In the initial stages of their academic journey, aspiring historians often learn the importance of approaching their work with impartiality, a concept eloquently termed as the “historians’ craft” by French academic Marc Bloch. The Latin phrase “sine ira et studio,” meaning without anger or partiality, is emphasized as the guiding principle. However, maintaining such emotional detachment becomes exceedingly challenging in the face of the occurrences on October 7, an event so devastating it has been dubbed a “Black Shabbat”. These events have left us not only shocked and devastated but also filled with bitterness and confusion.
Seeking historical analogies to make sense of current tragedies is an instinctive human response. Unfortunately, the annals of Jewish history offer an abundance of such grim parallels, events that are still vivid in the memories of our elders who lived through them. These acts of mass violence have been a hauntingly recurrent theme spanning over three millennia. Yet, for many of us, the notion that such large-scale brutality could manifest in our own time, especially within the Jewish State, was beyond the realm of conceivable thought.
The visceral reactions of those who witness such heinous acts up close are entirely understandable, as is their struggle to articulate the horror. For example, a recent headline in the Daily Mail starkly claimed that an “Israeli morgue worker says horrors inflicted on Hamas victims are ‘worse than the Holocaust,’ including a decapitated pregnant woman and her beheaded unborn child.”
Yet, even amid our collective outrage and sorrow, it’s crucial to exercise caution in our choice of language. Indeed, the appalling actions of the militant forces that invaded Israel, regardless of their lethal motives, should not be equated with the suffering endured by Jews during the Final Solution.
Clearly, the Shoah operated on a completely different scale, and unlike contemporary Israelis, Jews of that era had no means of defiance. Acts of mass infanticide, matricide, and the gruesome dismemberment of victims by the Germans and their cruel collaborators from various nations were far from uncommon during that period. A plethora of accounts from survivors, witnesses, and even those who committed these acts serve as harrowing testimony to this fact.
During the 1941 pogrom in Bucharest, members of the Romanian Iron Guard captured Jews on the streets and took them to a local slaughterhouse. There, some were horrifically hung from meat hooks while still alive. Their abdomens were eviscerated, their intestines were fashioned into makeshift neckties, and signs labelling them as “kosher meat” were cruelly attached to their bodies.
As per a report by US envoy Franklin Mott Gunther, who personally visited the scene of this atrocity, a slaughterhouse worker “discovered 60 Jewish bodies on the hooks… all of whom had been skinned alive”. In his extensively read book on the Jedwabne massacre, which has come to symbolize local complicity in the extermination of Jews, Jan T. Gross detailed the horrifying account of how hundreds of Jews were incinerated alive. He also recounted the macabre episode where the severed head of a Jewish girl was used as a makeshift soccer ball.
Certainly, it’s important to note that such heinous crimes were not isolated incidents but occurred extensively throughout Europe during the war. Hamas did not introduce any new form of cruelty. Additionally, despite his own vehement anti-Semitic views, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was not the inspiration behind Hitler’s plan to annihilate European Jewry. This contradicts a claim made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a 2015 speech, where he stated, “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time; he wanted to expel the Jews… When Adolf Hitler asked al-Husseini what to do, he replied: ‘Burn them’”.
As noted by the late Lucy Dawidowicz, the author of the seminal work “The War Against the Jews”, when German police units entered the Riga ghetto in December 1941 to gather the elderly and infirm, esteemed historian Simon Dubnow made a poignant plea as he was being led to his demise: “Brothers, document everything you witness and experience. Maintain a comprehensive account!” Numerous Jews facing their tragic fate in Europe heeded this call, often recording their experiences in meticulous detail despite the overwhelmingly dire conditions they faced.
Perhaps the most renowned instance is the Oneg Shabbat collective in the Warsaw Ghetto. Under the guidance of Emanuel Ringelblum, this courageous group of record-keepers was the focus of an evocative, authoritative study by Samuel Kassow, entitled “Who Will Write Our History?” This work was later adapted into a film. Largely owing to the unyielding endeavours of multiple generations of scholars, the annihilation of European Jewry stands as one of the most thoroughly documented episodes in the annals of humanity.
Nonetheless, this extensive documentation has not deterred successive generations of Holocaust deniers and distorters from making unfounded claims. These include assertions that the Holocaust either didn’t occur or was blown out of proportion; that the perpetrators are blameless; or that when Germans or indigenous communities turned against their Jewish neighbors—communities where Jews had resided for centuries—it was in retaliation for alleged Jewish wrongdoings. These supposed misdeeds range from the crucifixion of Christ and economic domination to the use of Christian blood for ritualistic purposes or the imposition of communism on devout local populations.
Within mere hours following the Black Shabbat wave of violence, questions surrounding the veracity and precision of the harrowing reports from the scene of the massacre began to circulate globally. We exist in a time where both information and misinformation propagate at unprecedented speeds, and once a narrative gains traction online, rectifying it becomes an arduous task. The rise of artificial intelligence only exacerbates this issue.
In these grim times, Dubnow’s exhortation echoes with almost the same urgency as it did back then. The immediate priority should be to conduct comprehensive interviews with every survivor of the Black Shabbat tragedy. These interviews should be administered by experts trained in the art of sensitive and effective questioning.
Data about each victim, including the circumstances of their deaths, should be meticulously compiled. Written surveys should also be disseminated among all survivors. Every shred of evidence, including the disturbing footage captured with glee by the perpetrators, must be collected and systematically catalogued.
A centralized body should be instituted to oversee this crucial task. It’s important to note that not all victims were Jewish. Testimonies from Israeli Arabs, Thais, Filipinos, Nepalis, and others should be gathered with equal diligence. These individuals should be reassured that their experiences, and the loved ones they’ve lost, will be indelibly remembered.
Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, now 94, once noted that humans are essentially “storytelling animals” in both their actions and narratives. However, when documenting the events of October 7, perhaps the term “stories,” which suggests a degree of fictionality, should be replaced with “accounts” or “testimonies.”
In Jewish tradition, the commandment of Zachor [Remember] holds significant weight. The scriptures instruct us to “remember what Amalek did to you on your way after you left Egypt… Do not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17). Now, perhaps more than in any recent era, these words must serve as a guiding principle for the nation.