Interview with Shalmi Barmore
Director of Education at Yad Vashem
Interviewer: Michael Dunn
June 2, 1993
B: In confronting the Holocaust, you have basically three role players in the Holocaust. You have perpetrators, you have the victims, and you have the bystanders. And there is dynamics or patterns of behavior or patterns of reactions which are very meaningful for all three. Now on one level, I can say I can say that the Holocaust is a unique phenomenon and I can use this to say, look I’ve been wronged, I’ve been wronged, I’m in pain and now the world owes me. And in that case, people say, you’ve been wronged I’ve been wronged too so you can’t take any special privileges just because you’ve been wronged. In other words, I would say yes but my pain is very different then. And the actual use of that pain, I can be accused of trying to use it or abuse it or trying to manipulate it. And this would be my attempt to rationalize a certain uniqueness basically because I want to use it in my advantage. Just like other people who refuse to give me a certain advantage or privilege or understanding because I’ve been wronged in a special way, they would refuse to acknowledge the uniqueness because it doesn’t suit them to acknowledge this uniqueness.
I’m saying all this because there are the issue of uniqueness there is a level where it can also be used or manipulated. Having said that, why do we talk about the uniqueness, being aware that you can be accused of manipulation one way or another, why now nevertheless do you find that it is crucial. And when we’re talking about the uniqueness, one has to understand that you are talking, the Holocaust is a unique phenomenon in certain aspects, it is not unique in other aspects. Some of the aspects now I’m not saying which aspects are more important or more central. I think that the uniqueness is crucial to understand why that thing happened. Now very basically because I’m sure Yehuda Bauer explained I’m sure you went into that, but from our point of view, let me start where I think the Holocaust is not unique. IN the aspects are universal. The Holocaust I do not think is unique in the aspect of brutality. Of sadism, of cruelty, it is not unique in that it uncovers man’s infinite capability to do evil in very diverse ways and manners. I think I think that what the Holocaust did here is uncover to the extent that people didn’t know before, uncover man’s different faces. In being able to be a human beast, like the man from Treblinka, Ivan the Terrible, whoever it is, whether it is the man here in our prison or not, in Treblinka there was such a person, such a human beast, for whom it wasn’t enough to gas the people, he had this little sword in which he would go and punch them, especially naked women, before they were dead and after they were dead.
You are talking about forms of brutality, sadism, and cruelty that the Holocaust has uncovered and there’s nothing special about the Holocaust from this point of view just like there’s nothing special from the fact that we know that there were all kinds of Nazi officers who sat behind a desk and in the very cruel manner signed off the fate of millions of people by organizing certain installations or ordering transports you know these other people when they would come to the field and see an actual execution they would faint because they were very sensitive people they can’t take such brutality. So from this point of view, the Holocaust has uncovered human aspects which are universal and are very meaningful to me as a human being but also as a Jew who in his collective memory, not me personally, but in my collective memory my people were there as victims. People did this to them, so I know that man can do this to man, and therefore I as a human being and as a Jew am very sensitive to that universal aspect. And therefore as far as this aspect is concerned, when I look at what happens around the world I am shattered, even with this cliché, you know that man doesn’t learn.
I: I guess that there’s a leap of faith.B: Pardon?
I: There’s a leap of faith. That man can learn. It takes faith, like you said Never Forget, don’t let it happen again, but it takes faith to believe that, I’m saying this positively, I agree, I believe people can learn, I don’t think we’ve learned so far but…B: I believe , I also believe, you know something, cynical as I am about the importance of education, I am sometimes very surprised by the power of education by the power of words. And the I don’t know what exactly makes things function and what doesn’t but I know that it is important, it is very important, not to despair, that ah, people never learn, because I think that the world is more sensitive, you don’t have to stretch this thing too far but there is a sensitivity and there is I think things that happened before we are much more aware today. To an extent and whatever that extent is I think it is very important. I think it is. And therefore, these are these universal examples or some of these universal aspects that were in the Holocaust and which are in other which take place in other places before the Holocaust and after the Holocaust today, you know mass brutality mass killings. But this is one aspect of it.
But there’s another aspect. Where you say, why do these things happen in the first place? Why do these things happen in the first place? What motivates people to do such things? The universal says there is the potential to do such things, but what actually motivates people to do this thing? The universal aspect means that you and I have the potential to do terrible things, by the way wonderful things as well, if you go out here in Yad Vashem you’ll see the trees of the Righteous, and there is the potential within human beings to do wonderful things. To imperil your life and save a little baby that you’ve never heard of before. So there is this potential. But when you come to the actual act and say why did you do it, why did you do this thing? When you go into why the Armenians, why Cambodia, why all these things happen, people always give you reasons. You don’t accept them.
But you see that there is a reason for al l this and then you can be a be this researcher who says, you know in 80 percent of the cases the reasons why people took or inflicted such things are for these and these reasons, territorial reasons, religious reasons, love, money, all kinds of things. Now it doesn’t mean I have to believe it, accept all these things, but there is a pattern here. Otherwise it is the Clockwork Orange. And it is not. The Clockwork Orange is such a was such a interesting film because it dealt with something that is really not part of our world. It gave you something to think about. Now this motivation, this reason, is very important because this you can do something about. Before we get to the cruelty before we get to the brutality if you realize that fighting over land it brings so much sorrow, maybe you can come and learn from this and come to the fighting party and say, listen people, when you begin to fight you know where you begin you never know where you end. So let me tell you something and try to understand that it does much much better for you to sit down and negotiate right now, maybe you’ll give up a little, this may sound very naive but in a sense it is very real. Because I come to the core of the bloodshed, the motivation for all this and say stop before. Here is, in other words, the motivation for a conflict, not how it is conducted, but the motivation for the conflict is crucial among other things, what I learn from all this, how can I avoid this, how can I prevent such things in the future? And when I go to the motivation, what the Nazis did or attempted to do to the Jews is very different than anything else. When I ask, okay I’m trying to prevent this, what is all this about. Land? It’s not about land. What is this all about. I come to the Nazi, let’s say I could come to the Nazis and say, what do you want from this Jew? You want his land? No it’s not his land. You want his religion? It’s not his religion. It’s his money. It’s not his money. It’s him. It’s the Jew, even when it’s not a Jew. Even when it’s a little baby who knows nothing about Judaism. It’s what the Nazi thinks a Jew is, in his head, in his ideology. What is it that, I would ask the Nazi, what is it that the Jew can do so you’ll lay off him? Disappear. Not be. Not be. You say, Mr. Nazi, give me a break, you know he is willing to do anything you’d like him to do to avoid this conflict, what would you like him to do? You say just not be, because you accuse him of doing something by his actual existence.
That’s very different. That’s very different it’s different from the perpetrator’s point of view, it’s very different from the victim’s point of view. There’s nothing the victim can do. The victim is in the ultimate state of choicelessness, helplessness, provided he’s physically helpless as the Jew was, there’s nothing there’s no way out there’s nothing he can do. That situation that situation is very different meaningfully different it’s different in a meaningful way, because first of all at the time that it happened there was nothing the Jew could do to get out of it, so as not to be a victim. That’s very meaningful for me whose a Jew who lives in 1993 fifty years later who has.
It’s very different for me as Jew who lives in 1993, who was born in Israel, who has nothing to do with Europe, and who asks himself a question that particular case, that particular motivation, is this relevant to me? And you ask yourself, well to find that out, let’s see where that thing came from, where that motivation came from. Maybe it was some kind of bizarre thing like Jonestown or Waco, Texas recently. You know people were killed, a terrible thing happened there. And I’m, I feel totally disconnected to all of this, I don’t think it has any bearing on me. He was a nut, Koresh or whatever his name is.
What the Nazis thought about the Jews can this be dismissed or accounted or explained away by saying Hitler was a maniac or he was crazy? Had this been the case I would say you know, this whole thing to me means nothing, it’s history, it’s fifty years ago. But when I realize that this motivation, this Nazi motivation, was based on an ideology which itself was based on a long history of anti-semitism that combined at a certain time with racism and certain political ideology, when I see that the roots of this bizarre thing, strange thing, extreme thing, but that the roots are not so strange, not so bizarre, not so uncommon, in other words that things here reached a certain combination, which turned into this unique motivation, I ask myself a question, which is a very existential question, which for me as a Jew is a very real question. Can in the most it may sound as a cliché, can it happen again? Can it form again? And if it doesn’t, if all these factors don’t regroup in the same way, is it enough that one of them is so important, so central, that this in itself can have can bring something similar in some way shape or form?
Now I don’t know how to answer these things, I don’t know how to answer these things, but for me this is an existential question, for me that question, that unique motivation is very important on two levels. On two levels. It is important, first of all, on the level that I can’t explain, it is crucial to understanding what took place in the Holocaust. Not how it took place, the universal level explains to me how it took place, how they were murdered, how people did this. The unique explains the why, what did they have with the Jews. What they did with the Russians I can understand _ not accept God forbid _ in no way I don’t accept any of those things. It’s not something I can’t explain with other precedents with other things that are part of the world routine. Why they did this, what they want from the Jews here doesn’t fall into any of these categories, therefore this unique aspect is crucial to understand what they did to the Jews. Without this you can’t understand this
So it is important on that level. This uniqueness is important on my existential level by the way as Jew and as a Christian, as Jew and as a Christian, because even though, first of all as a Jew it is important because for me there is this question this fear that are the roots of all this still around with us? Are the roots of this anti-semitism that combines with racism still around to the extent that me being a Jew I provide Western civilization with a certain code that at a certain time activates certain things. Again without knowing how to answer that question that the mere fact in some way, shape, or form is an open question for me is a part of my identity. But also as a Christian and I have alot of Christian friends who realize that even though Christian anti-semitism can’t explain and can’t be responsible for the Holocaust as a sole cause, nevertheless to what extent did Christianity or the this attitude which Christianity developed towards the Jew prepare a certain cultural basis on which something like that was at least possible. And wasn’t prevented because it is so non-Christian. To kill is non-Christian. Now from what I know of Christianity, this is such a basic concept in Christianity that you would have thought that this thing could not have taken place in a Christian environment. But it did.
So it means that it is much more complicated than that. Fine, so at least it leaves an open question. And this is from understanding the unique framework of what happened here, how Nazi ideology ultimately singled out the Jews to kill each and every last one of them. So here it is one these levels that the questions are meaningful, I’m not saying these are the most important questions about the Holocaust, I don’t say that you necessarily have to deal with them, but at a certain point if you do deal with that question it is bound to surface and therefore we do deal with this.
I: And also to keep asking, you may never find the answers to your questions, at least to consider them, the minute you stop asking.B: You keep asking. All these questions by the way, these questions are much more important to keep asking then to keep answering. It’s more important to keep asking them then to reach a certain kind of an answer. Because look, we’re talking about people, about humanity, about humankind. And human beings are still an enigma to us. And trying to solve this enigma is a constant human preoccupation I think, I think it will always be. So what I try to do is to formulate some questions or some context about the unique universal issue to show where it is a real and serious and legitimate question, but also to there are all kinds of frameworks where these questions are not sincere questions where one tries to talk about the unique because one wants to exploit it or one wants to deny the unique for the same purpose. Then again this unique/universal, the people are dead, it’s not going to put one human being back to life. The question is, what do we take from this understanding to prevent the deaths in the future. It may make a difference.
I: That’s why I’m working on it. In my small way, that’s one of the reasons I think it makes a difference in every culture. That’s one of the reasons with a corny technological word like multimedia is that at the heart of it is a humanist history, that’s not just due to technology, but promise that people will be able to express it, from the person going into it. Let’s say if I’m a writer, you follow a viewpoint, we all have our limitations, this will hopefully be able to make the learner.B: It is a much more powerful medium it’s visual. It’s audio. Apparently this is much more powerful than reading.
I: It doesn’t leave it all up to your imagination. You’re able to imagine it but this is one of the problems but this is a problem with students, how can you imagine it…B: Did you ever think of the limitations of this medium. Precisely because when I read I also have to use my imagination, my imagination goes in different ways and gives me more ways of understanding this than simply by narrowing it down and saying exactly what this person needs. Limiting the questions and making the understanding more precise, but more limiting.
I: I’ve always felt it has to work with books.