By Robert Fisk
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Independent.
The third and very final part of the “normality” of war. I have just finished reading Lyn Smith’s Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust. I admit to a personal interest. Lyn is a friend of mine for whom I have been recording my memories of Middle East wars for the Imperial War Museum. Nothing I have ever seen can equal this, however, and I can give only one example from the terrifying, outrageously brave and moving book this is.
It is the testimony of Leon Greenman, a British Jewish inmate of Auschwitz-Birkenau who arrived at the extermination camp with his wife and child. It speaks for itself. All other passages pale beside it:
“We were bullied out of the train and stood about waiting. It must have been about half past two in the morning. It was dark, a blue light was shining on the platform. We saw a few SS men walking up and down. They separated the men from the women. So I stood right in front of the men and I could see my wife there with the child in her arms. She threw me a kiss and she showed the baby ... Then one of the prisoners in a striped uniform commanded us to follow him. Well, we turned to the left and walked a little way for two or three minutes. A truck arrived, stopped near us and on the truck were all the women, children, babies and in the centre my wife and child standing up. They stood up to the light as if it was meant to be like that – so that I could recognise them. A picture I’ll never forget. All these were supposed to have gone to the bathroom to have a bath, to eat and to live. Instead they had to undress and go into the gas chambers, and two hours later those people were ashes, including my wife and child.”
I recalled this searing passage this week when I received a letter from a reader, taking me to task for my “constant downplaying of the suffering of the Palestinians on the grounds that their deaths and suffering are minimal when compared with that of the Second World War”. Now, I should say at once that this is a bit unfair. I was especially taking exception to a Palestinian blog now going the rounds which shows a queue of Palestinian women at one of Israel’s outrageous roadblocks and a (slightly) cropped picture of the Auschwitz selection ramp, the same platform upon which Leon Greenman was separated from his young wife and child more than 60 years ago. The picture of the Palestinian women is based on a lie; they are not queuing to be exterminated. Racist, inhumane and sometimes deadly – Palestinian women have died at these infernal checkpoints – but they are not queuing to be murdered.
Yet our reader does have a point. The Second World War, she says, “does put it in a category apart ... but surely if one is caught up in any war and sees one’s loved ones killed or maimed, one’s home destroyed ... then that must be the greatest cataclysm in one’s life. The fact that a hundred others, a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million are suffering likewise is immaterial to the individual’s suffering. The Second World War lasted six years. The Palestinian suffering has lasted over sixty…”
And yes, I’ll go along with this. If it’s an individual being deliberately killed, then this is no less terrible than any other individual, albeit that this second person may be one of six million others. The point, of course, is the centrality of the Holocaust and – Israel’s constant refrain – its exclusivity. Actually, the Armenian Holocaust – as I’ve said on umpteen occasions – is also central to all genocide studies. The same system of death marches, of camps, of primitive asphyxiation, even a few young German officers in Turkey watching the genocide in 1915 and then using the same methods on Jews in the occupied Soviet Union. Numbers matter.
But our reader has another point. “After all,” she says, “in the Second World War, after the entry of the US and USSR on our side, people could feel pretty positive about the outcome. But where is such hope for the Palestinians? And now to cap the horror the BBC is refusing to even show an appeal to help Gaza…” I’m not at all sure that W Churchill Esq would have entirely placed such confidence in the outcome of the Second World War – he was initially worried that the Americans would use up their firepower on the Japanese rather than against Hitler’s Germany.
I think, however, there is yet one more point. The rules of war – the Geneva Conventions and all the other post-Second World War laws – were meant to prevent another Holocaust. They were specifically designed to ensure that no one should ever again face the destruction of Mrs Greenman and her child. They were surely not made only for one race of people. And it is these rules which Israel so disgracefully flouted in Gaza. It’s a bit like the refrain from Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara and a whole host of other apparatchiks when the torture at Abu Ghraib was revealed. Well, yes, they told us, it was bad – but not as bad as Saddam Hussein’s regime.
And of course, this argument leads to perdition. True, we were bad – but not as bad as the Baath party. Or the Khmer Rouge. Or Hitler’s Germany and the SS. Or the Ottoman Turks – though I noticed movingly that one of Lyn’s Jewish Holocaust survivors mentions the Armenians. No, the numbers game works both ways. A thousand Palestinians die in Gaza. But what if the figure were 10,000? Or 100,000? No, no, of course that wouldn’t happen. But the rules of war are made for all to obey. Yes, I know that the Jews of Europe had no Hamas to provide the Nazis with an excuse for their deaths. But a Palestinian woman and her child are as worthy of life as a Jewish woman and her child on the back of a lorry in Auschwitz.
AP photo / Sven Kaestner
Visitors to Oranienburg, Germany, pass the gate of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp last month. The words on the gate translate loosely as “Labor liberates.”