Europe’s Crumbling Myths by Manfred Gerstenfeld – Introduction and Acknowledgements

It took me a long time to realize that to understand the post-Holocaust period, a number of issues should be grouped in a single subject of analysis. These include inter alia: survivors’ reintegration in the post-war society, their social and psychological rehabilitation, financial and ‘moral’ restitution, punishment of war criminals, preservation of the memory of the Shoah and Holocaust education.

Many thought Europe had progressed substantially following a greater under­ standing of the Holocaust, its causes and peoples’ behavior during it. There were several indicators for this thesis. This virtual trend is one likely explanation why the post-Holocaust period has not been considered a subject for systematic study, even when the second round of restitution negotiations began. The last three years however have seen a substantial, visible regression toward increased anti­semitism. This raises profound questions concerning various aspects of the future of the Jewish people as well as with respect to the values and nature of European society and its prospects. This development also necessitates linking anti-Semitism to the post-Holocaust subject in its entirety.

When writing I wondered how the subject of this book had dawned upon me. In what became an autobiographical quest, I realized it had happened gradu­ally and subconsciously. Over the post-war decades, I had gained fragmentary exposure to post-Holocaust elements.

My parents – successful in business in Vienna until 1938 – were among the first to be arrested after the Anschluss. They were given a simple choice: to remain in jail or surrender all their possessions and emigrate. When we – thanks to Dutch gentiles – survived the war in Amsterdam, my father, Rafael Gerstenfeld, kept his vow to devote the rest of his life to help rebuild the Jewish community. In his post-war work as head of Social and Pastoral Affairs of the NIHS -the Amsterdam Ashkenazi community – and through many volunteer capacities, he devoted much thought and spent much time on trying to socially rehabilitate survivors who had lost their family in the Holocaust. His attitude meant major emotional involvement, personal sacrifices and total devotion. It permeated our small family.

In the years after the war, Dutch society cultivated the myth of massive resistance and heroism against the German occupier. I was still in high school when in 1952 on the square in Amsterdam’s former Jewish quarter where the big Portuguese and plundered Ashkenazi synagogues stood, a monument entitled the ‘Dockworker’ was erected in honor of those Dutchmen who had struck in 1942 against the deportation. It was inaugurated by Queen Juliana, who a few months earlier – against the wish of the Dutch cabinet – reprieved the death penalty of Nazi Willy Lages, one of those responsible for deporting tens of thousands of Dutch Jews to their deaths. 1 M. H. Gans, editor of the NIW, the Dutch Jewish weekly, wrote: “it was like a monument for the anti-aircraft defense on the grave of those who had been killed by the bombardment.” 2

In the early 1960s, I became a part time reporter for this paper while studying at university. Gans – of whom I have fond memories – was always open to my suggestions. In 1961-62, I published a series of 17 articles on the history of vanished and vanishing Jewish communities in several Dutch provinces focusing on survivors’ memories. 3

Through the interviews I discovered the importance of preserving documents. Perhaps the most important one I found was the book of records of the small Jewish community in Oude Pekela written in Dutch. Abraham Toncman – the community’s secretary – ended it in Hebrew: “Few remained of many. We are like cattle being brought to the slaughterhouse, to be murdered and destroyed for disaster and shame. May there be saving and salutation for the Jews speedily in our days. Amen!” My colleague at the NIW – later Professor of Contemporary History and an interviewee herewith – Isaac Lipschits, passed it on to historian Jacques Presser who published a photo of it in his history of the destruction of the Dutch Jews.4 Gans concluded his masterly memorial book for Dutch Jewry with photocopies from several of its pages. 5

In the NIW I also published articles on the small post-war neo-Nazi groups in the Netherlands. What they permitted themselves is far exceeded by the hate speech of lslamist extremists in the Netherlands today. This research brought me in contact with the scholars at the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation. Like many other Jews in The Netherlands, I was wary of the manipulation of Holocaust history for political purposes undertaken at the Anne Frank House. As a member  of the board  of trustees  of the Memorial  Foundation  for Jewish Culture in the mid-1960s, I was exposed further to post-Holocaust issues. Thereafter, I focused on other matters. For many years I followed post-Shoah subjects only out of general interest. I was already well aware that Dutch historians had gradually exposed large parts of the national war myth. As a board member of the Center for the Research of Dutch Jewry in Jerusalem, frequent conversations with its founder and first chairman Jozeph Michman gave me many further insights.

A turning point was the Center’s 1998 symposium devoted to the Dutch war myth. It made me realize that the distortion of Shoah and post-Shoah history in The Netherlands was still significant. At the symposium I was introduced to Avraham Roet who had begun collecting material on Dutch post-war restitution. This was the beginning of a process which resulted in the establishment of an umbrella body of Dutch Jewish organizations in Israel – Stichting Platform Israel (SPI). Roet became its chairman and a key figure in the Dutch restitution negoti­ations of the past years.

Roet asked me to be SPI’s advisor on the analysis of the reports of the Dutch historical commissions of enquiry into restitution issues. I accepted on a voluntary basis, stating that I did not wish to act in any official capacity to maintain my freedom of expression. I had understood this thanks to Isaac Lipschits, by then an emeritus professor, who had done much to fight Dutch post-Shoah history distortions and was then writing my father’s biography.

By studying the documents, several issues gradually became clear. The small Dutch Jewish community was no match for the Dutch government and other institutional counterparts in the restitution  negotiations.  Results would  improve if international Jewish organizations were involved. This required analysis in English; Dutch material would help no-one without an understanding of that language.

The late Daniel Elazar, president and founder of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, welcomed this. In the JCPA’s publications, the Jerusalem Letter/ Viewpoints6 and the Jewish Political Studies Review, 7 I published the essence of my analysis. The Jerusalem Post, Hebrew language journals and periodicals showed an interest as well in the matter, as did some Jewish papers abroad. It gave great satisfaction that ultimately Roet succeeded, at least partly, to convince the Dutch Jewish representative body, the Centraal Joods Overleg (CJO) to involve  the World Jewish Congress in some negotiations. The Amsterdam stock exchange subsequently had to raise its restitution payments to the Jewish community multi­ fold as well as apologize for its wartime assistance to the occupiers.

From these studies I drew another important conclusion. The financial aspects of the restitution were only a sub-issue of a wider moral discourse, which unfortunately received little attention in the Dutch Jewish community. Until today, the Jewish people have two major accounts open with the Dutch government.  It is not yet telling the truth about the Dutch assistance to the Nazis during the war and it distorts the story about post-war  institutional discrimination  of the Jews. These investigations  aroused  my interest  in post-Holocaust  issues.  I began learning about what had happened  in other countries as well. From discussions with experts it turned  out that no overview  on the subject existed. A donation from Mrs. Daisy  Berman in memory  of her husband  Herbert  Berman – which also contributed to the publication of this book – enabled the JCPA to organize a symposium entitled, “Delegitimization and Moral Compensation: The Holocaust and Today,” in November  2001. That was also my first opportunity to present several of this book’s major themes.8

After the symposium, in two series of follow-up lectures by a variety of experts, the subject was expanded. The explosion of anti-Semitism connected it to post-Holocaust issues which became the subject of the PHAS (Post-Holocaust and anti-Semitism) program of the JCPA now in its third year.

This program developed alongside the spread and diversification of anti­ Semitism. The Fondation pour la Memoire de la Shoah and a donor who wishes to  remain  anonymous,  sponsor  the  JCPA’s monthly  publication  of  essays and interviews entitled “Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism” diffused in thousands of copies worldwide, both printed and e-mailed. The interviews with Yehuda Bauer, Michael Melchior and Deborah Lipstadt in this book were first published there.9 Jewish Political Studies Review editor Shmuel Sandler proposed devoting the entire Fall 2002 issue to the post-Holocaust and asked me to be its guest editor. 10 In it a shortened version of the introductory essay of this book appeared. 11 More publications will undoubtedly follow as anti-Semitism will remain a primary issue on the Jewish agenda for the foreseeable future.

I am grateful to the JCPA, Yad Vashem and the World Jewish Congress for publishing this book and to the interviewees for sharing their knowledge  with me. Special thanks are due to Emil Fackenheim for honoring me with his insightful Foreword. Sadly he passed away on September 19, 2003. May his memory be blessed.

I appreciate the support I received for the PHAS program throughout from Dore Gold and Zvi Marom, respectively President and Director-General of the JCPA. The latter also made many valuable comments on this text. Chaya Her­ skovic, the JCPA’s program director, participated in several of the interviews and was a great help in developing the PHAS program.

I would like to thank Alan Berger for his moral backing throughout the progress of this book and Joel Fishman for his incisive comments on several sections. Thanks as well to Irving Asher for his editing, Alison Goldberg for transcribing the interviews, Terrye Pico for preparing the index and last but not least, Emma Corney for her patient typing, correcting and proofing of the many drafts.

Notes

  1. Martin Bossenbroek, De Meelstreep:  Terugkeer en Opvang na de Tweede Wereldoorlog,(Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, 2001) p. 341. [Dutch]
  2. NIW, December 19, 1952 quoted in Bossenbroek,   cit., p. 342.
  3. Manfred Gerstenfeld, NIW series “De vergeten Mediene,” 1961 and [Dutch]
  4. Presser, Ondergang, 1 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1965) pp. 401-402. [Dutch]
  5. Mozes Heiman Gans, Memorboek (Baarn: Bosch & Keuning, 1971), 818-827. [Dutch]
  6. Manfred Gerstenfeld,  “Wartime  and  Postwar  Dutch  Attitudes  Toward  the  Jews:  Myth and Truth,” Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, 412, August  15, 1999. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Investigating Much, Paying Little: The Dutch Government and the Holocaust Assets Inquiries,” Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, no. 424, February 15, 2000. The latter also appeared in Hebrew: “Chakira Mitmashechet – Tashlum Mo-at. Hamem­ shalah Haholandit Venichsay Hashoah,” Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, no. 424 (H), March 30, 2002.
  7. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Jewish War Claims In the Netherlands: A Case Study,” Jewish Political Studies Review 12: 1-2, Spring
  8. The theme of that lecture is developed further in Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Europe’s Moral Attitudes Toward the Holocaust in Light of the Current Defamation of Israel,” Jerusalem Viewpoints 475, April 1, 2002.
  9. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Michael Melchior, “The Israeli Government, Holo­ caust Issues, and Anti-Semitism,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 1, October 1, 2002. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Yehuda Bauer, “From Propagating Myths to Re­ search: Preparing for Holocaust Education,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, No. 3, December 1, 2002. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Deborah Lipstadt, “Denial of the Holocaust and Immoral Equivalence,” Post-Holocaust  and Anti-Semitism,  No.  11, August  1, 2003.
  10. Jewish Political Studies Review 14: 3–4, Fall
  11. Manfred Gerstenfeld,  “Europe’s  Bias: From the Holocaust’s  Aftermath  to Today’s Anti­ Semitism”, Jewish Political Studies Review 14: 3–4, Fall 2002, 5-56.

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