The speech of Christos Chomenidis* at the Holocaust commemoration event, in the Israeli Community of Volos
Normally we shouldn't be talking, ladies and gentlemen. Normally, today, here, we should all be silent, deep in thought.
Normally we shouldn't even think about it. What does I think mean? I try means, I try as a person to put what happened, is happening, will happen in a sequence. To illuminate them with my mind. Let me explain them. To rationalize them. Can the Holocaust be rationalized? Can we bring it up to the standards of life, of History? Shall we regard it as one more incident in the endless succession of incidents in the ages of ages? I fear that this would lead to his relativization. Which would be blasphemy.
We will never give a glance, we will not leave a crack at the Holocaust deniers. Never mind the others, the idiots, who claim with a neutral, scientific tone that "things didn't happen exactly like that...", the so-called reviewers. To those nostalgic for Nazism in general, whatever guise they wear.
We are in danger from another. Listening to so many stories, reading so many books, watching so many movies - thousands have been made and they don't stop being made -, we risk getting used to it. Let's digest it. Subtly lower its temperature, smooth its edge. And to pass it on rounded - rounded, what an awful word! - to the next generations.
Normally the Shoah, the Holocaust should not even be mentioned. Do not write. Because - as the Jews say about God's supreme first name - the Holocaust is, and must remain, an unthinkable event. Out and away from our feeling and our logic.
Yet. The Israeli Community of Volos invited me to speak. I also accepted the invitation. And I now stand before you, morally bound to put my finger on the type of the hilt. To touch the burning coals. I will promise you one thing, lest I atone for my audacity. I won't wear gloves. I will not round the corners.
The first question concerns the roots of anti-Semitism. How does it begin, what gives rise to this terrible prejudice that often turns into hatred and lasts, with ebbs and flows, for two thousand years already?
The easy, almost throwaway explanation is that Christians hold the Jews guilty of crucifying Jesus. And as an investigator even if you approach what the Gospels deliver, obviously there is no such thing. The Roman authority imposed and carried out the death penalty. Pontius Pilate is an example of leadership to avoid. He sent Christ to Golgotha, he kissed his hands. He was instructed - someone will object - by the priesthood. He was carried away by the shouts of the mob. Since when is the mob identified with the people? - if that were the case, half of Greece would still have to carry the burden of the anathema to Eleftherios Venizelos in 1916. And the other half the burden of the Pigada of Meligalas. How long the phrase "his blood on us and on our children!" shouted by some angry people gathered outside the Praetorium in Jerusalem will mark the fate of the Jews?
In 1965, the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII denied the guilt of the Jews in the most categorical way. "Our beloved children of Israel..." the Pope had written when he was still Cardinal Roncalli. "The relatives, the beloved countrymen of Jesus..."
Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church - and please forgive me Your Reverence Demetrias - still tolerates the blood libel. On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, phrases like "the Jews fixed the Lord on the Cross" are heard in our churches and "instead of the good things you did, O Christ, to the Jewish people, they crucified you and condemned you... But give them, Lord, according to their works of these…” It is time for them to be deleted. In order not to give support to the most unrecognized of the faithful to sing "today the lawless Jews made a decision..."
The second interpretation of anti-Semitism - let's say the more political one - starts from the very racist discrimination that the Jews were subjected to since the Middle Ages. Having been forbidden by the Christian rulers to hold public office, and above all to acquire land, they turned them to trade and banking.
Did all Jews become bankers and businessmen? Of course not. They were, in their great majority, in Volos, Ioannina, Thessaloniki, but also in the cities of central, eastern and western Europe, they were the Jewish small shopkeepers, artisans, workers and loaders still in the ports. This is also why the early socialist ideas had such a resonance among them. This is why our own Avraham Benaroias - a very special person, who should one day be honored by the Greek state - became the founder of the labor organization "Federation". And then SEKE, which evolved into the Communist Party of Greece.
If we talk about the ghettos and the rural communities, there the Jews lived in seclusion, studying the holy books, delving into their traditions. I recommend reading, if you haven't already, Isaac Bashevis Singer's masterful short stories inspired by his youth in Poland. Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978. He was the first and only Yiddish writer to receive this honor from the Swedish Academy.
Indeed some, numerous, Jews held prominent positions in the money market. They were financially strong. Should the wrath of the so-called popular Nazi movement be directed solely against them? And not against the capitalists, regardless of religion?
I'm hacking open doors, friends. Anti-Semitism - we know this very well - has nothing to do with the demand for social justice, the revolutionary overthrow of an economic establishment. This is pure hatred. Which, I have a feeling, can only be explained psychoanalytically.
The Jew was the other. Not the stranger. It was the other one who looked like us. Who lived by our side, who happily associated with us, nevertheless meant to practice, preserve and defend his different faith. And this was a thorn in the eyes of those who felt insecure about their own identity. Outcasts in their own community. Denied, nullified in their desires and dreams and aspirations. He who hates, first of all, hates himself.
He hates his life. Not wanting to destroy himself, he transfers his blood to anyone who stands out from the pulp in which he himself suffocates.
What impression would Adolf Hitler make on us if we met him at the beginning of the 1920s in a coffee shop or a beer hall in Vienna, a failed painter, a defeated soldier, unloved, almost penniless? An unbearable complex would seem to us! One who is unable to escape his personal hell – hell in Christian teaching primarily means loneliness. Nazism is the complex clumsily disguised as an ideology.
Alas, in interwar Germany, bruised, brought to its knees by the punitive attitude of the victors of the First World War, the tree of evil - the baobab of which Saint Exupery speaks in "The Little Prince" - found fertile ground to throw thorny branches and poisonous flowers.
How was the Holocaust promised and partially carried out by Adolf Hitler without even having the guts to take responsibility, to sign the "Final Solution" decision, how was it qualitatively different from the persecutions that had preceded it? From the pogrom in two hundred cities in Russia in 1881? In Moldavia in 1903 or in the Tragic Week of Argentina in 1919? In that it was "scientifically" - technologically is the most correct wording - fully organized. Its perpetrators were cold-blooded. Monstrous clarity in its design and execution.
I am not only referring to the organization of concentration camps as death factories. In the zeal of their commanders to constantly raise the "production", i.e. the numbers of the dead, to break their records. In Rudolph Ess' chilling, modest statement that he did not kill three and a half million people in four years as the commandant of Auschwitz. "Two and a half million was only…" he ventured to articulate. "The rest died of disease and starvation..."
I'm also talking about psychological manipulations. For the gross deception of those who had been prescribed. Throughout their torture, from when they were uprooted from their homelands, until they were led to the gas chambers, they were never told their fate. "We will settle you in Ukraine" they told them, piling them on the trains. "You're going to take a shower..." going in for the kill. They were obviously afraid of a mass uprising. The crowd, perceiving that they were pushing it to annihilation, would pour on them uncontrollably. Having nothing left to lose.
Didn't the prisoners in the camps - we wonder - see their comrades disappearing? Didn't they realize what smoke was coming out of the chimneys? Obviously broken physically and mentally, they were clinging to even the slightest hope. They refused to accept what for them and for us today is - and must remain - unthinkable.
What kind of people carried out the Holocaust? Here the opinions differ.
Hannah Arendt talks about the "community of evil". He argues that the average person - if there is such a person -, the one who has been taught to obey orders and submit, almost without complaint, to the daily routine, can easily, gradually, with the help of propaganda, become a monster. To tolerate, to get used to, to finally participate in the horror.
Primo Levi, in the sensational book "If this is the Man", in his memories of Auschwitz, gives another picture. Those who tortured, who exterminated were not ordinary people. It was about criminal figures, usually with a criminal history. The case of Rudolf H, who had - decades before Auschwitz, in 1923 - participated in the murder of a political opponent of his, argues in favor of Levy. Like many other lads of Nazism. We are talking about a gang - we saw a similar one in Greece, recently, it was called Golden Dawn. The Holocaust was preceded by the burning of books in 1933, Kristallnacht in 1938, the assassination of Ernst Rehm, head of the SA, on Hitler's orders. In every society there is a lumpen part. Woe and woe if it becomes a regime.
Hannah Arendt is right. Many have a tendency to collude with power. To indulge in arbitrariness, to pretend that they do not see her crimes. Shrinking into their private sphere, sulking, lest they save their little acquisitions.
But there are other people too. Even if they don't have a hero and if they don't actively participate in the resistance, they find ways to help the persecuted, the threatened, the programmed. Antonis Molhos talks about them in "Koinotopia tou Kalos", which won the awards of the Academy of Athens and the Ourani Foundation. For those who, risking their own lives, protected the Greek Jews. "... I was a stranger and you brought me together, naked and you covered me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me..." says Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew.
The question is what would we do? We, if we were in the position of the Jews but also of the Roma and the Homosexuals, when Nazism was on strike to exterminate them. Would we realize the magnitude of the threat in time? Would we decide to abandon our normality, leave homes and jobs behind? Would we manage to escape it so as not to be led as sheep to the slaughter?
It depends, on the one hand, on the character, on the temperament of each individual. A quote goes: The most pessimistic of Europe's Jews were found in Manhattan. The most optimistic ended up in Auschwitz.
It depends, on the other hand, on the leadership of each community.
In Volos, Chief Rabbi Moses Pessach protected his flock. With the help of Metropolitan Joachim he managed to save 74% of the Israeli community.
In Zakynthos, the Metropolitan Chrysostomos and the mayor Loukas Karrer handed over to the Germans, instead of the list of Jews of the island that had been demanded of them, a paper with only two names. Theirs.
In Thessaloniki, on the contrary, things went to hell. There are not a few who place the blame on the Rabbi of the city, who - possibly out of naivety - facilitated the Nazi occupiers.
Say we were being rounded up and put on trains. The odds of survival would be overwhelmingly against us. Six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Fewer than three hundred thousand survived the concentration camps.
Let us accept how we would count among the survivors. Would we find the courage to continue? How would we proceed from now on, what message would we pass on to our children and grandchildren? "God died in Auschwitz" was Primo Levi's last reply to Ferdinando Camon. In 1987, Primo Levi - according to the prevailing version - committed suicide...
A major change in Jewish consciousness occurred after the Holocaust. They stopped being stoic, adapting to the circumstances, enduring discrimination, racism, gritting their teeth, bowing their heads. The phrase "next year in Jerusalem" has ceased to be a wish. A decision has been made. Fighting claim. The new generations were made up of hardened warriors, men and women ready to defend at any cost this scrap of land they had won through their struggles and the sacrifice of six million.
The State of Israel, during its eight decades of history, is a triumph. With tireless work, with superhuman stubbornness, with art and with science, the desert was transformed into a fertile orchard. The former Ottoman and then British possession in a democratic state, multi-prismatic, colorful, which respects the minorities and differences within its borders. The only open society in the entire Middle East. While since its foundation it has been and remains surrounded by countries that strike - and explicitly declare - its destruction. Israel faced its greatest challenge. To be ancient Athens and ancient Sparta at the same time.
Did you win the bet? To a large extent, yes. However, from such a society, from a people so galvanized by calamities and epics, you expect the maximum. You wait for wisdom. Oper means empathy, tolerance, the gift of forgiveness. Never, not even for a moment, let us forget. But let's forgive.
From October 7, 2023, from "Black Saturday", all eyes internationally - and even more so the eyes of Jews everywhere - are fixed on Jerusalem. On the West Bank. In Gaza. Apparently, the sun rose with the infamy of Hamas. Civilized humanity mourned and mourned the murders, rapes, kidnappings. Only the fellow travelers of the Islamists and the useful idiots did not understand that Israel had to respond, immediately and forcefully. Turning not - to God - against Palestinian prisoners. But against the terrorists. Those who are supported by third countries, by dark pursuits and interests, and lead to the impoverishment of the Palestinians themselves first.
The months go by. Hopes for peace remain dim. The number of casualties, on both sides, is growing nightmarishly. The wound fades and deepens every day.
I am not a citizen, a politician or an expert analyst, I do not even have the direct experience of war to dare to propose a concrete solution. To even attempt to map my way out of this mess.
But as someone who loves you from the bottom of his heart... As someone who is grateful to you for what you have offered for millennia now in thought, culture, science... As someone who bows before your martyrdoms... I take the courage to exorcise you. Let me beg you. Go beyond "an eye for an eye". You are tracing the path to peace.
Many others, too many, in the Holocaust - both before the Holocaust and after the Holocaust - were unworthy to stand in your place. They behaved like shrewd neutrals, becoming in essence the accomplices of the murderers.
What do you have to do with them? You can make a difference. You have within you the greatness to rise above evil. Make a difference. Put yourself in the shoes of other civilians. This will be your greatest moral triumph.
Christos Homenidis is a writer
SOURCE: Capital.gr 05.02.24