Being on the email distribution list maintained by my aunt Beatrice is like asking your friend Forrest if you can sample something from that box of chocolates that his mama was forever going on about.
The other day, Beatrice asked how I would answer some questions she had received from an unnamed correspondent. She forwarded the contents of the message, but nothing to identify its original sender.
Her correspondent is friendly with Hungarian Jews who still have concentration camp tattoos to show for their wartime experience. He said so in the preface to his questions. More trusting of Tex-Mex wisdom than of the feelings of those friends, he wanted Beatrice to tell him why the Holocaust continues to hold first place in the annals of human depravity. “How many movies about the 20 million-plus Ukrainians and Russians killed by Stalin do we get treated to?” he wanted to knowâ€”and “what about murdered Polish Catholics?” At least 2,500 priests died at Nazi hands in Dachau alone, as this man probably knows.
Moreover, he opined, “it is perfectly politically correct to yawn through a discussion of Pol Pot’s murder of millions of Cambodians, but if one even begins to question, not the murders of Jews, but the reason why they remain in the spotlight, one is immediately suspect.” The probable reason for this, he hinted, is that there is an unspecified but influential “Jewish agenda” at work.
“Piensalo,” he closed with, which is Spanish for “think about it.”
My aunt’s correspondent has company, as writer Tony Horwitz found out while writing his thoughtful travelogue, Confederates in the Attic. Arguing unexpectedly with an African-American school teacher about Louis Farrakhan, Horwitz told her that Jews had good reason to distrust Farrakhan. The teacher would tolerate no criticism of a man she had presented as a role model to her students. “Oh, here we go again” she sputtered. “Jewish suffering! What about our suffering? Our holocaust? What about the holocaust of Indians?”
As carnival barkers say, step right up: almost anyone can play a victim sweepstakes. Neither the teacher who argued with Horwitz nor my aunt’s correspondent even mentioned legalized abortion, another contender for the genocide label.
The “Jewish agenda” bit in his email does no favors for Mr. X. He may be a relative, but in presuming a farcical level of agreement among freedom-loving people of widely varying opinions, he also sounds like the kind of person who would search for lifetime members of the National Rifle Association at an Indigo Girls concert.
Nevertheless, Beatrice did want my take on that aggrieved email, and the questions in it do seem sincere. Although they touch on issues of fairness, perception, and personhood, the questions were narrowly focused, and so my answers to them must be, also. What follows a is cheat sheet for the next time somebody asks, “Why does the Holocaust continue to get more press than comparable atrocities?”
LET ME SAY UP FRONT that I do not think Hitler was uniquely monstrous. To ascribe unique evil to Hitler would make him more of a laboratory specimen than a person, and the history of human cruelty has no shortage of examples.
I should also point out that I am not writing here about support for Israel. People sympathetic to that cause will have to rethink arguments about the “only representative democracy in the Middle East” anyway, if Iraq makes good on its bid to remake itself along democratic lines with help from Uncle Sam.
It is important that my aunt’s correspondent used the word “Holocaust” the way he did. In lowercase lettering and the original Hebrew, the term has theological roots that go back to “sacrifice” at the time of Abraham, which is why most Jews prefer to call the genocide orchestrated by Hitler the Shoah, or “calamity.” As a reference to what the Nazis called “The Final Solution,” Holocaust in English with a capital H first appeared in 1942, which is one reason why people associate the term with the fate of European Jews of that era rather than other victimized groups before or since.
Any attempt to explain evil on the scale perpetrated by the “Third Reich” must tread lightly. Pious quarterbacks protective of God’s reputation usually find themselves scrambling in the end zone on third and long while they dodge a pass rush from people determined to sack popular notions of a benevolent deity. Sometimes a “Hail Mary” pass is the only way forward in Team Theodicy’s contest with Neopaganism.
Jewish and Christian theologians have wrestled with the paradoxical implications of being God’s chosen people for a long time. In an essay for the Los Angeles Times last year, crime novelist Andrew Klavan mused that because “virulent anti-Semitism is such a good indicator of the presence of evil,” it might not be unreasonable to think that God chose the Jews in part to “be a sort of Villainy Early Detection System for everyone else.”
Whether that hypothesis is true is impossible to say this side of heaven, but it’s safe to assume that the man complaining to my aunt knows Jesus is Jewish. (He gets a lot of press, too. I hope Mr. X has no problem with that.)
STEPPING FROM THE SUNLIT MEADOW of salvation history into the dark valley of the secular landscape that we habitually foul, the early 20th century Armenian Genocide, awful as it was, will never be as well known as what befell the Jews starting about twenty years afterward. The persecution of Turkish Christians by Turkish Muslims happened under cover of a cataclysmic world war, and before cameras gave photojournalism more immediacy by shrinking down to portable sizes.
Similarly, Nazi crimes are better known than Communist crimes because Nazis were on the losing side in World War Two. Tough guys like General George S. Patton vomited when they saw emaciated corpses stacked like cordwood in the death camps American troops had liberated, and high-profile camp survivors like Simon Wiesenthal started hunting former Nazis more than fifteen years before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn found a Western publisher for The Gulag Archipelago.
Because the Berlin Wall was pulled down in 1989, the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, and the Venona Transcripts were not released until 1995, Joseph Stalin and his successors had more time to suppress evidence of Communist brutality than Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists ever did.
The Shoah also makes a strong imprint on the world because its atrocities were more localized than the comparable crimes of the Communists. While localized does not mean unique, it is easier to decry inhumanity in Germany and occupied Poland than to catalog atrocities in what The Black Book of Communism rightly observes is four times that many countries on four different continents.
Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia was horrible, but derivative, and it happened at a time when Communism still appealed strongly to many opinion makers in the West.
Another reason for recurring emphasis on Jewish suffering is that it continues. The ravings of Iran’s president, the transcripts of Friday sermons in too many mosques, and the pathological fondness for suicide bombing among militant Palestinians all throw the Shoah into stark relief, changing the punctuation on “never again” so that it ends with a question mark rather than with the period or exclamation point it should have.
If there are agendas to be found, they’re wielded not by Jews, but by single-minded enemies of Jews.