Tisha be-Av

Today marks the fast of the Ninth of Av (Hebrew: Tisha be-Av), the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day, we observe a full 25-hour fast (sundown to sundown) and observe some mourning customs. In the synagogue, the Book of Lamentations is read. Work is not forbidden (I am in fact working today), but in Israel, Tisha be-Av is an optional day off, as many find working (efficiently) difficult owing to light-headedness or dehydration (don’t forget this is high summer here).

Originally, Tisha be-Av marked the destruction of the First and Second Temples, coincidentally on the same day of the Hebrew calendar in 587 BE and 70 CE. Over the years, however, further calamities befell the Jewish people on or near that day. Below follow some of the more

  • August 4, 135 OS (9 Av, 3895): the crushing of the Bar-Kochba rebellion by the Roman occupiers. The last Jewish stronghold at Betar was crushed, the site of the former Temple plowed over by order of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and the land that was hitherto known as Provincia Judea punitively renamed Palestina. [This is, BTW, the first recorded usage of that term, taken from the seafaring people known as the Pelishtim or Philistines who used to dwell in the Ashdod/Ashkelon/Gaza region of the coastal plain.]
  • July 18, 1290 OS (9 Av, 5050): expulsion of the Jews from England
  • July 22, 1306 OS (9 Av, 5066): ditto from France
  • July 31, 1492 OS (7 Av, 5252): Gerush Sefarad: a royal decree gave the many Jews of Spain the choice between expulsion and conversion to Catholicism. Many of those who did convert (Conversos or Nuevos Cristianos) secretly continued to adhere to Jewish customs: these so-called Marranos faced torture or death when caught.  Many others found temporary refuge in Portugal, only to be faced with the same choice five years later. Sephardic Jewish communities around the Mediterranean basin, as well as in some northern European port and trading cities, were founded by refugees who left wherever ships would take them. The oldest synagogue on US soil was, in fact, established in 1654 by Marranos “come out of the closet”.

The Holocaust (Hebrew: Shoah = catastrophe) is itself linked multiple times to this date:

  • August 1-2, 1914 (9-10 Av, 5764): Germany entered World War One. While this did not directly involve or affect the Jewish people as such, the aftermath of WW I created the conditions for the rise of National Socialism, and hence indirectly led to WW II and the Shoah.
  • July 31, 1941 (7 Av, 5701): Reich Marshal (and de facto deputy Führer) Hermann Göring (y”sh) issues a written order to SD-chief Heydrich (y”sh) to “Expanding on your earlier orders […] I order you to submit to me soonest, a comprehensive plan for the organizational, practical, and material preparations for the sought-after Final Solution of the Jewish Question“. [To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this phrase appears in an official document.]
  • July 23, 1942 (9 Av 5702):  the first deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the extermination camp at Treblinka took place.

Indeed, some religious Jews favor commemorating the Shoah on Tisha be-Av rather than create a separate memorial day. They had the support of Menachem Begin (prime minister 1977-1983), whose parents and brother had been murdered by the Nazis (y”sh) and who himself had narrowly escaped their clutches. However, this proposal did not gain adequate support, and thus Yom HaShoah, with its more secular complexion, continues to exist side by side with Tisha be-Av.

Finally, it is written in the Talmud (Yoma 9b) that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam — baseless hatred that had Jews too obsessed with factional infighting to be able to form a united front against the common enemy. I have a feeling that if the sages of the Talmud could have been put in a time machine and see the situation in the West today, that they would sadly have nodded in recognition. “Verily, there is nothing new under the sun.”


1919 “Gemlich letter” by Hitler on Jews: did it prefigure the Shoah?

Via today’s online edition of the Yediot Achronot, I learned that the Simon Wiesenthal Center announced its acquisition of a unique document in the history of the Shoah: a 4-page typewritten letter dated September 16, 1919 by Adolf Hitler (y”sh),  then a lance corporal (Obergefreiter) in the German army, on his views about the Jewish people. Genesis of the letter:

Hitler returned from a military hospital to Munich in early 1919. There he underwent a Reichswehr sponsored course of systematic political education for demobilizing soldiers that featured Pan­German nationalism, antisemitism, and anti­socialism. These same themes were prominent in Bavarian politics following the repression of the Munich revolution of 1918­19. Because antisemitism had not played a notable part in Bavarian politics prior to the revolutionary disturbances, a Herr Adolf Gemlich was prompted to send an inquiry about the importance of the “Jewish question” to Captain Karl Mayr, the officer in charge of the Reichswehr News and Enlightenment Department in Munich. Mayr referred him to Hitler, who had distinguished himself in the above­mentioned course by the vehemence of his radical nationalist and antisemitic views, and by his oratorical talents. Hitler was already feeling his way toward a political career; four days before responding to Gemlich in the letter translated below, he had paid his first visit to the German Workers’ Party (eventually renamed, the National Socialist Workers’ Party) as a confidential agent of the Reichswehr.

The full original text (in German, errors in spelling and grammar deliberately reproduced) can be read here, while the Jewish Virtual Library offers an English translation by Richard Levy. Hitler (y”sh) is at pains to project himself as a “rational”, “thinking” antisemite rather than a mere judeophobic demagogue. The moneygraf of the letter is this (I will quote both the German original and Levy’s translation):

Und daraus ergibt sich folgendes: Der Antisemitismus aus rein gefühlsmäßigen Gründen wird seinen letzten Ausdruck finden in der Form von Progromen. Der Antisemitismus der Vernunft jedoch muss führen zur planmässigen gesetzlichen Bekämpfung und Beseitigung der Vorrechte des Juden die er zum Unterschied der anderen zwischen uns lebenden Fremden besitzt. (Fremdengesetzgebung). Sein letztes Ziel aber muss unverrückbar die Entfernung der Juden überhaupt sein.

[Translation:] The deduction from all this is the following: an antisemitism based on purely emotional grounds will find its ultimate expression in the form of the pogrom.[1] An antisemitism based on reason, however, must lead to systematic legal combating and elimination of the privileges of the Jews, that which distinguishes the Jews from the other aliens who live among us (an Aliens Law). The ultimate objective [of such legislation] must, however, be the irrevocable removal of the Jews in general.

The key term is “Entfernung”, which literally can be taken to mean “removal” or “dislodgement”, but for which the premier online German dictionary Leo also lists the following meanings: “excision, ablation [medical]”, “ejection”, “elimination”. (The Dutch cognate of “Entfernung”, “verwijdering”, has the same multiple meanings.) It is argued here (presumably quoting Eberhard Jäckel), as well as by Christopher Browning, that in context, the term was probably still referring to segregation or expulsion rather than genocide. But it is hardly a stretch to argue that precisely that was indeed meant as the ultimate goal, and hardly a coincidence that this quote is prominently displayed at the Wannsee Conference House (presently a Holocaust museum and memorial site).

In any case, “functionalist” and “intentionalist” historians will each see confirmation of their preconceived views. I myself side with the late lamented dean of Shoah historians, Raul Hilberg:”I have never begun by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I would come up with small answers.”

Addendum: I forgot to mention (as explained in the NYT article on the SWC website) that the letter’s signature was declared genuine by the same handwriting expert who unmasked the forged “Hitler diaries”.