"The profound, agonizing mystery of the Holocaust echoes through the generations. . ." So begins a recent New York Times review by Lawrence Van Gelder of an off-Broadway play, "The Gathering." Elie Wiesel says the Holocaust "can never be comprehended or transmitted." I ask myself: What is this supposedly unfathomable "mystery" of the Holocaust? A Nexis search, I'm sure would find hundreds of couplings of "Holocaust" and "mystery." Often, a writer on the Holocaust will begin with "We will never understand. . ."
So what is this "mystery" of the Holocaust? We have no difficulty understanding genocides traceable to Lenin or to Stalin. Adolf Hitler adapted with equally diabolical success their doctrinal contempt for the individual in the name of utopia. The Stalin-ordered genocide of the Soviet peoples, anywhere from 20 to 60 million, is no mystery. Mao Zedong's slaughter of - who knows? - 50 million Chinese is no more a mystery than is Communist China's genocide in Tibet. There is no mystery about the killing fields of Southeast Asia where Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge murdered one-sixth of what had been a population of seven million. There is certainly no mystery of Milosevist killing of Kosovars. Why, supposedly, will we "never understand" Hitler's Holocaust?
I think it's time to stop defining the Holocaust as a "mystery." To call the Holocaust a mystery is to play into the hands of Holocaust-deniers and racists, to give them an exculpatory dignity they don't deserve, as if they are the tools, even victims, of some implacable destiny about which they could do nothing. The "don't understand" syndrome transforms the Holocaust into some kind of profound human event which can never be understood, either literally or metaphorically. How can we logically condemn what seemingly we cannot "comprehend"? It may be difficult to "understand" earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters which take thousands of innocent lives each year. Was the Shoah a natural disaster?
In actual fact, the Holocaust isn't a "mystery," not even a pseudo-mystery as anybody who has watched Claude Lanzmann's nine-and-one-half hour documentary, "Shoah," knows. The Holocaust was not the result of Adolf Hitler's random behavior. "Mein Kampf" offered a clue to Hitler's intentions. The real mystery is why Hitler and his retinue were not taken seriously. As the historian Milton Himmelfarb has put it: No Hitler, no Holocaust. I think one could argue: No Stalin, no Mao, no Pol Pot, no genocide. These dictators used Marxism-Leninism as justification for mass slaughter of the "bourgeoisie" and "landlords" but in the end it was Stalin's personality, as it was Hitler's, which determined the Great Terror. …