By Harriet P. Gross
I’m passionately opposed to those who say they’ve had “too much” Holocaust and want no more books or films or anything else about it.
This is how I see it, and I think my reasoning is sound: In all of Jewish history, we have had only two seminal experiences. The first was the Exodus, which led us out of Egypt and created our peoplehood; the second was the Holocaust, which decimated our principal long-time culture but ultimately led to new solidarities of today. Wanting “no more” Holocaust would be like wanting “no more” Exodus — reducing Judaism to virtual nothingness.
This is why I write today, as we prepare for the High Holy Days that will begin so soon, about Hitler — the Pharaoh of our European days, the Amalek of our time. Because it was 93 years to the day of this year’s Erev Rosh Hashanah — Sept. 16, 1919 — that Hitler wrote the letter the Simon Wiesenthal Center tells us changed the world, a letter that came six years before “Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s two-volume rant on Jew-hate and German conquest, but clearly stated its content in advance. This is what happened, and how:
Earlier in 1919, a soldier in Munich, Adolf Gemlich, asked Capt. Karl Mayr how important the “Jewish question” was in current German politics. Mayr deputized Hitler to answer, and his message put forth the need for a kind of anti-Semitism he termed both “rational” and “scientific.” This “Gemlich Letter,” though generally not well known, is recognized by Holocaust students as Hitler’s very first anti-Semitic writing. Here is some of it in translation:
“Anti-Semitism as a political movement may not and cannot be defined by emotional impulses, but by recognition of the facts … Jewry is absolutely a race and not a religious association … there lives amongst us a non-German, alien race which … possesses all the political rights we do … [and] is like a racial tuberculosis …
“An anti-Semitism based on purely emotional grounds, will find its ultimate expression in the form of the pogrom. Anti-Semitism based on reason, however, must lead to systematic legal combatting and elimination of the privileges of the Jews, that which distinguishes the Jews from the other aliens who live among us. The ultimate objective must be the irrevocable [this word also translated as ‘uncompromising’] removal of the Jews in general.”
The typewritten Gemlich letter is the sole surviving document over Hitler’s signature that advocates Jewish extermination. William Ziegler, an American G.I. in Nuremberg, found it in April 1945 and brought it back to the U.S. to sell to a private collector. The center had its first chance to buy the letter in 1988 but was skeptical, believing Hitler couldn’t possibly have afforded a typewriter then. By the time it was verified that he’d used a German army typewriter and his signature was also authenticated, the letter had been resold.
But finally, last year, Wiesenthal’s founder/dean Rabbi Marvin Hier announced that the center had purchased the letter — for $150,000.
“We do not want to make a market for memorabilia,” he said. “But this document does not belong in private hands. It has too much to say to history.” The public can now see it on permanent display at the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
So why is it right and important to consider, as our holy days begin, this horrific announcement of our people’s future as envisioned by Hitler? Rabbi Hier answers this way: “September is the time when Jews around the world celebrate Rosh Hashanah, hopeful for a better world. But September also reminds us of tragedies: the start of World War II, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 …
“It was on Sept. 16, 1919, that Adolf Hitler answered a question of Germany’s position on the Jews. His letter changed not only Jewish history, but also the entire world, forever. What it says of most importance is, ‘to accomplish these goals [removal of the Jews], only a government of national power is capable, never a government of national weakness.’ Our exhibit will remind the world that what began as a private letter, one man’s opinion, became the policy of an entire nation, and six million Jews were murdered. This is an important warning for future generations … ”
The Shofar calls us to action and to remember. This Rosh Hashanah, let’s remember the Gemlich letter, and the need to bring our knowledge of the past into the present, so its disasters will not be repeated in the future. A Shanah Tovah for us all, indeed.