter, were having a highly enjoyable time; several German police officers joined in the merriment, which increased to hilarity when a young Jewish women, suddenly wrenched away from her pram and child, had a fit of hysteria".

Elsewhere, there are tales of German remorse (or at least displays of it): the Commander of German Security Police and Head of
Zentralstelle consulting a rabbi, cursing "the fate that had put him in this predicament", or of a German soldier "who got drunk every night to forget his part in gassing Jewish children in trains. He could not put it out of his mind and kept thinking of his own five children."

Additionally, the Germans did not regard "the Jews" as a coherent ethno-religious group. They showed little interest in monitoring and rounding up the "Portuguese Jews" (presumably, Sephardi), which adds weight to the argument that Nazi anti-semitism was racially, rather than religiously, inspired. Indeed, the Christian churches mostly conducted themselves courageously. The Catholic hierarchy constantly spoke out against the incremental measures taken against Dutch Jews. The Lutheran Church was somewhat less forthcoming. But the real heroes of the appalling episode were the Calvinist Dutch, who, the Nazis complained, sided with Dutch Jews at every opportunity for " 'so-called' reasons of conscience". (Many Gentile Dutch men and woman were as brave as to display solidarity by wearing yellow stars; still, Holland had the highest collaboration rate of all the German-occupied European countries). Perhaps this denomination's resistance can be partly explained culturally, in that Calvinists, who traditionally shunned idolatry and ritual, may have been immune to Nazism's seductive use of icons and lavish ceremony.

There was cleavage within the Jewish community, too. In the transit camps antagonism arose between Dutch Jews and German Jews, the latter accused by the former of "behaving like a caste, an oligarchy... and [who] far too often showed a 'German' predilection for bossing people about". There were even Jews who remained members of the
Nationall-Socialistische Beweging in Nederland, a Dutch political party that may have not have began as anti-semitic, but by 1940 certainly had become so.

In this essential work, Dr Presser directed his most concentrated opprobrium towards the Jewish Council of Holland itself. German Nazis were objectively the villains here, of course; but he intimates that the Jewish Council's betrayal of its own people was ethically even less defensible.

The Nazis sought to get rid of the Jews by stages, with little disruption as possible. To do this they need co-operation from the victims themselves. The invaders followed threats and instructions with concessions, and the Jewish Council duly appeased, hoping that by sacrificing a few the majority could be saved. This ingoing game of cat and mouse had a salami-slice effect on the community, which withered. The Nazis had established a daemonic scheme which had chilling consequences, and that "by granting temporary privileges to a minority, they succeeded in liquidating the rest without too much fuss or bother." Every Dutch Jew who survived the death camps, Dr Presser relates, was forced to betray someone, to leave another to his sorry destiny. It was the fate of the survivors to have to live with their consciences thereafter.

Ashes To The Wind reminds us that while, today, we are prone to invoke the Holocaust as a morality tale, it was an event blemished sometimes by ambiguity and amorality.

Patrick West

1 comment:

  1. I was looking for a particular quote on sentimentality this morning and came upon your Wikipedia page. I linked to you in my blog post about altruism and compassion ... you might want to take a look. I was unaware of your book CONSPICUOUS COMPASSION but I will definitely read it now.

    The quote I'm trying to dig up was someone commenting on sentimentality in the late 18th/early 19th century England, something like, "The problem with sentimentalists is that they're only interested in their own feelings." Any idea who that was?