There are two surprises that may be in store when you visit the Anne Frank Huis on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam. One is that the real hero is Anne’s father Otto, who survived the Holocaust, and was an amazingly organised and prescient individual. It continued after the war – the top tourist attraction in Amsterdam was only saved from demolition by his efforts and those of a few acquaintances. The other surprise to me, was that the reason why the family were eventually captured by the Gestapo, was because the locals spilled the beans. I had no idea.
Moving across the Channel, if you step out of the entrance to the Hilton Hotel in York, directly in front of you is the remains of Clifford’s Tower, a distinctive pale castle keep sitting on a raised mound. 825 years ago about 150 Jews were holed up there during a vicious local persecution, and they all died. Many killed themselves, the few who survived that and a raging fire were finished off by the local mob. That’s what often happened to the usually highly successful local Jews in Europe, who existed in small but very distinct communities, as they do today. Just take a walk round Broughton or Whitefield in Manchester, for example.
One of the enduring tropes when discussing the aggression suffered by the Jews in the 21st century – whether in Israel, Manchester or elsewhere – is to claim that such behaviour is not motivated by antisemitism**, but rather by anti-Zionism, making a distinction finer than I for one can readily distinguish. It’s a difficult one to sustain, however obnoxious Israel’s territorial expansions become. To me it just sounds like old fashioned Jew hatred.
Understanding the history of why the Jews behave as they do in that regard, in their incredibly robust defence of Israel as their declared homeland, should be easy when the Holocaust remains within living memory, but remarkably, people seem very ready to forget this. They are usually the same people (on the left), who bandy the word ‘fascist’ around far too easily, applying it to most people with whom they disagree. Hence Godwin’s Law.
So, if you can’t be bothered to plough through Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews (volume 2 will deal with the Holocaust, out in 2017), or Michael Burleigh’s exceptional The Third Reich, then I recommend an extraordinary novel, Andre Schwarz-Bart‘s The Last of the Just, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1959.
It traces the lineage of one of the Just Men in Jewish tradition, from the massacre in York (which is a well attested fact) across Europe through the centuries to 1940’s France, and ultimately, Auschwitz. The Just Men are best described in this excerpt from the Jewish Review of Books:
The legend, which has its origins in the Talmudic statement that thirty-six men “daily receive the Divine Countenance,” holds that in each generation there are thirty-six “just men” who are responsible for the preservation of the world (the Hebrew letters lamed and vov correspond to the number thirty-six). As Gershom Scholem explained in a classic essay, these men are normally depicted as both unaware of each other’s presence and also ignorant of their own special status. In some versions of the legend, the future of the world itself relies upon their good deeds. In times of great danger, according to yet another version, a Lamed-Vovnik can use his powers to defeat the enemies of the Jews.
In fact the Last Just Man, Ernie Levy, has an almost Christ-like aspect in his willingness to take on the sufferings of others for a higher end. It’s an inevitably harrowing story, in which the idyllic possibilities of life in Western Europe are repeatedly glimpsed, then taken from the Jewish communities with casual brutality. The scenes in Stillenstadt in the early 1930’s are horrifying in the ease with which the neighbours turn on their erstwhile friends and colleagues. Shades of Amsterdam in August 1944. His description of the Jewish doctors forced to work in the infirmary of the Drancy holding camp resonates horribly, it’s basically the local consultant body: the yellow-starred attendants, all reputable physicians, once occupants of important professorial chairs, who contemplated the double or triple-deckered beds with impotent, terrified , blind expressions.
Schwarz-Bart was in the Resistance, lost his parents in Auschwitz, wrote the book despite a lack of much formal education, and eventually retired to the French Caribbean. His son Jacques is a well known NYC jazz saxophonist, in a modern twist on the classic Jewish diaspora. These pieces (1,2) are much better explorations of the book than I can provide here.
Why am I writing about this? Partly it’s in praise of a pretty brilliant novel, even if it’s occasionally stylistically clunky. The other is that it seems to me that we have never needed a strong and functioning Israel more than now. I’ve no intention of rehearsing all the arguments regarding Israel’s status in the Middle East and its long list of enemies – some more in word than deed. Israel is worth defending, despite its transgressions. As the 96 year old Lord Weidenfeld, a man who lived under Hitler, is showing, the Jews currently have a role to play in preserving Christianity in the Middle East, despite the genocidal behaviour of the caliphate towards Christians.
Here are two mightily impressive recent items of news regarding the only functioning democracy in the region. Firstly, Israel’s biotechnology and electronics industry is phenomenal. The smartphone app that will scan the contents of nearly anything is heading to the market via Israeli company Consumer Physics, as they put it “a pocket molecular sensor for all” – both übercool and transformative. This is a highly successful modern society, benefiting us all.
“The only country ISIS fears is Israel – they told me they know the Israeli army is too strong for them…They think they can defeat US and UK ground troops, who they say they have no experience in city guerrilla or terrorist strategies. But they know the Israelis are very tough as far as fighting against guerrillas and terrorists.”
I personally think the ISIS neds are underestimating the Americans (see Fallujah), but bearing in mind ISIS have begun to threaten Israel, promised to wipe out Judaism blah blah, it’s reassuring to know that they are actually scared of them, and with good reason.
I’m writing from the UK perspective, and the fact is that in British society right now, Jew hatred has made a comeback, chiefly through the current leadership of the Labour party and his acolytes. It’s not a pretty sight.
None of this is new, none of it is ever likely to be truly settled, but it cannot be ignored, and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. I don’t envisage a repeat of the York pogrom, but Schwarz-Bart’s evocation of the mechanics of genocide in the midst of civilization makes it sound strangely straightforward:
A few freight trains, a few engineers, a few chemists got the better of that old scapegoat, the Jewish people of Poland. Along strange roads, the ancient procession to the stake ends in the crematorium; rivers to the sea, where all is engulfed, the river, the boat, and man.
Oddly enough, despite the rabid rhetoric of lefties like Corbyn and his pals, it was one of his heroes, who got it right, Fidel Castro:
**I know that strictly speaking the Arabs are also a semitic people, I’m using ‘antisemite’ in the popularly understood sense