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Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day

Issue date: 
Monday, 1 May 2000
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Shalom, shalom - may the peace of God, which St Paul told Christians "passeth all understanding", be upon us, as we remember.

There are some events that nations commemorate, which their peoples mark year after year, even though the memories being summoned back to life make hearts ache - ANZAC Day is one of these, when New Zealanders reflect on countrymen and women killed in many conflicts, and particularly in last century's two world wars.

And then there are events that all the peoples of the world should keep in memory, where heartache is overlain by horror. Among these events, the Holocaust is unique - twelve years of cold premeditation, brutal calculation and then the mass murder of Europe's Jews; and by people who not only believed that it was not wrong to be mass murderers, but who exulted in what they did, who glorified their crimes.

"The deeds of those classic figures of barbarism, Nero, Attilla, Genghis Khan," said Gideon Hausner opening the prosecution's case at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, "pale into insignificance when set against the abominations, the murderous horrors [of the Nazis]. Only [in modern times] has an organised state set upon an entire defenceless and peaceful population, men, women and children, greybeards and babies, incarcerated them behind electric fences, imprisoned them in concentration camps, and resolved to destroy them utterly ... "

Eichmann and the Nazis, then, obeyed orders that were, to use Hausner's words again, "contrary to the principles of conscience and morality, orders that violate[d] the essential imperatives on which human society is based and [which] negate[d] the basic rules without which men cannot live together". Further, the Nazis "knew well how to exploit all the human frailties of their victims. They knew that starvation and torture, given time, can break even [the strongest spirits]; that by brutality and humiliation it is possible to efface the divine image ... " Gideon Hausner was speaking for a vanished six million, but he was also speaking for the living, too, Jew and non-Jew alike. And it is the Holocaust's "effacement of the divine image", that Yom Hashoah commemorates.

In preparation for this evening, I have read and learnt more than I ever knew about the terrible events of the Nazi years. And as a Christian, there came a sense of shame: shame that Christian ears were closed and Christian eyes were shut to what was happening; that so few voices were raised in protest; that as word was taken to London and Washington, there was such a refusal to believe, such an unwillingness to help. There were of course, brave and noble spirits who spoke and acted against the Nazis, many of whom died in consequence. But the clearest impression of the behaviour of most of Christendom, is that so much tragedy could have been avoided had Christians in Germany, in other parts of Europe, and elsewhere, been true to the demands of their faith.

I was asked to speak about the Holocaust, what I see as its effects in 2000, and from a non-Jewish point of view. I fulfil the second requirement easily. When it comes to speaking about the Holocaust, however, I have had a harder time of it - the Holocaust, ultimately, beggars language, outstripping ordinary powers of description to say what it truly was. The fact is that in the 'universe' of Nazi Germany, their Concentrated Universe, the Holocaust was a black hole at its very centre, a black hole that grew and grew, for twelve years. Those twelve years, even though that span was centuries shorter than the epoch promised by Hitler, were time enough for the Nazis and their accomplices to gather up millions of innocents, and to slaughter them.

Nor is the power of language to describe fully, the only thing, ultimately, to fail - so too does individual human understanding of what actually happened, what it was actually like. "I who was there still do not understand," said Elie Wiesel. Is that not true of all of us individually? If so, then we must, in some manner, try to increase our understanding of the reality and the dynamics of the Holocaust collectively - particularly on this day set aside for the purpose, on Yom Hashoah, this year, next year, in the years to follow.

So many were cast into the abyss of the Holocaust, such were the barbarities visited upon them, that we owe it to their memories, Jews and non-Jews alike, even if we are unable fully to understand, at the very least to try to visualise in our mind's eye, what happened, how their lives were swept away, turned to ashes. And we can honour their memory by praying for them, in the hope that they may have found the Justice that was hidden from them during and at the end of their lives; resolving too, to do our utmost to ensure that nothing like it ever happens again.

The understanding that we seek collectively will be found, at least in part, in our hearts, as well as in our minds. There are great, great difficulties in doing this. To attempt to understand in our hearts what the Holocaust was, we must first project ourselves back in time, as far back as 1933, when the Nazis took power; then to 1939, when escape became well-nigh impossible, first for German Jews, then for European Jews in general; and to 1942, when those at a house at Wansee, under the chairmanship of Reinhard Heydrich, planned the destruction of the survivors of the first wave of killings in Poland, the Baltic states and western Russia; and then to 1943, 1944 and the early months of 1945, when the death camps were in full operation.

Certainly, by reading and listening, even perhaps by remembering, we can project ourselves back like that, and be familiar with the outlines of the events. But then we are confronted with a second, immeasurably greater difficulty, in attempting to understand the experience of the Holocaust, even if only in outline. It is that an honest attempt requires us to endeavour to feel how it would have been to be a European Jew in those years: to be bereft of home, property and livelihood in pre-war Germany, an object of ridicule and abuse; or, a few years later, to be made to kneel naked in front of a ditch near Riga, or at Babi Yar; or to have hobbled or fallen from a railway freight wagon into a clearing in a Polish forest, to see barbed wire, a few huts behind it, and guards everywhere; to stand on the platform at Auschwitz, watching an SS officer deciding how long your life was to last - minutes or weeks; to be herded into a room and required to strip before being pushed into a gas chamber to die without trace.

And yet - how can we even imagine such situations? They are so completely beyond normal human experience. When we think back to those times, we must surely feel something of what is portrayed in Edvard Munch's famous painting, The Scream. Munch's image is silent, too, like the voices of those whom the Nazis terrorized, starved, and then killed. Silent also are the voices of those who would have succeeded them, the children of generations yet to be born, who were eliminated along with those who would have been their parents. They too are part of the meaning of the Holocaust: they are its greatest historical cost.

So again, I must agree with Elie Wiesel, who said: "The impact of the holocaust on believers as well as unbelievers, on Jews as well as Christians, has not yet been evaluated. Not deeply, not enough." Except that I also find myself agreeing simultaneously with Australian Clive James that, "There is no hope that the boundless horror of Nazi Germany can be transmitted entire to the generations that will succeed us. There is a limit to what we can absorb of other people's experience." Even so, even so, and knowing that we are foredoomed to failure, we must make the effort.

The world of the Holocaust is "extraterritorial to reason", George Steiner has warned. Yet what was the origin of that "boundless horror" that the Nazis created? Why was the Nazi universe so 'concentrated' that it could massacre the innocent?

The impulse came from the Nazi formula, Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fhrer: people forget - or, maybe have never thought about - what the slogan meant in practical terms, how it imposed a totalitarian view of the world and constantly re-inforced it. So it's forgotten what a foul recipe it was, how it served so efficiently to deny individual responsibility and conscience, how it so aided the suppression of dissent, how strong was its demand for total obedience.

The Nazis at Nuremberg thought that "following orders", orders from their leader, was a genuine defence - they not only believed, but they wanted to believe, that they could abdicate personal responsibility. Hitler, their leader, claimed and was deemed by most Germans actually to be, the embodiment of the Nazi State; and the Reich, not its citizens, was sovereign.

So all three of the formula's components polluted Germany and the swathes of Europe that fell under Nazi control. But the one that contributed most to the Holocaust is the first - the assertion that there was only "ein Volk", one 'Aryan Tribe', that was wholly human. This amounts to a claim that the devil can choose a people, and not Yahweh alone. But Hitler and the Nazis made the claim anyway, and it led, directly, to the biggest of all their lies: that Aryans were somehow superior, and in turn that all non-Aryans were inferior, and that some were "untermenschen", sub-human.

And from all accounts, the vast majority of Germans in the 1930s and '40s went along with that proposition. Exceptions were rare. Germans lifted their opinions of themselves, inflated the importance of their ethnicity, by demeaning, then brutalising, then murdering, others. And this evil was "banal" to use Hannah Arendt's word from "Eichmann in Jerusalem"; because it was 'ordinary', 'banal', people - functionaries, bureaucrats, employers, employees and neighbours - who administered and supported the Holocaust, or who just closed their eyes and ears, and stood by and allowed it to happen. The Holocaust can not be blamed solely on a monstrous and malevolent few. It must also be blamed on the many.

"Save us from the time of trial", says the Lord's Prayer, expressing the hope that we are never called upon to be heroic in our personal resistance to evil. But sometimes evil is there, moral disease is present, to be fought. The hope is probably forlorn, however, that most people will be heroes when called upon. What we must aim for, instead, is that, citizen by citizen, and much more important, person by person, we do our utmost to protect free institutions, and to sustain a sense of common humanity, rather than depending on heroes, on extraordinary determination and virtue.

That sense of human community, of human-ness, wells up from the deep and shared awareness that before we are of any particular ethnicity, before we are citizens of any particular country, before we are members of any group whatsoever, all of us are, equally, human, and part of something sacred, a fragment of the "divine image" - that though we are not "ein Volk", we are, in and before God, one.

As we move into the 21st century, and as immediate memories fade, the Holocaust remains as history's most profound demonstration of certain great truths, truths that we overlook or trivialise at our peril: that evil does indeed lurk around the perimeters of human society, waiting for the opportunity to assert itself; that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing"; and that the human race can and will survive only as we understand and share our common humanity.

May great peace from heaven and the gift of life be granted to us and to all the family of Israel. Amen. May He who makes peace in the highest bring this peace upon us and upon all Israel. Amen.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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