The modern Jewish emphasis on individuality and acceptance is a response to the destruction of the personal “I” during the Holocaust. When examining the Nazi’s actions against the Jews through the lens of Raul Hilberg’s 5 Phases of destruction, it becomes clear that their entire intent was predicated on weakening the Jewish people. In light of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, Modern Jews have become very accepting of differing lifestyles, attempting to rebuild the Jewish identity and culture.
As a people, the Israelites have been faced with conflict since the beginning of time. They were slaves under Egyptian rule until the Exodus story. After they made it to the Holy Land they subsequently attacked by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. After the Diaspora of 587 BCE the largest attack against the Israelites came in Jerusalem by the Romans, culminating in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. (Flannery, lecture) With the rapid rise and spread of Christianity, the stratification between Jewish Christians and Gentilic Christians grew. The adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire, under the rule of Constantine, led to further separation.
By the Middle Ages anti-Semitism had grown in popularity. Numerous European towns included art that demonized the Jewish people. This artwork included bridges, statues, and signs. The Jewish people were depicted as having demonic characteristic and were often slaughtering animals for their blood. Subsequently many Jews were accused of the Blood Libel Charge: using Christian blood to make bread. Jews were even accused of “desecrating the host” by rubbing their hands over communion bread. (Flannery, lecture) All of these images aided the anti-Semitic desire to weaken Jewish culture.
The demonization of the Jews came to a head when the Nazis came into power in Germany. The Nazi Regime’s ideology was predicated on the eradication of the Jews. The party rested on four pillars of their platform: nationalism, authoritarianism, militarism, and anti-Semitism. (Flannery, lecture)
The nationalistic drive was fueled by Hitler’s desire for the providential Aryan Race to dominate Europe. He was often photographed in the Alps with a purebred German shepherd, German with blonde hair and blue eyes, and wearing traditional German clothing. Hitler and the Nazi party were successful in dismantling the German government during a time of economic depression, leaving him in an authoritarian position to rule the country. The Nazi party disregarded the limits of military numbers established by the Treaty of Versailles and rapidly began to (re)build the military. The final pillar of Anti-Semitism was carried out via a process that had been culminating since the Middle Ages.
Raul Hilberg’s 5 Phases of Destruction are useful when evaluating the actions of the Nazi regime. The phases are structured linearly as: definition, expropriation, concentration, deportation, and culminates in murder. (Flannery, lecture) To initiate the use of a new definition the Nazis used the Jews as a scapegoat for the country’s economic problems, and called for a boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933. Jews were then required to wear a symbol on their clothing, differentiating them the rest of society. Within 2 years the Nuremberg Laws had been put into effect; one’s “Jewishness” was a trait based on ancestry, rather than religious beliefs. The second phase of expropriation began to take form in and around the implementation of the “Kristallnacht.” In one evening 1,300 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish homes were set on fire, 30,000 Jews were sent to work camps or ghettos, and the forced segregation of Jews from the rest of society was put into action. (Flannery, lecture) In 1938 Hitler announced Germany’s desire to deport the Jews from Germany at a conference in Evian, France. 1939 saw the German invasion of Poland where the majority of the concentration camps would be constructed and filled. By 1940 the “Final Solution” was to be implemented, the goal of which was to eradicate the Jewish people. In a Secret Document from the Third Reich entitled “Protocol of the Wannsee Conference” (written in 1942) the extent of the Nazi desire to exterminate the Jews comes into light: “In the course of this final solution of the European Jewish question approximately 11 million Jews may be taken into consideration…”(Botwinick, 166)
The Nazi Final Solution was administered through the concentration camps of Europe in what is now known as the Holocaust. In the end over 6 million Jews were forced into these camps and were eventually executed. Dr. Carol Zemel’s lecture on the “Art of the Holocaust” gives rare insight into the psyche of the Jewish prisoners. Zemel choose to focus on the images created in the camps on in the time shortly thereafter, which she refers to as “time between time.” Many prisoners who had survived the camps were placed on trains and sent home, giving them time to artistically respond to their past events and uncertain future. It was during this time of “primeval chaos” after liberation that artists portrayed their images without emotion, without narrative sequencing, and without a personal “I.” The images are drawn without borders, helping to demonstrate the feeling of “time within time” and the emotionless faces lend to the destruction of Jewish individuality.
During Aaron Childs’ vacation to Europe he was able to visit the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. His lecture and slideshow were filled with vivid anecdotes and images from the camp, 60 years after its inception. Childs described the camp’s desire to weaken the individual Jews through constant repetition and dehumanizing efforts. The prisoners were forced to congregate in the middle of the field three times a day for counting, regardless of still being alive. Dead prisoners were carried onto the field so that they too would be accounted for. During these times of inspection the prisoners were forced to look at the ground, again reinforcing the Nazi’s goal to weaken the individual Jew.
Throughout the early 20th century the Nazi party was overwhelmingly successful at weakening the Jewish people and culture. Every act against the Jews was carefully prepared as demonstrated in the “Protocol of the Wannsee Conference” and led towards the final solution. Between the forced symbols depicting one’s “jewishness” and forcing the Jews into the ghettos, the Nazi regime destroyed the Jewish personal “I.”
By 1946 World War 2 had ended and war crimes were being charged at the Nuremberg Trials. In the wake of these trials three major advances took place: the Geneva Convention, the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Response to the Holocaust. The response to the Holocaust was the creation and establishment of the modern country of Israel.
Over the last sixty years, the Jewish response to the Holocaust has resulted in a wide array of acceptance and diversity. The Jewish comedic film “When Do We Eat?” helps to demonstrate this modern sentiment. Though fictional, the characters show how through their diversity they are still one people. The grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust, always keeps a suitcase with him because “you never know when they’ll come for you.” His son, the patriarch of the family, is a man whose employment comes from selling Christmas ornaments. The grandson, and eldest son of the patriarchical father, is a recent adoptee of Orthodox Judaism, and wore the proper attire to the Passover meal. All three of these men are incredibly different and would not have shared a Passover meal before the events of the 1940’s. But it is in light of the horror of the holocaust and the destruction of the personal “I” that modern Jews have become more accepting of the different lifestyles. As a people the Jews were forced to lose their own sense of identity during the Holocaust and the years leading up to it. The only necessary reaction was to celebrate life, to love on another, and to accept the differing perspectives of Judaism.
Botwinick, Rita. A Holocaust Reader: From Ideology to Annihilation. NJ: Prentice Hall. 1998.
Childs, Aaron. “European Vacation.” James Madison University. 4/2010
Flannery, Frances. “Judaism.” James Madison University. 1/2010 – 4/2010
When Do We Eat?. Dir. Salvador Litvak. 2005. DVD
Zemel, Carol. “Art of the Holocaust.” James Madison University. 3/2010