Anti-Semitism & Holocaust

The Quality of Hatred: a Holocaust Memorial

By Avi Davis - April 9, 2002
It is 1918. The first flurries of winter snow lie on the ground. Along the streets of Kiev a battle between Reds and Whites has raged for weeks. Into the Grand Synagogue in the city center are herded groups of Jews. Whole families are pushed and shoved. Children scream as they lose their parents in the crush. Men who protest are beaten. Many are bloodied. Finally, 800 Jews who have been gathered from the local neighborhoods are enclosed. The great oak doors of the old synagogue clang shut as wood, hay and kerosene is brought to be placed around the building's perimeter.

From a second story window a man and woman gaze intently at the street. Finally they see a young man appear below. The woman turns to embrace the couple's five-year-old son. The father raises the boy and looks into his eyes, extracting a pledge to be a good Jew. Then in one sweep of his arm he sets him outside the window ledge, dangling him by his hands. The boy looks up at his father in terror. Suddenly he is released and falling. He tumbles onto the body of the young man below. There are shouts from the crowd, but the young man quickly recovers, collecting the boy and spiriting him away. A minute later, giant flames begin to lick the walls of the synagogue. Acrid fumes consume the building. Within an hour, it is over.

The fate of my maternal great-grandparents, and that of the little boy who became my grandfather has been buried beneath the snowdrifts of history - a mere anecdote among the countless other personal tragedies of the 20th Century. But the event has been indelibly etched into my consciousness, casting a shadow that cannot be removed. Even in distant Australia, where I was raised largely ignorant of anti-Semitism, the dread of a dark and malevolent force that could rise suddenly out of the night, unexplained and unheralded, haunted my childhood. This I found to be also true among many of my friends who were children and grandchildren of survivors from Europe. Our lives were somehow blended, overarched by a tragedy, the immensity of which we could never fully comprehend. Edgy and discontented, we spent our restless energies pouring over details of the Holocaust, desperately seeking an answer to the question: Why?

On a cold autumn day in London in 1983, part of the answer was revealed to me. Boarding a bus in the East End I heard an argument between the conductor and an elderly Jewish man, whom I had often seen before. The man wanted a ticket to a station three stops distant. The conductor, heavy set with a thick cockney accent refused him, declaring that the bus did not stop there even though both I and everyone else on the bus knew that it did. When the old man protested, the conductor grew belligerent and then shoved the old man down the gangway. Before the doors closed the conductor sneered at him, "It's really too bad Hitler didn't finish the rest of you off."

I was too stunned to respond or even help the man, a fact I will forever regret. But what shattered my composure more completely was the absence of one word of protest or reprimand from the people who knew the old man well and traveled with him the same route each day. It was as if he had become a non-person, a nuisance to be jettisoned without a second thought.

None of us is innocent of either indifference or hatred. But I have to wonder if it doesn't take a special quality of hatred for people to so callously turn away from their fellow man. Is this the hatred experienced by German Jews who were so cruelly abandoned or turned in by neighbors who had lived with them side by side for centuries? Or the Jews of Hebron in 1929, who had lived at peace with their Arab neighbors for 400 years, yet were massacred despite assurances they would be protected? Or the sheer abhorrence of Jews that drives a Palestinian suicide bomber to murder innocent men, women and children who are sitting calmly at a Passover Seder?

I am now exactly the age at which my great-grandfather was murdered and once again synagogues are burning. Last week the Or Aviv Synagogue in Marseilles was torched to the ground by Muslim extremists. In Argentina, the plight of the Jewish community has reached a point of desperation. In Israel one hesitates to open a newspaper in fear of seeing photographs of new massacres of Jews. The dark, malevolent force I sensed as a child and that I hoped my own children would never know has returned to our lives. It is anti-Semitism but it is something more. History has shown that when synagogues burn the lights of civilization begin to sputter. I therefore no longer fear for my family or my people alone. I fear for all humanity.

©2002 -

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