Anti-Semitism & Holocaust

The Commanding Voice Of Auschwitz

by Emil L. Fackenheim

For twelve long years Jews had been singled out by a hate which was as groundless as it was implacable. For twelve long years a power had held sway in the heart of Europe to which the death of every Jewish man, woman, and child was the one and only unshakable principle. For twelve long years the world had failed to oppose this principle with an equally unshakable principle of its own. Any Jew, then or now, making normalcy his supreme goal should have been, and still should be, in flight from this singled-out condition in total disarray. In fact, however, secularist no less than religious Jews have responded with a reaffirmation of their Jewish existence such as no social scientist would have predicted even if the holocaust had never occurred…

A Jew at Auschwitz was not a specimen of the class “victim of prejudice” or even “victim of genocide.” He was singled out by a demonic power which sought his death absolutely, i.e., as an end in itself. For a Jew today merely to affirm his Jewish existence is to accept his singled-out condition; it is to oppose the demons of Auschwitz: and it is to oppose them in the only way in which they can be opposed—with an absolute opposition. Moreover, it is to stake on that absolute opposition nothing less than his life and the lives of his children and the lives of his children’s children.

The holocaust has thus placed the Jewish secularist into a position for which secularism has no precedent within or without Jewish existence. As a secularist, he views the modern world as a desacralized world from which all gods have vanished. As a Jewish secularist he know that the devil, if not God, is alive. As a secularist he has relativized all former absolutes. As a Jewish secularist he opposes the demons of Auschwitz absolutely by his mere commitment to Jewish survival.

Thus a radical contradiction has appeared in Jewish secularist existence in our time. As secularist the Jewish secularist seeks Jewish normalcy; as Jewish secularist he fragments this normalcy by accepting his singled-out Jewish condition…

After Auschwitz both alternatives, always problematic within Jewish existence, are fragmented. Jewish opposition to the demons of Auschwitz cannot be understood in terms of humanly created ideals. Those of Reason fail, for Reason is too innocent of demonic evil to fathom the scandal of the particularity of Auschwitz, and too abstractly universal to do justice to the singled-out Jewish condition. The ideals of Progress fail, for Progress makes of Auschwitz at best a throwback into tribalism and at worst a dialectically justified necessity. Least adequate are any ideals which might be furnished by a specifically Jewish genius, for Jewish survival after Auschwitz is not one relative ideal among others but rather an imperative which brooks no compromise…

Jewish opposition to Auschwitz cannot be grasped in terms of humanly created ideals but only as an imposed commandment. And the Jewish secularist, no less than the believer, is absolutely singled out by a Voice as truly other than man-made ideals--an imperative as truly given—as was the Voice of Sinai.

According to the Midrash, God wished to give the Torah immediately upon the Exodus from Egypt, but had to postpone the gift until Israel was united. Today, the distinction between religious and secularist Jews is superseded by that between unauthentic Jews who flee from their Jewishness and authentic Jews who affirm it. This latter group includes religious and secularist Jews. These are united by a commanding Voice which speaks from Auschwitz.

The Commanding Voice of Auschwitz

What does the Voice of Auschwitz command?

Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories.
They are commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish.
They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz lest their memory perish.
They are forbidden to despair of man and his world, and to escape into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they cooperate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz.
Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish.

A secularist Jew cannot make himself believe by a mere act of will, nor can he be commanded to do so…. And a religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him. One possibility, however, is wholly unthinkable. A Jew may not respond to Hitler’s attempt to destroy Judaism by himself cooperating in its destruction. In ancient times, the unthinkable Jewish sin was idolatry. Today, it is to respond to Hitler by doing his work.

…For a Jew hearing the commanding Voice of Auschwitz the duty to remember and to tell the tale is not negotiable. It is holy. The religious Jew still possesses this word. The secularist Jew is commanded to restore it. A secular holiness, as it were, has forced itself into his vocabulary…
Jews after Auschwitz represent all humanity when they affirm their Jewishness and deny the Nazi denial… The commanding Voice of Auschwitz singles Jews out; Jewish survival is a commandment which brooks no compromise. It was this Voice which was heard by the Jews of Israel in May and June 1967 when they refused to lie down and be slaughtered…

For after Auschwitz, Jewish life is more sacred than Jewish death, were it even for the sanctification of the divine Name. The left-wing secularist Israeli journalist Amos Kenan writes: “After the death camps, we are left only one supreme value: existence.”

(The above essay appeared in Emil L. Fackenheim’s “God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections” [New York, 1968].)
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