The Jewish-European heritage

On the day following Israel’s national holocaust memorial day, writing in Haaretz, Fania Oz-Salzberger reminds both Israelis and Europeans that, for centuries, Jewish history has been an enriching element of European history. Concerned about the effect of class trips of “roudy groups” of Israeli teenagers to Auschwitz, she recommends trips to Spain instead –

Take the money, enlist more supportive foundations, and take select groups of Israeli pupils to Andalusia, in the south of Spain. Because there, in many ways, begins the story that ends in Auschwitz: the story of Jewish Europe, which is both an Ashkenazi and Sephardi tale.

Somewhere in Andalusia there was a small paper mill at the end of the Middle Ages. It was at that time that the ancient Chinese technology arrived, after a long journey across Asia and North Africa, and entered Europe via Spain. Without it Gutenberg would not have been able to print. And lo, that mill was operated by two partners, a Jew and a Muslim. Their clients from the north were Christians. This story, symbolic rather than historic, should be told to 17-year-old Jewish and Arab Israelis. You have to be a great pessimist not to tell it. It is a story of life and rejuvenation. It would not overshadow the story of the persecuted and the murdered, but empower it greatly.

Woe to a Jewish-Israeli identity that relies only on the ashes of the crematoria. Our European past also includes a thousand years of life, art and the spreading of knowledge.

I don’t think trips to Andalusia should replace trips to Auschwitz, but they certainly seem like a valuable addition. They represent what I like so much about the the Jewish Museum in Berlin – it’s not just a holocaust memorial but also offers a glimpse onto Jewish European’s life before the Shoah – as well as thereafter. Because, as opposed to Ms Oz-Salzbergers claim above, I don’t believe the story of Jewish Europe ended in Auschwitz, not even in Germany.

The statistics of recent Jewish immigration, particularly from Russia, are unequivocal. But it’s the anecdotal evidence that, I think, matters more in this case. The Jewish community in my home town, Mainz, is one of the oldest in Germany, dating back to the 10th century, possibly even to Roman times. In the 1970s, there were only about hundred community members. Today, there are about a thousand, and a new Synagoge – architecturally slightly reminiscent of the Jewish Museum in Berlin – is currently being planned.

Primo Levi: from the depths

I first read Primo Levi in 1963. I picked up a second-hand copy of If This is a Man, a Four Square paperback published for two shillings and sixpence and which cost me (as we used to say it) one and six. I still have the book – now falling apart – with that second-hand price pencilled inside it. This was more than twenty years before Levi achieved world-wide renown with The Periodic Table.

The earlier book, Levi’s memoir of his experience at Auschwitz, certainly impressed me at the time, but I didn’t take notes on it, so I don’t now recall all the reasons why. What I most remember about reading the book then was my surprise at learning that hell on earth, even hell on earth, had a social structure. It wasn’t just, as I guess I must have half-imagined it to be up till then, a kind of shapeless inferno.

In the early 1990s I again read and re-read If This is a Man, along with other of Levi’s writings and as part of a systematic thought and research process about the Nazi genocide. The thing that struck me second time around was Levi’s extraordinary wisdom: his wisdom not only about the camps, but about life and the world. It is sometimes said that such knowledge is born of suffering, and this may be true to an extent. But in the case of Primo Levi I’m convinced it’s not the whole story, and it may not even be the main story. He would have been a great writer in any case. Reading the account of life and death at Auschwitz, written by a man not yet 30, I am constantly brought up short by the breadth and acuity of Levi’s insight.
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