In response to:
"The Formidable Dr. Robinson": A Reply from the January 20, 1966 issue
To the Editors:
…Had Miss Arendt contented herself with answering Dr. Robinson or Mr. Laqueur, this by now tiresome discussion could be allowed to rest. Unfortunately, Miss Arendt equates criticism with cabal: in her script diverse critics become fellow conspirators plotting to suppress the truth and to silence its teller. Miss Arendt’s sinister vision of powerful “Jewish organizations and their countless channels of communication outside their immediate range” manipulating public opinion through all the “means of mass communication” has an all too familiar ring. However, the phantasm she has evoked is no adequate substitute for a serious rejoinder and should in any case be dispelled.
Let me reveal how the “Jewish Establishment” operates. Miss Arendt’s lengthy reply, rich in ad hominem slurs, imputations of self-interest to every challenger of her facts or conclusions, and quotations from anonymous informers (one of whom implies that the Israeli Security Services murdered Kastner), contains a new accusation—the conduct of the European Rabbinate during the Holocaust. She writes, “It seems that there was not one Rabbi who…tried…to volunteer for deportation,” and she contrasts this supposed behavior with that of some priests and ministers.
I take it for granted that this single statement, offered cavalierly without a shred of supporting evidence or explanation, will arouse the indignation of most students of the catastrophe, among whom Jewish scholars will predominate, not because they are special pleaders, but because they are specialists in the field. When such protests will—as I trust—be made, I can assure Miss Arendt that these will not be responses to a directive of the “Establishment” to its minions, but independent reactions to a further falsification of the record. An outrageous statement arouses outrage; and it is self-evident that the more blatant the misrepresentation, the more numerous and similar the replies are likely to be.
There are only limited ways of pointing out that rabbis, unlike Protestant and Catholic clergy, had no opportunity to “volunteer”; they were fellow-victims destined for the gas chamber and not consulted as to the time-table; or that their only act of volition could be to refuse to be ransomed from the ghetto in the rare circumstances when this was possible, or to refuse to escape when their flocks sought to save them: the historic records, ranging from Leo Baeck in Berlin to the last three surviving Warsaw rabbis, are full of such instances. Almost as an afterthought, Miss Arendt has made a wholesale undocumented accusation against the entire European Rabbinate; and she will seek refuge in the cry of “Establishment” when the predictable answers come in.
Hannah Arendt replies:
Mr. Aronstein has done the obvious: he read and compared both books. This is gratifying. None of the reviewers, as far as I know, did so. The obvious, alas, is very seldom done. Mr. Werner believes that his rhetorical questions are unanswerable. He is mistaken, for stripped of their rhetoric they are disclosed as sheer nonsense. As I said before (in the postscript to the 2nd edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem): If the argument that we cannot judge when we were not present were true, “neither the administration of justice nor the writing of history would ever be possible.” Nor is the implied reproach of self-righteousness any more valid. “The judge who condemns a murderer can still say when he goes home: ‘And there, but for the grace of God, go I’.” The “probity and courage” of the rabbis whom Mr. Werner quotes in evidence are not in doubt, but they don’t relate to my question. The decision to stay with their communities was taken years before the announcement of the Final Solution, and before deportations according to lists and categories had started in earnest.
By contrast, Mr. Weiler’s example is indeed to the point, and I am glad I elicited it. However, I am not sure Mr. Weiler is right when he thinks it was generally impossible for the rabbis to volunteer for deportation. To be sure, where whole communities were deported they were deported together with them. But in many instances, though not in Hungary, the evacuation of countries and ghettoes was gradual, and lists for deportation were prepared by the Jewish Councils. In Theresienstadt, for instance, we know that people did volunteer because they believed the official lie of “resettlement.”
Mr. Schapiro accuses me of caution and I would take this as a (in my case) rare compliment if it were warranted. My “it seems” related in the context to Mr. Robinson’s book, which does not mention a single case of a rabbi who “volunteered for deportation.” And since he pretends to have used all available source material, including “archives and documents which no one has had access to since the war,” one was entitled to a “generalization” which in any event will turn out to be much less “ruthless” than Mr. Schapiro’s own implied generalization about the assumed conduct of all the “hundreds of rabbis who perished.” (Let him read Mr. Weiler’s letter and the “Notes” by E. Ringelblum.) The generalization was all the more justified since Mr. Robinson does quote such rabbinical decisions as the following from the rabbinate in Poznan with relation to lists for the extermination camp at Chelmno. The community, according to Mr. Robinson’s source, was “extremely tense concerning the decision. All of us felt that our fate depended not on the Germans but rather on what the rabbis might decree.” And the rabbis decreed: “according to the religious law, a decree of government is obligatory and must be obeyed.” Needless to say that this is in obvious contradiction to the precepts cited by the Vilna rabbinate (quoted in my first reply) and the even more beautifully telling words of the Talmud quoted by Mr. Weiler. Mr. Schapiro is mistaken when he thinks that I forgot Rabbi Leo Baeck. On the contrary, I thought of him, or rather of the situation as it presented itself at Theresienstadt, and I had also in mind the case of the three rabbis in Warsaw, incidentally also mentioned in Mr. Robinson’s book. Admirable as their decision is, there is a difference between their refusal and the kind of initiative I had in mind. For there are examples where people out of a still living community volunteered for death and deportation, but they seem (I mean: seem!) all to refer to school teachers who went with their classes or orphanages, not to rabbis. The “rabbis’ circumstances” can indeed be compared to “those of the two Christians” where-ever it was a matter of either staying with a group that still had, or believed it had, some chances of survival or joining those unfortunates who were weeded out in the mistaken and morally very dubious hope that “with a hundred victims [one might] save a thousand people, with a thousand ten thousand.” For what Mr. Schapiro fails to see is that precisely the natural solidarity of a people, “marked for destruction” in its entirety, broke down and was ruined by the conduct of the Jewish Councils and the advice of most rabbinates.
Miss Syrkin’s letter is partly answered, I think, by the above. In addition, Miss Syrkin confuses organization and propaganda with “cabal” and “conspiracy.” I stated the fact of an organized propaganda campaign to manipulate public opinion; if all organizations and interest groups in the world that indulge in such activities were rewarded as “conspirators” the world would be full of conspiracies, which it is not. Nor are those who are active in this kind of public-relations business necessarily “minions”—the letter of the Jewish official in which Miss Syrkin found her name mentioned proves that this is not the case—but they are not independent either. There is nothing wrong with a Jewish establishment, and Miss Syrkin who belongs to it (she is the editor-in-chief of Jewish Frontier) out of a life-long commitment to Zionism knows better than most what such membership implies and what it does not. She asserts that the surprising similarity of the “replies” is caused by the “outrageous” quality of my book to which people reacted with “predictably” similar hostility. This is untrue because these replies concerned fabrications and not the book I had written. If Miss Syrkin wants to know the difference between a perhaps “predictable,” spontaneous hostility and the repetition of propaganda lies in a manipulated public opinion, to which then even readers of my book fell prey, she has only to compare her own first article against my book in Jewish Frontier—hostile, emotional, mistaken in my opinion, but doubtless expressing her own unmanipulated reaction—with her later hysterical and fanciful outbursts.
In conclusion, in order to disperse the wide-spread notion that all the questions we raise and the alternatives we propose today don’t apply because they arise out of some “wisdom” of hindsight, let me quote from one of the earliest reports on the fight in the Warsaw ghetto concerning the suicide of Adam Czerniakow, then president of the Jewish Council, on the second day of the deportations from Warsaw. At the time, so the report goes, this deed was much criticized for “we thought…it had been his duty to inform the entire population of the real state of affairs [i.e. that “deportation to the East actually meant death…in gas chambers”] and also to dissolve all public institutions, particularly the Jewish Police, which had been established by the Jewish Council and was legally submitted to it.” Italics added. (Marek Edelman, The Ghetto Fights, 1946.) This is only one among a number of instances demonstrating that the perspective from which I wrote and (horrible dictu) dared to judge was ever so much closer to the events and the thoughts of Jews at the time than the present public-relations perspective of the Jewish establishment.