Next week we mark the memorial of the Holocaust: but with the growing incidence of racism in Europe, Rabbi Jonathan Romain asks what we have learned from history
THE ONLY lesson we learn from history is that people do not learn from history. The events of recent months seem to confirm this depressing verdict. Think of the rising tide sweeping
of neo-fascism Germany and the ethnic cleansing in areas of the former Yugoslavia.
They question whether there was any justification in the comfort dredged from the Holocaust: that humanity had been so shocked by the Nazis that never again would people perpetrate or stand by and allow other people to perpetrate such violent disregard for the rights of others.
After 1945 there was a unique moment of moral outrage. There was a desire to restore a sense of confidence in our ability to run the world properly.
It seemed like a modern rainbow was emerging, as if to say: "While the earth remains. while there is seedtime and harvest, summer and winter, day and night, we shall not destroy our fellows in this way again."
Yet the colours of the rainbow are already dominated by black and red in reunified Germany, representing not just the shades of the swastika but the new reality of the 1990s: black for the anger and fury felt by so many; red for the blood that has already been shed by the Turks and others. In Bosnia a grim greyness pervades the landscape.
What has happened to the high hopes for a rejuvenated mankind? Were they just a passing fantasy rather than a new pattern?
It seems that tolerance of others which should be a virtue in its own right is in fact always dependent on our own wellbeing.
Human nature cannot rid itself of that fatal flaw which characterises our attitude to others: "When I'm alright, you're alright, then you are the problem."
Perhaps Genesis was right in stating that "the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (viii 21).
There is a natural tendency to be suspicious of those who are different from us. Sometimes we manage to contain it, yet all too easily it bursts out and spirals downwards into fear, resentment and hostility.
Jews in prticular are aware of this.The Holocaust was a horrific event, involving cruelty that we would not believe possible had we not heard the tale of survivors, seen the discarded canisters of Zyklon B gas. and dug up the mass graves of twisted emaciated bodies.
The figure of six million is virtually impossible to comprehend: it represented a third of the total Jewish population. Imagine every third person at work being dragged off to be shot... or every third house in your street being bulldozed down.
The appalling loss of life and the destruction of whole communities was rendered even more shocking by the terrible way in which it occurred. Auschwitz has become a byword for a time when madness and inhumanity reigned supreme.
The shock waves initially generated by the Holocaust may now be diminishing. but its impact on countless personal lives remains. That applies even to someone who, like myself: was born after the war.
It is why I was born in England the child of a child refugee; why 1 have only a small family the aunts, uncles and cousins I should have had were all murdered: why those members of the family that did survive are not nearby but scattered across the world, having desperately sought refuge in whatever country they could escape to. The cry after the Holocaust "never again" did have some positive results.
The United Nations was established in an attempt to order global affairs. and despite its many failures, it has had achievements too, The State of Israel was formed, creating a homeland that would both offer a haven for any Jew suffering persecution and be a vibrant centre of Jewish creativity.
Jewish-Christian dialogue was shocked into action and major strides were made in respecting religious differences and appreciating common roots.
The work needs to continue. The fact that the term "Holocaust" has been used in so many other situations since 1945 does not invalidate that original shriek of horror "never again" but is all the more reason to keep on proclaiming the message.
The religious response must be a matter of realistic optimism: taking account of the weaknesses of the human psyche and the fears and prejudices that pervade it, yet trying to steer them into positive channels.
Loving our neighbour as ourselves not pretending to love them overmuch, but recognising that they are as us, and with the same hopes. emotions, fears and desires as we have... and trying to accommodate them as we wish them to accommodate us.
Perhaps the memory of the Holocaust justifies adding a new commandment to our list of moral pillars: "Thou shalt see thyself in thy neighbour anti thou shalt not infringe the common humanity of any other person."