Return to Historians | Historical Perspectives

Ely Ben-Gal

Lecturer and Historian

Interviewer: Michael Dunn

June 6, 1993

I: What is the relevance of the Holocaust to a student who is studying it today, what are the things that can help them with knowledge of it progress?

B: First there is no fundamental difference between a student of the Holocaust or anybody that learns about it. Maybe a student learn more systematically. Anyway, when somebody learned about Shoah, I prefer the Hebrew name, what I would like to say to him, first don't try to understand because the economic, political, historic explanations are not explanation. There is no explanation and it is forbidden to try to explain, because when you try to explain you are on your way to understanding, it means to justify. If you can understand it is possible to justify, to excuse, it means that you can't understand and you won't understand. More in my way it is very important to fight against any way of learn a lesson, to receive any lesson from the Holocaust.

From the Holocaust there is no lessons; you can only teach people to know. To try on their way in their place how they are they can try to leave their deaths to leave more and more their last way. But don't try to conclude this learning by the lesson because a lesson, even a lesson, a moral, a conclusion, what to do or not to do, will turn the deaths of this special baby that was burned alive it will turn it useful. You will use it for your own education, for your children's education, I can't imagine a more diabolic sentence against Zionism for instance, to say that the state of Israel was helped to grow up because of the Holocaust. First it is silly because a big number of the people that died there would be able to come here and to build. And I can't say even that without them this state lose a part of its reason to exist.

It is silly because before the Second World War, the essential basis of the state of Israel, the kibbutz the Hebrew language Tel Aviv the organization of Zionist youth the military groups all these exist before the Shoah and the Shoah did not help if the Shoah could help to create this state it would turn this state an infernal one. How can you say, cursed? Cursed, an evil yes and it will turn it an evil and cursed state because the death of one half million of children can't be justified by nothing and it's forbidden in my way to use it to fortify the Jewish national feeling for instance there's no relation between to be Jewish and to remember the Holocaust.

I think that the main lesson of the Holocaust is that there is no lesson, the main explanation that there is no explanation, the only thing is that this impossible thing was made possible and if happened it means that it could happen. Humanity is now different because we now we are able, we, because this man this German they are not beasts they are men. To say that the German were beasts were animals first people who say that the Germans were animals I think he has no dog or cat in his house. It is an injury against animals, it was not animal, it was human. In the worst kind of human being but men were. The Nazis are in every one of us, if it was, it happened, it could happen but it there is a difference between the German and every other people and the Jews.

A Jew must remember that in the worst day of humanity he was chose by the German to be the only man that with him you can't leave it alive in the German society that the German want to build in the Forties. The Jews were out of this society that is a responsibility for the Jews to be on the first place of people that remember. But in the second place every man must remember it. The situation of the German is different because we know that the man was able to do it, what the Germans have done. They can't forget it, it is I don't speak about a shame for people to be. The German people you must make a difference between two kinds: the guilty and the responsible. Are guilty only people that have done personally anything in the Shoah only they are guilty. But every man and woman that say I am German I am a member of the German people can't say I don't want to be German, I was born German my father was Hitler anyway he is not responsible for nothing if he takes his luggage and go to live in Brazil.

There is no rational responsibility but if he says I am German I speak German Goethe is mine Mozart is mine in this way he is responsible for what his people have done and the problem the German are not the majority of the people are not ready to accept that they have a special national responsibility . That is the reason, for instance, that I never will go to Germany and I am not able to open a dialogue with the German youth because they are not ready to accept that their people was ill. And is still ill and there is no any historical curse against the Germans, they could not do it.

Look there is Raoul Hilberg, the best historian of the Shoah and he say a very interesting thing, he say, "If every German has done exactly has done exactly what he had to do in relation with what the German government and regime ask him to do, everyone if everyone has done only what he has to do to kill six million Jews was not possible." For instance, in Italy, the people were not big heroes, they were not ready to do take initiative to realize the Shoah, the Shoah was not possible and the big majority were safe from. In Germany, thousands and thousands of people, little people, broadcast and technicians and simple people everyone in his work had to do a maximum of initiative of thinking to make the order of the regime be realized and they have done it. And the youth of Germany want now to get back in the human general society as equal without a past, that's not possible that's not possible.

First they have to change, what mean to change to do something, I don't know what, in the political level, in the cultural level, anything but the humanity today is different Germany must be different and for me the more important people after the Jewish people for me is the German one, all the time I am waiting for them and the unique thing I can do to help them is to say, I am waiting. Maybe I shall wait two hundred years the Jewish people have plenty of time three thousand five hundred years we can wait more hundred years to wake the German people our responsibility as Jews is to wait for an other German people. And for this for the youth of Germany that can be different, that must be, that is a responsibility for us to wait and to learn not to leave this million and a half children to be forgotten means to die twice to leave their remembrance alive for humanity for us but first for the German, once the German people must come with us to permit humanity to find maybe a lesson maybe in five hundred years humanity will be able to learn something not now it's too early to learn something only to wait and to remember.

The Jews and the Germans are only men, but men with a special responsibility in history of humankind now. And it was a big error to meet Jews and Germans so early without to be ready and to meet and to try normalization, it can't be any normalization because what happened was not normal. And never will be normal if we accept the normalization the Shoah will repeat. And now Nolde. I am a historian the biggest German historian today Nolde he does not deny the Holocaust he don't say it didn't happen it didn't happen no he only says try to find all the horrors of history.

If we know for instance the truth about what happened in Algiers in the Algerian war if we know all the French have done it is because of the German press because they are always in when we were in Beirut and the German press was the first to publish every error that happened there. They must understand alright every error must be known but they must understand that there is nothing to do between all the horror of the history and the Shoah. A complete difference. Even today when we see what happened in Yugoslavia there is nothing it is a terrible horror but you must understand in every way always when men were killing one another always innocent people children were killed by bullet, by flame, by bombs, always it happens in every in every part of the history you have a kind of pogrom that people like beasts try to kill other people. That always was. You have fighting between two adults and innocent children are dying.

The Shoah was exactly the contrary, all the time that the German fight against the French army, the English army, the Belgian army, the Russian army, when the war when the fighting came to an end when the French army stopped to stop the fight in this moment, not innocent children but the Jewish baby was the target. The fighting between the French army and the German army was only a means; the real target of the German was to take the baby and to burn it. That is contrary to what happened in Vietnam, or in Algiers, or in the Mongol invasion or so on. Even in Beirut, children were killed never were the children the target of the war. The Jewish children were the target of the Shoah.

People can't compare it with nothing. It means that it was not war, the Shoah and the Second World War are two different things. On the day of fighting, innocent people were killed, fifty million of Europeans were killed, that's another thing. The Jews were not innocent, the Jews in the German way were the reason for the war and this can't be finished. This killing can't be concluded. We must wait for the German people to understand and that is my reason to be a Jew. Not to permit to forget not to permit to the German, not because I hate them I have nothing to hate, a young man of twenty or of your age or my age that was not there. To hate is a bestial, an animal reaction, I don't hate him on the contrary, I am waiting for him. But I won't speak with them because every dialogue between us will lead to normalization. I don't want normalization. That for me is the reason why people go to Poland go to Holocaust Museum that is the reason the people must not go to Germany. I don't want no relationship between Jews and Germans until, until. I rue every people that try to normalize the relationship with Germans, in fact he does not respect the Germans. I love them too much as man to believe they are not able to change.

I: So if they, what is there other than normalization? What else could there be but normalization, even five hundred years from now?

B: I don't know, I am not able to think what will happen, you know today on Pessach, you know of Pessach, the passover evening, the Easter evening, Pessach, the Jews after three thousand years sit down to remember the Mayflower but not three hundred years but three thousand years of our Mayflower when our people went away from Egypt. And in this is a special meal. The Jews eat the Jewish mother prepares a very sweet meal with apples to remember the earth with water and straw that the Jews used as slaves in Egypt to build the pyramids. It was a material that the slaves were working with and the Jewish mother prepares a very sweet meal about this. And it is possible in five hundred years in the night of Holocaust of the Shoah they, the Jewish mother will prepare with potatoes a very sweet meal to remember the horrible potatoes that we the people had to eat in Auschwitz.

But it will take five hundred years, now we are not ready to do this. Because today the Egyptian are not the same Egyptian; but the Germans are the same Germans. They are very proud about Goethe, about Schiller, about Beethoven, but Hitler, I don't know. You know Joshua, has done terrible things when they get inside the land of Israel three thousands years ago, terrible things they have done against the Canaanites. I have done it. I can't say I am the people of the bible but Joshua I don't know. It's my responsiblity to know, today, when I'm thinking about my life with Arabs I must remember what Joshua has done. It's mine, if I say Joshua, it was a very primitive time, I am not responsible for Joshua. You are not? Then don't say you are the people of the bible. You can't take the good and leave the bad. You must receive your heritage as an oath. That's a big problem in the center of the problem of the Shoah is German youth. And to help them we must tell them.... not yet. I hope my English was enough to explain.

I: No, no it is. There is one question I want to ask, it's very interesting about the word "Holocaust" literally means "the whole was burnt" in its Latin roots, what does Shoah mean?

B: Shoah is too a very bad word. Shoah was used by the Israelian of the Forties that were only fighting to build the state and forget what happened there. After that they called it t catastrophe, Shoah it means catastrophe, but Shoah is a natural catastrophe, but now with the time, the Holocaust is so terrible that it gets inside the world and occupy the world Shoah and we say about "the Shoah" "the catastrophe" and it change I prefer to say it means something terrible that to say Holocaust that means it was a religious act. Holocaust is an unacceptable definition; because it is a religious act where we are victims for God. God in any way, God didn't participate to the Shoah, that's my discussion with him, why he didn't get in, he was out.

I: What do you think of to sum it up it was an interesting thing Yehuda Bauer brought up about the U.S. Holocaust Museum, saying why in the United States is there a Holocaust museum,. It's not really political and it represented some of the reactions of the bystanders we were talking why people who are not German or Jewish think about it and why, I mean hypothetically, why they are interested and I was curious what you think of someone outside of a Jewish and German heritage, what do you think of the Holocaust Museum in the United States?

B: I haven't seen it , I think it is very important people in every place to know it to remember. I think it would be better if we had only one place, one central place for people to come and remember and I am afraid if there is too many Holocaust museums every one will be the best and the techniques of presentation will be take the place of the content. But I have not seen the Holocaust museum, before it was built I was against now it exists I hope it will be a place, another place, where people will learn.

I: I guess one of the things I keep running in is to never pin down a truth, especially with Shoah you can't "The Shoah" to urge people just to question and understand, like you were saying about Joshua, that the Germans currently are not can't accept that and maybe that will take time for them to accept but when a student runs into questions, I guess there's no way you can tell them, don't be afraid of questioning, be afraid of answering...

B: Yes, that's , that you are right. Alright.

I: Thank you.


Return to Historians | Historical Perspectives