Making Sense of the Holocaust

At one of the entrances to Wittenbergplatz U-Bahn station in western Berlin, near which I was lucky enough to stay recently, is a sign commemorating those who left on a trip from which they never returned. There follows a list of their destinations which you suddenly identify as one of Nazi death camps, and you realise that these travellers were victims of the Holocaust (or Shoah, as I would prefer to call it, though being a goy I feel awkward in using the Hebrew term.)

The Holocaust is hard to make sense of. The admirable Jewish Museum in Berlin offers help, and should be on the itinerary of every visitor to the city. But there’s something curious about its layout. Having entered it you walk towards the permanent exhibition along a corridor that is intersected at an oblique angle by what is called the axis of the Holocaust, a black corridor full of moving material, at the end of which you can enter the Tower of Remembrance, a tall, dark structure that picks up and seems to magnify sounds from outside; before long I was wondering whether there was a way out. Only after absorbing the horror of the Holocaust do you enter the museum proper, in which the material is laid out chronologically. Jewish history in Germany goes back for longer than I’d realised; a law issued by the emperor Constantine indicates the existence of a community large enough to have a hierarchical organisation in Koln early in the fourth century.  

By arranging its material in this way the Museum encourages visitors to make sense of Jewish history in the light of the Holocaust, rather than seeing it as something arising from within that history. Is this the best approach?  At the end of his voluminous history of the Jews, S. W. Baron warned against a lacrimose approach to Jewish history, and it may be that seeing it through the prism of the Holocaust encourages a too negative interpretation of the whole.

Having said this, the Holocaust remains a massive problem. We may legitimately ask how far back the things that were to lead to it were in place in the West (it could be argued that this was an uncomfortably long time ago), and at what point it became inevitable (I’d like to think this was very late.) There is also the question of the culpability of the civilian population among whom it took place. Germans, whom I very much like as a people, come across as reserved folk, the pedestrians feeling comfortable standing at the corner waiting for the lights to change before crossing the street even if there is no traffic, and indeed for preference walking along the right hand side of the footpath (members of other nations, which I shan’t name here, know nothing of such conformist practices!) The number of people who disappeared, together with the number of those involved in implementing the Final Solution, suggest that knowledge of it may have been widespread. George Orwell, in 1984, has things to say about people easily accepting disappearances among those they know. But Germany, unlike some other participants in World War II, has been exemplary in offering apologies to those hurt by its actions.

On the day I visited it the Jewish Museum was full of parties of school children. Such groups can be irritating, but no-one could begrudge their being exposed to the contents of this museum.

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