“…we must remember that the Jewish people are arguably the oldest surviving people on the Planet Earth, and because they have been spread out throughout the world, when we learn Jewish history we have to pay attention to all of human history. It’s a great framework for world history. To understand Jewish history means to build a great deal of general knowledge of the history of the world at large.”
~ Rabbi Ken Spiro, Why We Study History Of Judaism
Preface to this blog post:
The word “unique” automatically resonates with a positive ring in my ear. And so, it seems somewhat odd that it would lend itself to being controversial. But then again, the subject of “the uniqueness of the Holocaust” bumps up against some very sensitive parallel subjects — the status of other acts of genocide as they depict human suffering, to be specific — rubbing them, sometimes, the wrong way, whenever the Shoah is considered from within a framework of “absolute uniqueness.”
I’ve found that the subject of “uniqueness” is sometimes broken down into two categories: Absolute Uniqueness and Relative Uniqueness. It is a good lens to think through.
The Absolutist approach to the uniqueness debate asserts that the Holocaust cannot, or must not, be compared to other genocides; that by definition it is totally unique.
The Relativistic approach to the uniqueness debate asserts that all genocides hold characteristics in common with each other that must be studied and compared in order to gain understanding. It is a behaviorist approach common to social scientists and historians.
For the record, as the matter is understood by me at the time of this writing, I am, it seems, an Absolute-Relativist as concerns the Shoah’s character, as I see the Holocaust as providing a good overarching framework for studying other human behaviors that amount to genocidal actions taken. This, on the one hand, while on the other (in Tevye-esque fashion), I can also see the Shoah as falling into a category of being unique when compared to other genocides, especially as a matter of metaphysical consideration, when founded upon the belief that the Bible is the basis for understanding the overall plan of the God of Israel to mercifully intervene in human affairs.
I write this preface after the writing of the post, in the attempt to remain thoughtful and sensitive when “comparing” such heinous events.
It should be noted that it is not the level of suffering of the victims that is being compared here, but rather, the intentions of the perpetrators.
While in the process of researching the subject of Holocaust remembrance I recently came across an article titled “Never Again,” by Patrick T. Reardon. As I read along, I liked the author’s writing style and appreciated the sense of real concern for the highly disturbing subject of the liquidation by the Nazis of the shtetl of Eishyshok, Lithuania, a subject I am familiar with. I detected in the author’s voice an authentic sense of respect for the preservation of that particular memory. 
And then, about two-thirds of the way through, I came upon a stumbling block that caused me to look back at the article as I’d look back at the ground in search for the object that caused me to suddenly trip. Mr. Reardon, with an incontestable sense of good intention, offered up some “suggestions” for teachers attempting to “start up” lessons on the Holocaust. He had a list of short paragraphs with sub-headings like “Study up” and “Keep it simple” and “Focus on the Jews as people.” All very good, very sensitive pointers. With the exception of one in particular.
Among those good and sensitive pointers was a plain, simple, wrongly-posited pointer labeled “Keep things in perspective,” where Mr. Reardon, unfortunately, unhatched what I consider to be a popular untruth, a false statement that seemed to threaten to undo all of the good he’d previously accomplished in the article. The perspective of “Keeping perspective” advocated along with the other valuable pointers offered was to regard the Holocaust as being in the same category as all “other holocausts” in history: it was, afterall, yet another genocide in a long line of genocides that continues on most recently, and tragically, in the regions of Rwanda, the Sudan, etc. With this one broad, sweeping assumption, I felt that Mr. Reardon had all but invalidated the historical-empirical distinctiveness of the Shoah, thereby stripping it of much of the unprecedented phenomenological aspects of evil that it embodies. If the Holocaust is not viewed as being unique in history, in our time, then we have lost, or are in the process of losing, much critical perspective with regard to understanding the unique malevolent spiritual and psychological forces that spawned the occasion of its coming. If the Holocaust is no longer considered to be a unique catastrophe in human history, then are we not one step closer to seeing it repeated than we’ve been since it was brought to its practical end in 1945? (…not to its “end” in other manners of speaking, as the intangible effects of the Shoah are ever-present in the thoughts, hence, lives, of survivors and their families, the families of victims,and the collective heart of the Jewish people.)
And yet, ironically, when I consider the Holocaust as the target of such constant, increasing trivialization, I can see this in itself as evidence that it is, indeed, a transcendental event in history. Its use as a metaphor for other forms of oppression speaks, if in an ironic way, of the transcendence of its magnitude as an historic event that serves as the high water mark of crimes committed by humans against humanity. [as per the writing of Professor Henry Feingold, How Unique is the Holocaust?] Hence, it is, at least in this way, unique.
One important aspect of the Holocaust that supports the sustaining of ongoing efforts to defend and uphold its status of uniqueness might be found in its reflective emphasis on the importance of recognizing and acknowledging that all other human attempts at genocide are also unique in their own right as well, always to be considered as such; the memory of all victims of every instance of genocide to be honored in its own distinctive way within the context of its own unique category of existence. As a template for understanding human behavior, it is unique in its ability to uncover essential aspects of what modern genocide looks like during every phase of its inception. And it is in that same spirit of respect for the victims of all such acts of genocide that I quote this entry at the Jewish Virtual Library by Professor Emil Fackenheim… a noted Jewish philosopher and Reform rabbi… which has become a well-known model of defense of the Shoah’s uniqueness, as food for thought, but also as a good, lucid argument standing in defense of the nature of the Shoah overall:
“The eminent Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, offers a concise outline of the distinguishing characteristics of the Holocaust in his book, To Mend the World:
- The “Final Solution” was designed to exterminate every single Jewish man, woman and child. The only Jews who would have conceivably survived had Hitler been victorious were those who somehow escaped discovery by the Nazis.
- Jewish birth (actually mere evidence of “Jewish blood”) was sufficient to warrant the punishment of death. Fackenheim notes that this feature distinguished Jews from Poles and Russians who were killed because there were too many of them, and from “Aryans” who were not singled out unless they chose to single themselves out. With the possible exception of Gypsies, he adds, Jews were the only people killed for the “crime” of existing.
- The extermination of the Jews had no political or economic justification. It was not a means to any end; it was an end in itself. The killing of Jews was not considered just a part of the war effort, but equal to it; thus, resources that could have been used in the war were diverted instead to the program of extermination.
- The people who carried out the “Final Solution” were primarily average citizens. Fackenheim calls them “ordinary job holders with an extraordinary job.” They were not perverts or sadists. “The tone-setters,” he says, “were ordinary idealists, except that their ideals were torture and murder.” Someone else once wrote that Germany was the model of civilized society. What was perverse, then, was that the Germans could work all day in the concentration camps and then go home and read Schiller and Goethe while listening to Beethoven.
Other examples of mass murder exist in human history, such as the atrocities committed by Pol Pot in Cambodia and the Turkish annihilation of the Armenians. But none of those other catastrophes, Fackenheim argues, contain more than one of the characteristics described above.
Jews do not need to compete in a morbid contest as to who has suffered the most in history. It is important, however, to explain why the Holocaust is a unique part of human history.”
In order “to mend the world,” it might be said, we must first be clear about the true nature of evil,the warp and woof of that which plagues the world.
Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, who also happens to be the world’s leading expert on Holocaust denial, points out two reasons why the German program of genocide remains in a class by itself as an example of evil:
“It was the only time in recorded history that a state tried to destroy an entire people, regardless of an individual’s age, sex, location, profession, or belief. And it is the only instance in which the perpetrators conducted this genocide for no ostensible material, territorial, or political gain.” [as quoted in The Uniqueness of the Holocaust, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, aish.com]
It would seem that treatment of the Holocaust as an example of “just another, if larger” human act of genocide is just one aspect of the over-universalization of the subject of the Holocaust that represents a subtle, but potentially existential threat to the ontological truth of its its nature, which translates into a potential threat to its memory. I tend to think of this academically-inspired phenomenon as the “dumbing-up” of the Shoah, that is, the conceptual intellectual ascent of elitist, left-leaning academia; a postmodern conceptual construction based upon the dogma of the “deconstructionist,” “historical revisionistic,” “multi-cultural-pluralism-based ” paradigms of pedagogy that have become the zeitgeist of the age; paradigms that take the simple, substantive facts of the Holocaust and instead of seeing them just for what they are, treat the Holocaust as a learning tool, as a kind of framing rubric to guide the study of all other genocidal events… but… while somehow managing to trivialize the Shoah in the process. As I see it, this “dumbing-up” of the Holocaust carries the potential for dishonoring both the victims of the Nazi Final Solution as well as the victims of other ethnic cleansings and genocides… all of which deserve their unique place, not only in history, but in the minds and hearts of people everywhere. It is a slippery slope downward toward dishonor, I think, paved of good intention.
I would argue that the Shoah is “unique” in terms of its sweeping, “epoch-changing” (and “epic, changing’) nature, based upon one of the many implications it has had for the changed way in which humanity perceives itself in its aftermath, especially in light of its unique and unprecedented impact upon the Christian world’s own previously naive understanding of itself. The horror that such an industry of murder developed in the heart of Christian Europe triggered an ongoing, gradual realization process that emphasizes Christianity’s own overly-triumphant view of itself, to include the protection of lethal anti-Jewish errors in theology that significantly contributed to the theological, psychological, social, and legal conditions necessary for the Holocaust to occur. This was a catastrophic event of biblical proportions that constituted an unprecedented, epic shift in humanity’s overall estimation of itself and its history; producing a picture of a kind of “Flood of Darkness” akin to the global flood of Noahic significance, but with a specific element of mankind–the Nazi dictatorship of the Third Reich–ruling in God’s place for a time, so to speak, focusing on the destruction of a specifically targeted group within humanity for “cleansing purposes” instead of all humanity enmasse. Otherwise put, the Holocaust might be viewed as the appearance of an Evil Human Rulership intent upon ridding a certain targeted element of humanity from its place in Europe, while the account of the Noahic Flood is based upon the preeminence of a Good Divine Ruler focused upon ridding human evil from its place upon the earth. Both scenarios deal with a “remnant” of chosen ones… one selected by God for salvation and redemption, the other targeted by the Nazis for persecution and annihilation. Both narratives speak of groups of people intimately connected to God either by faith or by race, or both; one a meta-narrative in-reverse of the other; redemption and rescue turned inside-out by forces of storm-driven darkness moving upon the earth.
Finally, it just may be that the Holocaust is “most unique” when considered a subject of theological consideration apart from the social sciences. I would argue here that the Shoah is “a unique part of human history” simply because it is a “special” part of “divine history,” based upon the unique biblical covenantal relationship between Jacob-Israel and its Divine King; and then, between Jacob-Israel and its Divine King in triangulated relationship to human history in general. When Israel’s history is seen as its divine destiny, as being the divine engine that drives all of human history, it becomes a category set apart, at least in this Creator-creation regard, and at least from the perspective of the believer in the God of the Bible.
That being said, if we, as believers in the God of Israel, do not uphold the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a catastrophic event of singular distinction, how can we rightly uphold the uniqueness of the biblical mandate of “choseness” or “holiness” in all of its far-reaching implications for the absolute unique nature of the God of Israel, who is also Elah Sh’maya V’Arah, The God of Heaven and Earth, in terms of His elective relationship with the descendants of Abraham? Are not the extensive and practical implications of the principles of kodesh, holiness, or “separated-out-for-special-purposefulness” as applied to His people, Israel, the only real supportive “evidence” necessary for us, as loyal subjects of His kingdom, to staunchly defend the unique status of the events in the life-history of Jacob as somehow being apart-from as well as apart-of the greater tumult of human history?
I ask this question to myself as I ask it of the reader, agreeing with it in principle while never claiming to understand it completely.
As Christians, as an adopted-in and much-loved element of God’s family, Jacob as well as official citizens of God’s commonwealth of Israel by faith, it seems that we ought to be standing on the front lines of the ongoing battle to deny and/or trivialize the memory of the Shoah, if for no other reason than as an act of eternal gratitude for the unique status we possess as undeserving sharers in the inheritance of Jacob by faith in Israel’s Messiah-King.
As the apostle Paul writes to Timothy in what seems to be a moment of ecstatic “wonder-ment” concerning the unarguably unique aspects of El Yisrael, the God of Israel (and therefore, everything directly pertaining to and connected to Him, such as His people, Israel):
“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
1 Timothy 1:17 ESV
In closing, it occurs to me that one way for the church to uphold and defend the uniqueness of the Holocaust would be to take up the cause of teaching, remembering, and memorializing it as an act of repentance. This would take care of multiple obligations at once, stimulating much healing power. And what a unique undertaking that would be.
 Patrick T. Reardon is a feature writer for the Chicago Tribune and author of Daily Meditations (with Scripture) for Busy Dads (ACTA Publications, 1995) and Starting Out: Reflections for Young People (ACTA Publications, 2000).
 Yiddish diminutive for shtot meaning “town” or “city,” to imply a relatively small community; in Eastern Europe a unique socio-cultural communal pattern. The real criteria for the size of a shtetl were vague and ill-defined, as the actual size could vary from much less than 1,000 inhabitants to 20,000 or more. The term could also carry the connotation of a parochial lack of sophistication or, at times, a feeling of warmth or nostalgia. [Jewish Virtual Library]
 Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World, (IN: Indiana University Press, 1994).
- Shtetl: A FRONTLINE Digital Premiere (pbs.org)
- Anti-Semitic slogans discovered near Nazi work camp in Lithuania (jta.org)
- Anti-Semitic slogans found near Lithuanian work camp (timesofisrael.com)
- Just how anti-Semitic are British politicians? (timesofisrael.com)
- The Class I Hate to Teach (coffeeshoprabbi.com)
- The U.S. Holocaust Museum at 20: Confronting Tough Issues (algemeiner.com)
- Holocaust survivors, veterans gather at DC museum (cnsnews.com)
- Bill Clinton likens “sickness” of the Holocaust to current events (cbsnews.com)
- Holocaust Survivors, Veterans Gather At DC Museum (npr.org)
- At Holocaust Museum, Clinton & Wiesel Urge Young To Remember (npr.org)