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Saturday, February 6, 2010

“Saint Pius XII” and Jewish Holocaust Denial

Jewish Holocaust denial distances Diaspora Jewry from Shoah’s meaning and consequences, provides a sense of security unwarranted by historical experience.

Think “Holocaust denial” and the first image likely to come to mind is of an antisemite venting frustration on “the Jews.” But there are other possible forms of denial not necessarily intended to attack or defame the Jews. For instance, denial might be motivated by a desire to deflect responsibility for the Holocaust from religion or state. I suggest the beatification of Eugenio Pacelli falls into this more subtle variant.

While some of Pius advocates may truly believe him deserving of sainthood, by elevating him the Vatican also serves to minimize as well its war-time acquiescence in his policy of silence. And since silence in the face of Shoah is a reminder also of scriptural anti-Judaism and the centuries-long Church-inspired persecution of Jews, putting the Pius controversy to rest would also serve to deflect attention from the role of Church anti-Judaism as inspiration and justification for now secular Christendom’s nearly successful effort at a finding a final solution to its centuries-long “Jewish Problem.”

But there is another form of Holocaust denial based neither on prejudice nor self-justification, but on denying the significance of Shoah. This denial is meant to distract the believer from its meaning and consequences.

In this guise Holocaust denial serves to overcome Jewish insecurity, our sense of never-quite-belonging in what today is our voluntary Diaspora. Jewish denial excises Shoah from its historical context, hides its real meaning behind words like “mysterious” and “unique.” Denial is the mask that insulates us from a reality we choose not to acknowledge. But acknowledge or not the reality of Shoah remains, neither mysterious nor unique, a haunting warning from our past, harbinger of our dreaded future.

The ever-continuing beatification process of Eugenio Pacelli, the Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII, is condemned not just because of the controversy surrounding the man, but that, more than sixty years after the event, the Vatican resolutely refuses to make public the war time records of his papacy. His Vatican proponents claim Pius “quietly” assisted the Jews. Were that the case would the Vatican today stonewall, hide evidence supportive of their contention? Vatican duplicity serves not only confirm Pius as “Hitler’s pope,” but overshadows the actions of clergy who truly did risk life and position in defiance of papal example.

But setting aside present and war time Vatican silence, what of other leaders complicit in silence at Shoah, why our double standard in attributing guilt? Yes Pius was silent, for self and Church an ethical and moral outrage. But, as Hitler observed, the Vatican had no army. The liberal democracies engaged in their moral crusade against the criminal German state did.
Franklin Roosevelt, considered then and today by many as friend and protector to Jews, at all stages of the emerging Holocaust chose not to respond. How many Jews might be alive today had he chosen to lead by example rather than sit the Holocaust out? Would America’s allies and dependencies around the world, would Cuba have defied a presidential “request” and turned away Jewish refugees; would England have refused a presidential “suggestion” to open the gates of Palestine to Jews fleeing for their lives in the land held in trust for them since Balfour? What motivates us, American-Jews, to ignore and even apologize for a man who had the power and resources to make the difference, yet stood by and allowed the Holocaust to achieve its gruesome conclusion? Judged on this scale, is Franklin Delano Roosevelt less guilty of that passive crime against humanity than Eugenio Pacelli, Hitler’s “pope”?

Roosevelt and Hitler were both elected in 1933. From the start he was aware of Germany’s escalating persecution of the Jews. Yet in the years before Auschwitz, as that persecution intensified, his only response was a one-time recall of his ambassador to Germany for “consultations.” In answer to his critics Roosevelt asserted that Germany’s treatment of the Jews was “an internal matter” of that country.

Six years later, in 1939, the SS St. Louis steamed into Havana with its 900 Jewish refugee passengers. Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s president, turned the ship away even though all had valid entry visas. Forced out of Cuban waters the St. Louis steamed for Florida, the ship’s captain telegraphing the American president to provide haven for the 900 refugees. Roosevelt’s response was to dispatch a Coast Guard cutter as barrier against the ship attempting a run for the coast. Low on fuel the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, to deliver its Jews to their fate. No reason, no excuse. Perhaps in the eyes of the president granting refuge to the 900 would also have constituted “interference” in Germany’s internal affairs?

Five years later still, by 1944, the Auschwitz death factory was busily transforming one thousand Jews daily into ash. American bombers flew over the crematoria en route to bomb factories and refineries as close as five miles away. This time the president did explain his reasons for not authorizing a raid. To bomb the camp, he asserted, would result in the deaths of camp inmates. Since it was know that the average life expectancy of Jews arriving at Auschwitz was less than 24 hours this excuse seemed hollow. Another excuse given was that the raid would endanger American airmen. But by that time in the war the United States had air superiority over most of Europe, including Auschwitz, so there would have been little risk to airmen. And finally the excuse was made that, in order to bomb Auschwitz aircraft would have to be diverted from important military targets. This, it was argued, would have delayed an allied victory and resulted in many more Jewish deaths. Ignoring the fact that the bombers were already flying above the camps, how would a few bombs dropped by aircraft en route to more important military targets have delayed the war’s outcome? This argument by the administration and the president’s present day apologists, that the best way to save Jewish lives was to concentrate on winning the war was, then and now, also specious.

At the time the controversy over Auschwitz was underway, Eichmann had begun to round up Hungarian Jews for transport “to the east.” How many of this last significant Jewish community would have survived had Roosevelt authorized even a single raid on the rail lines transporting them to Auschwitz?

After the war Pacelli’s Vatican, silent during the war regarding “crimes against humanity” assisted Nazi war criminals to escape justice. Supported by American and British intelligence the Vatican encouraged South American countries to accept these “refugees.”

In a separate operation, code named Paper Clip, John Foster Dulles, head of the State Department, and brother Allen, head of OSS-CIA assisted their own Nazis to evade punishment by providing haven inside the United States. Among these was Werner von Braun, head of Hitler’s secret weapons development program. von Braun made extensive use of Jewish slave labor, most of whom perished from overwork and starvation.

Holocaust denial by antisemites is at least understandable for what it is. It is even understandable as a means of defending Christianity from responsibility for Auschwitz. But Jewish Holocaust denial?

In the years preceding Shoah the United States experienced a level of antisemitism comparable to that in Europe. Perhaps the president's "silence" was a politician's response to the national mood. Whatever his reasons the result was that Europe’s Jews perished. Viewed through the same moral lens by which we justifiably condemn Pacelli and the Vatican, do Roosevelt and the United States come out less guilty? Had Hitler won the war, would American Jewry even exist today?

Shoah places we, who by accident of birth an ocean distant, survived. But conditions during the war years left us, American Jewry, uneasy. The decades immediately following did little to ease our concern. Today we face our past/future in a state of cognitive dissonance. As long as the Holocaust happened "over there," perpetrated by countries and people “over there” we, citizens of our own "exceptional" Diaspora haven, can rest easy. As did our German relatives during the 1920's, we too can deny the lessons of our continuing Diaspora history of victimhood; as did they, we can reassure ourselves regarding our happy future, our safe haven for our children, our children’s children.

We Jews are not responsible for provoking the Holocaust. We are responsible for denying its significance, the lessons of our Diaspora history in the Christian west. By that choice do we perpetuate our victimhood, gamble the lives of our children, the survival of our people.