There is a fine line between a powerful word and a cliche. On one side, words like holocaust, genocide, and Nazi manage to crystallize the essence of whole worlds of horror and evil. On the other side, the concept is cheapened to serve an immediate, practical, selfish or trivial agenda.
When a police officer issues a traffic violation, he is not being a Nazi, even if he or she is heavy handed, unfair, and clueless and even somewhat hostile to Jews. When a fireman is angry about Hasidim lighting unregulated fires on erev pesach, he is not a Nazi. Not every criticism of Israel is motivated by antisemitism. Israelis who mistreat Palestinians are not Nazis.
To reach for a holocaust analogy without justification reflects a poverty of imagination or a reckless inclination to exploit tragedy for personal interests. The antidote is honest, serious contemplation of the character of that sprawling tragedy. Right now I am reading Saul Friedlander’s The Years of Extermination (HarperCollins 2007). He relies heavily on diaries and documents to convey the actual experience at the time and the ways which hate could be induced and then fanned into consuming flames. There are so many other ways to seriously contemplate the holocaust. For some it is fiction and for others history. And for yet others there is art, theology, movies, museums, and music.
In the end none of us will ever completely comprehend it. It was too big and sprawling, too awful and too profound. The explosion of new holocaust information has been a mixed blessing. For some it was eye-opening. But others are like the guy who always finishes your sentences, usually incorrectly, because he edits your thoughts to sound like his. The real reason a little information is dangerous is because it will be twisted by some to their own ends.
For all of these qualifiers, as a child of survivors, I have drawn some clear lessons. Never again! Never again to servile acquiescence. Never again do we accept hate whether directed to us or others. But even here there is a complexity.
I cannot stand most of the official observances because they feel so clichéd, so self-pitying or aggrandizing. I do observe the day in reflection, usually with some reading. Hopefully, I will observe the year with fidelity to decency, the best antidote to evil.