One By One, By One
VTR Date: June 24, 1990
Guest: Miller, Judith
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Judith Miller
Title: “One by One, by One”
HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, however devastating we almost defensively call nature’s cruelties: earthquakes, floods, pestilence, drought…when scores of thousands, hundreds of thousands have lost their lives, what ultimately does and must of necessity most frighten us, undermine our essential faith in humanity, rouse our capacity first for indifference, then for denial, are the signs for throughout all of our lives of man’s inhumanity to man: In our own country, the two hundred years of unrequited toil of black chattel slavery; Everywhere, the slaughters of war. And still the life experience of many, victims and victimizers alike, who are very much in the mainstream of our lives today, very much in our own memory, if we choose to remember rather than to deny, the still incomprehensible cruelty of so many others’ participation in Hitler’s “Final Solution”, the systematic annihilation of six million human beings, because they were Jews. To be sure, memory is not enough. Ask my guest today writes, “Knowing and remembering the evil in each of us might not prevent a recurrence of genocide. But ignorance of history, or suppression of memory removes the surest defense we have, however inadequate, against such gigantic cruelty and indifference to it”. Judith Miller concludes: “Abstraction is memory’s most ardent enemy. It kills, because it encourages distance, and often indifference. We must remind ourselves that the Holocaust was not six million. It was one plus one plus one. Only in understanding that civilized people must defend the one by one by one can the Holocaust, the incomprehensible, be given meaning”.
Judith Miller has reported for The New York Times from Paris, the Middle East, as Cairo Bureau Chief, Washington D.C., and now is Deputy Media Editor here in New York. Her new book “One, by One, by One” is published by Simon and Schuster. And I want to ask Ms. Miller, whether her book about memories of and deeds done in response to the Holocaust in Germany, Austria, Holland, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, reflects more “never knew” or “don’t remember”. Ms. Miller, which is it? Did they never know or do they just not remember?
MILLER: Well, I think you put it very well in introducing me. You talked about remembering versus not forgetting, but denial. And I think what we’ve seen, and what we’re seeing all over the world, no less in our own country, is the suppression, or the denial of the past. Because, the thing that impressed me as I traveled through these countries, and as I live there, is that people certainly have not forgotten. They just choose not to remember because it’s too painful.
HEFFNER: Then what happens? What happens to the fact of the Holocaust?
MILLER: It becomes either submerged in the broader horror of World War II, or it becomes rationalized away.
HEFFNER: What do you mean, rationalized away?
MILLER: There are a lot of different stratagem that different peoples follow and one is to say, “Yes, we committed gigantic cruelty, but we suffered as well. Our people also suffered”. So there’s a kind of equivalence of suffering that sets in so that people don’t have to grapple with their own historical responsibility for what their parents or what their grandparents did. It’s much easier to say “It was all horrible. We all paid a price, and let’s put this behind us”.
HEFFNER: What do you think about this “equivalence of suffering”, as you call it?
MILLER: I think it is only natural for people to express, or attempt to express their suffering in the metaphor of another peoples whose suffering may be better known. So, for example, it makes perfect sense to me that if I were a Palestinian I would attempt to equate my fight with that of the Jews’. But I also think incumbent upon all people who treasure a fact in history to make them, or make me if I were Palestinian, understand that despite my suffering, and even though I am being denied my human and civil rights, my situation is not comparable to a Jew during the Nazi period. I mean, I think we have to be very clear about the nature of that crime, the scope of that event. It was, in my view, unique.
HEFFNER: You say “unique”. What efforts are being made to foster that understanding that is unique, even in the face of the suffering, let’s say, of the Palestinians, as you do?
MILLER: I think it’s being made clearer in the United States, oddly enough, that in any of the countries that were directly involved in it, there the memories are too fresh. They’re in your memory, they’re in your family, your communities. They’re part of your civic history. In the United States we have the geographic and the moral luxury of being far away, removed from the event. And so it’s easier for us Americans to look at this event and say “This truly was unlike any other”. And so, for example, in the United States you see this proliferation of Holocaust museums – 19 museums, 5 libraries, 48 resource centers. You see none of this in Europe, almost none.
HEFFNER: Now let me ask you a question that disturbs me as I read One by One, by One, particularly as I read your chapter on the United States. If we had not received with open arms…in crucial times, but ultimately did receive so many of the refugees from the Holocaust, and if we did not house so many that were so successful in their own lives, would we, do you think, be any different from the French, the Germans, the Austrians, the Dutch and so on?
MILLER: I think we don’t know what we as Americans would have done, as the United States of America had been in Europe, had it been overrun by the Germans, had each of us been faced with the same moral choices that the Dutch, the Belgians, the French and so on were faced with. I don’t know what I would have done. I like to think I would have done the right thing, but we can’t tell. Therefore, I think it’s very difficult for Americans to sit in judgment of the Europeans or the Russians, to say “We would have done better”. The fact of the matter was that we were neither the perpetrators nor the victims of the Holocaust. And this gives us the ability to look at it with a certain degree of objectivity. But let me make one point about what we did and did not do. While it is true that we “liberated” the concentration camps, and I don’t particularly like that word because freeing the camps and saving those in them was never a priority for the United States. We kind of tripped across them as we went towards Europe and freed the areas that were under German occupation. What we did not do is let 20,000 children into this country. Congress considered and rejected legislation that would have enabled these children, these Jewish children to come into the country and be saved. Congress wouldn’t do it. Nor did we ever bomb the concentration camps or the railways to the camps, even though the Jewish leaders, the communities at the time begged the government to do this. The powers that be were reluctant to use their military power to that end. So even our own record is not pristine when it comes to this event. I don’t think we did enough to either stop it or prevent it. And I surely don’t think that we have the right to sit in judgment of those now who are struggling with their memories and say, ”In addition to not having done enough to prevent the Holocaust, you are now not looking at it”. I didn’t want my book to have that tone. I hope it doesn’t. But I do hope that it makes all people who read it examine themselves, and ask themselves “What would I have done?”
HEFFNER: What did you say, why do you say you didn’t want your book to have that tone?
MILLER: Because, especially with respect to the Germans; I met a lot of Germans my own age who have absolutely no immediate responsibility for the Holocaust. In many instances they weren’t born. They were children. And yet, I think they feel the whole time, that the world is looking at them and watching them and pointing their fingers at them saying “You did it. You, as Germans, did it”. And one thing I wanted to do in my book was to draw a very clear line between historical responsibility and guilt. Because I believe that guilt is personal. It’s individual, and historical responsibility is collective. A small point, but it was important to me and many of my German friends said “Can’t we just be treated and evaluated as individuals now, and as people who have been democrats for 40 year now”. So I don’t like judgments about which country is more moral than other countries, in which people are better. I don’t think that gets us very far.
HEFFNER: I agree. Twenty years ago I was asked to go, by our own government, to East Berlin. And I went, and I had gone by train into, originally into Germany, and I carried with me The Third Reich, Shirer’s book. We hadn’t been to Germany since the war. And when I came to Berlin and met some of those people you’re talking about I was so ashamed of myself that I took the cover off the book and put it in my briefcase and that was that. But you know, you answered very importantly the question that I was going to ask. But I wasn’t clear enough in the question that I did ask. I wonder what you think we would be doing by way of remembering the Holocaust, if we weren’t ourselves the landing place, the settlement place, ultimately, of so many Germans, German refugees.
MILLER: Well, I think the reason we’re doing as much as we are is connected to who landed here. But I think who landed here are basically the Jewish survivors. After Israel, this was the place to which they came.
MILLER: And that’s what we’re seeing. Because we’re seeing this proliferation of monuments and museums and commemoration projects here, precisely because, you’re absolutely right, those people came here. And therefore, we have a group of people who remember all too well what happened. And they’re now getting older and a lot of them are getting old and have died, are dying. And the ones who are still with us desperately want the world, and their countrymen not to forget what happened. And that’s why, because these people have prospered here, because these people have done very well here, many of them, they are now in a position to promote this goal, and that’s the reason we now have a Holocaust museum in the nation’s capital.
HEFFNER: And why we have so many others.
MILLER: And why we have so many others, because in Europe, Jewish survivors do not feel that they are truly accepted, or have political clout to promote projects like this. It’s been much slower going in Europe. And European Jews, as a community, are simply much more quiet, much less willing to kind of stick their heads out politically. I understand that. But that’s not a problem American Jews and Jewish survivors have.
HEFFNER: You know, you begin your book with the simple sentence, “This book is not about the Holocaust but how it is remembered.” And if it weren’t for the purposeful organization of memorials in this country, would you give much credence to the notion that the Holocaust is remembered here or there or anywhere?
MILLER: I think here it is much m ore visible, more obvious, much more a part of our culture than it is European culture.
HEFFNER: Because of what we just said.
MILLER: Exactly. But also, it’s crept into a lot of our literature, it’s reflected in a great many of our movies. I think the Holocaust as a theme…it borders upon…it’s almost become in this country overdone. The reason I wrote that line in the introduction is that a lot of people, a lot of Americans react by saying, “Enough about the Holocaust. I’m up to here…I don’t want to hear another word about it, I’ve heard it”. And in a sense they have. And as you point out, a lot of them haven’t. I don’t think a lot of Americans could tell you very much about the death camps, or how it operated, or how discrimination against the Jews began. I think they think they know more than they know, in part because of the “exploitation” of this theme in Hollywood, by people who constantly raise the Holocaust to advance other political goals. And that’s one thing, as you know, Dick, I discussed in my book. I don’t like to see that.
HEFFNER: That’s why I want you to take the quotation marks off from around the word exploitation…
HEFFNER: …and tell us what you really think.
MILLER: Well, I think the people who use the Holocaust to raise money, as a vehicle for fundraising, for example, for political goals, have crossed the line, as far as I’m concerned, and this is a very personal judgment in terms of commemoration. I am interested in remembrance, education and commemoration. I don’t like to see the Holocaust used to sell theater tickets, or even to raise money for Israel. And I happen to believe that Israel ought to be supported on its merits. I don’t like the argument “We have to support Israel because of the Holocaust”, because I believe that argument’s too easy to turn around….if people say “If there wasn’t a Holocaust would we have to support Israel?” I would like to untie those two things. And I don’t think their linkage has benefited either Israel or the effort in this country to commemorate the six million with dignity.
HEFFNER: You add “with dignity”…
MILLER: I have.
HEFFNER: …and you don’t think the efforts have helped to commemorate the Holocaust?
MILLER: Well, I believe in dignified commemoration. And I explore in my book a couple of vehicles of commemoration which I don’t find dignified. Now, I applaud the effort to commemorate no matter where it is and no matter what form it takes, but since it’s my book I can say that I don’t like these giant museums that rely heavily on high technology and which will be, as some of the critics have called them, theme parks. To me the Holocaust was not a theme park. It’s not a sound and light show. I don’t want to walk into a place and feel as if, in the case of the Simon-Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance…there will be heavy reliance on audio-visual displays and their own literature says “You will feel as if you were standing at the gates of Auschwitz”. The room will be dark, and it will be somber…this is all very kitschy, and I’m sure it will attract and it will entertain visitors, but I’m not certain that it will really get them to think about what the Holocaust was all about.
HEFFNER: Look, you’re speaking…you’re talking like a nice old-fashioned girl and I like that.
HEFFNER: And I agree with you. But we’re of another century, another world.
MILLER: (Laughter) You and I are.
MILLER: (Laughter) I think a lot of people irrespective of generations agree with us. Good taste is good taste. I don’t think there is one set of good taste…
HEFFNER: I didn’t mean generational. I couldn’t put myself in the same generation as you’re in. Of a mind set.
MILLER: Of a mind set.
HEFFNER: But what about the response that people are forgetting. And your book is not about remembrance. It’s about forgetfulness or denial. And here there are people who are saying we must use the means that are at our disposal, the means that in America, at the end of this century, are the means of getting attention, of holding attention. And we’re using the mechanics of television and technology to do so. Do you really want to argue against that?
MILLER: I think I do. Because, yes, I’m not against grabbing someone’s attention, I think that’s fine. I’m a great admirer, for example, of the mini-series “Holocaust”, which many people criticized, many historians of the Holocaust said was schmaltzy, and trivialized tremendous suffering. But I was very much in favor of it because it was fairly historically accurate, and also it got millions of people, especially Europeans and Germans, to whom the issue is so sensitive, to think about it for the first time. But the issue is that it is that all you are going to do? Are you going to build a museum in Los Angeles or Washington, have people walk through it, be shocked and horrified? You’ll get their attention, all right. But you used another word. You said keep their attention, hold their attention, make them think about it. And OK, I may be old-fashioned, but I am in favor of the longer term approaches that will reinforce the impression, in other words, maintain peoples’ interest, attention…maintain peoples’ interest and attention to this subject through education, through books; tasteful displays which will get people to think about it. I think it’s easy to get somebody’s attention. Making them think in a sustained and unemotional way is much more difficult. And that’s what we’re not very good at. My book is really about two things, Dick. It’s about the denial. But I also looked at different vehicles of memory and…that’s a poor expression…but the way that different peoples are trying to pass on memories. And I’ve found that some are more effective than others. I’m not sure that museums will be all that effective. We don’t know because they’re not built yet, and history will judge. But I did look at some vehicles of memory that I found very impressive over the long term.
HEFFNER: Which would you identify as the ones that are most effective, likely to be the most effective?
MILLER: Good education, number one, perhaps the hardest in a country like ours to sustain, because we are into glitz and kitsch. We’re into shock value. But a good education program is extremely important. And there’s only one state in the United States, and that’s Illinois, which has now made the teaching of the Holocaust mandatory. And I find that to be a really useful first step in making sure that Americans learn something about the history of what happened and how it happened. Another vehicle of memory that really impressed me is what the Germans are doing. They are having these commemorations all over the country and in fact, there are so many of them that the ultimate bean-counters, the Germans, have lost track of them. But it’s basically a set of reunions in which people who were forced to flee, whose relatives were killed, are invited back to a town, back to a community, for the dedication of what had been a synagogue, or a Jewish school, because as you know, there are very few Jews left in Germany today. But the community comes back together, and the people who fled or suffered have an opportunity to remember what happened, and also to remember the people who helped, as well as those who did not, and to come to grips with their memories.
HEFFNER: Your opening description of just such a meeting is just so touching, so wonderfully so. And your description of the refugees, the Jews who had left and come back now to this…most touching…and the reaction of the Germans in villages themselves.
HEFFNER: You know, your book shocked me. I had been brought up by a Dutch governess, and you have set aside my images of what The Netherlands did during the war.
MILLER: Well, I think that the Dutch are really quite angry at me about this, but I don’t wish to suggest that Dutch people are horrible or that they lied about what they did, but it is true that for me, I found that this gap between fact and image was greater in Holland than in any other country I visited, much stronger than in Germany or in the Soviet Union. You’re right.
HEFFNER: You know, the question of “Am I my brother’s keeper”…
HEFFNER: …comes up again and again here. As you recount the facts of the Holocaust and of the failure to remember, I find myself thinking in truth, the answer as a description of human nature is “no”. And it saddens me and your book is a sad one to that extent.
MILLER: It is a sad one, but I think it need not necessarily be sad.
HEFFNER: Give me some hope.
MILLER: Well, let me go back to the Dutch, which was your example.
MILLER: Yes, it is true that the Holland…the Dutch people had the highest number of indigenous Nazi Party members, the largest home-grown Nazi Party of any country in Europe outside of Germany, and perhaps Austria. And it is true that only 25% of Dutch Jewry survived. Of the 140,000 Dutch Jews, only 35,000 made it and that, unfortunately, is the highest kill ratio outside of Poland. But it is also true that a great many Dutch people resisted, and I think in part, as an unconscious reaction to their own experience, that is, what they didn’t do, what most of the country didn’t do, that country has gone out of its way to be more “moral and politically correct” than other countries. It considers this an important part of its foreign policy. Its foreign policy is talked about and measured in terms of morality and that’s unusual. And it’s led them to do some pretty brave things. For example, even though the Dutch connection with South Africa goes way, way back; even though the Dutch were among the founders, white Dutch founders of modern South Africa, they have consistently fought Apartheid. They have been extremely tough on that issue. So I think we can learn from our historical record if we’re willing to face it. The flip side of that is at the same time that the Dutch do that, they also promote the lore of Anne Frank, so that when we think of the Holocaust in The Netherlands we think of Anne Frank.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, we send people to Philadelphia and to Mount Vernon…
HEFFNER: …and we don’t talk much about the lynchings that took place in much of American history. So maybe that is not so unique to the Dutch.
MILLER: Oh, it’s not unique to the Dutch, definitely not unique to the Dutch. It’s very human, and that’s why we all have to worry about it.
HEFFNER: You know, one minute left. The Austrians seem to come in you book for an enormous amount of criticism.
MILLER: Yes. Because I think they have systematically tried to evade the past and avoid their own responsibility and I find that rather shocking in light of their historical record.
HEFFNER: We played a part in that, didn’t we?
MILLER: We certainly did. And we said to them, “You are Hitler’s first victims” and that is a title which they took for themselves and have not relinquished to this day.
HEFFNER: Judith Miller, I’m so pleased to have you here today. A difficult subject. And I think One by One, by One is an absolutely extraordinary examination of part of our, or all of our heritage. Thank you for joining me today.
MILLER: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s amazing guest and the book she wrote, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.
Continuing production of THE OPEN MIND has been made possible by grants from The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.