Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day…..
This article by Dr.Manfred Gerstenfeld ‘The Impact of the Holocaust in Post-War Societies’ was first published at the Jerusalem Post and republished here with the author’s consent.
The Impact of the Holocaust in Post-War Societies
One important reason that the magnitude of this post-Holocaust impact is largely hidden, is that it is overshadowed by the Holocaust itself. The latter’s history is soaked in bloodshed, industrial mass murder, genocidal killers from many nationalities, and millions of victims. When seen against this extremely violent and tragic background, the multidisciplinary post-Holocaust impact, with its difficult to summarize multiple facets, does not draw much attention. However, the many topics and areas of post-Holocaust impact do warrant consideration and focus.
Despite being dominated by the Holocaust, there is research being done in many isolated areas of post-Holocaust studies. A huge number of individual books and studies concerning the influence of the Holocaust on post-war societies have been published. There are also other significant impacts in the post-Holocaust era. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a direct result of the Holocaust as1 is the United Nations Genocide Convention.2
A major effect of the Holocaust is the change in attitudes in the religious world. Since World War II the Roman Catholic Church radically changed its position toward Jews. In 1965 a declaration by Pope Paul VI, Nostra Aetate, which translates to “in our time” represented a change in the Church’s theological position toward non-Jews.3 Various Popes have spoken very differently about Jews in the last 50 years than their pre-war predecessors did. Similarly, a number of Protestant churches have apologized for their attitude toward the Jews before and during the war.4
The Holocaust has raised many ethical issues. The ethics of obedience is one example. Many Nazi criminals claimed that they were only following orders.5 This has raised the fundamental questions of what makes people willing to execute criminal orders from their superiors and to what extent can this be prevented in the future?
The many traumatic experiences of Holocaust survivors have led to advances in psycho-social treatment, including traumas not derived from the Holocaust. Epigeneticists are now studying whether Holocaust traumas are sometimes passed on to the next generation genetically.6
There are a multitude of other subjects concerning survivors. These include their contribution to the Jewish world as well as to societies at large.
Restitution and how it was handled can be seen as a prism of the diverse attitudes of countries which were occupied by Germany. A study by Sidney Zabludoff shows that only 20% of assets stolen from the Jews before and during the Second World War were returned.7 Furthermore, there can hardly be a major restitution debate without reference to guilt. One may wonder why some nations occupied by the Germans were willing to apologize in recent decades for their war-time behavior toward the Jews. Others, such as France, have limited themselves to describe their war-time past truthfully. Alone among Western European nations, the Netherlands stands out as being the one that has consistently refused to admit any culpability.8
Remembering what happened during WWII is also an important aspect of the post-Holocaust. Many monuments and memorials for Jewish victims were initially located in synagogues, Jewish centers or cemeteries. Only decades later did they increasingly find their place in the public domain. Many Holocaust museums have been established in recent decades. There are also books on the design and architecture of Holocaust monuments and museums. One noteworthy point is that in the Communist world, no differentiation was allowed between Jewish and non-Jewish victims. Also related to memory are the remaining structures of the camps themselves. Archeologists digging at the Sobibor extermination camp have unearthed the gas chambers.9
Philosophy is another discipline influenced by post-Holocaust. Has ‘Never Again’ become an empty slogan? The leading Holocaust philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, has said that in addition to the classic 613 commandments of Jewish law, there is a 614th – to make efforts to survive.10 Philosopher Shmuel Trigano claims that the way the Holocaust is represented in France leads to a structural distortion of the Jews’ identity.11 And why is it that rather than fading away, the mention of the Holocaust has increased in recent years in the public debate?
The distortion of the Holocaust has become a major issue in post-war society. Often the focus of debates is on Holocaust denial. Far more important is the inversion of the Holocaust – comparing Israel to the Nazi State. At least one hundred and fifty million citizens of the European Union agree with the absurd claim that Israel conducts a war of extermination against the Palestinians.12
Many novels have focused on Holocaust-related stories. The best known poem on the Holocaust is probably Paul Celan’s, “The Death Fugue” with its penetrating sentence, “Death is a master from Germany.”13 There is also literary analysis of Holocaust novels.
All of this is but a small selection of a field in which no overview exists. Only once a number of universities start looking systematically at post-Holocaust studies in their entirety, will we acquire important additional tools to better understand some contemporary developments in an increasingly chaotic world.
4 Hans Jansen, Christelijke theologie na Auschwitz, (The Hague, Boekencentrum, 1985).
11 Shmuel Trigano, Les Frontières d’Auschwitz, (Paris, Librairie General Française, 2005)