Anatoly Kuznetsov's "documentary novel" of Nazi-occupied Ukraine may help to illuminate the news from Israel about Hamas' October 7 surprise attack. As Yiddish Shmoozers prepare to read the book, I am compelled to stop and think about the conflation of the attack with the Holocaust. That is what this blog explores.
Babi Yar, a wide ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv, was the site where in September 1941 the invading German Nazi army concentrated and murdered 33,000 Ukrainian Jews in a matter of two days. It was the largest single execution of the Holocaust. (1) Now, in the midst of a full-scale Israel war against Hamas, Babi Yar becomes relevant in a new way.
The scale of murder in Israel on October 7 which claimed 1,400 civilian lives has been made more horrifying by photos of beds and cribs bathed in sleeping victims' blood and of truck-mounted machine gunners spraying bullets at a crowd. All but a few of the 240 hostages, ordinary people kidnapped by Hamas, remain somewhere in Gaza. These facts and images have prompted swift comparisons of Hamas' attack to Nazi mass killings in Europe during World War II, such as took place at Babi Yar.
Language Use in Time of War
Language is humanity's most powerful tool, if not also weapon. This was recognized by my mentor and friend, anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff in her suggestion to rethink how we name ourselves as a species. She proposed replacing the name Homo sapiens with Homo Narrans, humankind as story-teller.(2) Language can be denotative (describing what things are) and connotative (evoking associations and resonances). It can be rhetorical (overtly aiming to persuade) and it can be pragmatic (enacting relationships that prompt further action). This is why we read.
I have been thinking about the pragmatics of language coming out of this new phase of the enduring conflict since 1948 around Israel's existence. What story is being framed by linguistic choices? Personally, I frame the October 7 attack as primarily a political response against the Israeli state, while public responses from Israel and in the American press immediately emphasized the attack as a threat to Jewish survival tout court. A spokesperson for Israeli president Isaac Herzog posted online on X: “It’s no exaggeration to say yesterday was the darkest day in Jewish history since the end of the Holocaust.” Lazar Berman, diplomatic correspondent for the Times of Israel, wrote: “October 7, 2023 saw the most Jews slaughtered in a single day since the Holocaust.” (3)
Who or What Is Nazi?
Within two days of the October 7 attack, Israeli officials began identifying Hamas as "the New Nazis." (4) The linking of this event to the Holocaust may be considered inevitable, but it was not necessarily the first or only option. Initially comparisons were made also to America's surprise attacks of 9/11 and to Pearl Harbor.(5) Some commentators reached back to the depredations by anti-Jewish mobs in Tsarist Russia, calling the attack a "pogrom."(6) The Holocaust comparison is the most effective rhetorically and pragmatically. It enlists the world's Jews and supporters of Israel to endorse the Israeli government's maximal response given the threat of total Jewish annihilation.(7) Never again!
French-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, a critic of Netanyahu's "apartheid regime for the Palestinians," calls attention to the propaganda value to Hamas of broadcasting its murders and atrocities. At the same time, Illouz implies the same for Israel's claim that the attack is existential. So many deaths! And that it requires a total and final military response. Illouz writes:
It has been the biggest shock in post-Holocaust Jewish history. The whole ontological reality of Israel has been called into question. The Nazis were trying to hide atrocities, not broadcast them. Death itself has become a propaganda motif. There has been a regime shift in atrocity. This is why the war has become total and existential.(9)
In the month since October 7, the Israeli government's retaliatory bombing of Gaza has resulted in more than 10,000 Palestinian civilian deaths, including more than 4,000 children under the age of 18 (10). This will not be the first time that Israel itself is accused of Nazi policies, tactics, and actions--collective punishment, extrajudicial killing, apartheid, genocide--against Palestinian civilians. The comparison surfaces even among Israeli critics of their own government.(11) It is hard for a thinking person to ignore such thoughts. Two days ago, an American Jewish friend of mine shared something with respect to Gaza that he hasn't ventured to say out loud: "I find myself thinking about the Warsaw Uprising."
Analogizing Babi Yar
In speaking of the Hamas massacre at Kibbutz Re'im, Netanyahu made reference to the "Holocaust by Bullets." (12) "The Holocaust by Bullets" is a phrase used to describe Babi Yar, where thousands upon thousands of Jewish lives were destroyed not in gas chambers but by machine gun bullets. At the age of 14, author Kuznetzov began writing down what he experienced on September 29, 1941, as the German occupiers ordered the Jews of Kyiv to show up for deportation at the railroad yard near the Jewish cemetery.
When I got home I found my grandfather standing in the middle of the courtyard, straining to hear some shooting that was going on somewhere. He raised his finger.
'Do you know what?' he said with horror in his voice. 'They're not deporting 'em. They're shooting 'em.'
Then, for the first time, I realized what was happening.
From Babi Yar came quite distinctly the sound of regular outbursts of machine gun fire: ta-ta-ta, ta-ta . . . .
At night the firing stopped, but it started up again in the morning. The word went around Kurenyovka that thirty thousand people had been shot on the first day, and that the others were sitting there waiting their turn (pp. 86-87)
Kuznetzov follows this report with two more accounts, one by a boy who escaped the action, the other by Dina Mironovna Pronicheva. (We will discuss writer D. M. Thomas' controversial unattributed use of Pronicheva's story in his 1981 novel The White Hotel in the continued discussion of Babi Yar.) Breathlessly, the boy explained, before German soldiers found and took him away:
. . . that they [the victims] were being made to take all their clothes off; that several of them would be lined up, one behind the other so as to kill more than one at a time; that the bodies were then piled up and earth thrown over them, and then more bodies were laid on top; that there were many who were not really dead, so that you could see the earth moving, that some had managed to crawl out, only to be knocked over the head and thrown back into the pile (p. 87).
Not to be obtuse, but please explain how this description of what happened at Babi Yar justifies equating the Hamas attack with the entire phenomenon of the Holocaust? I know that some will be offended when I say that the Hamas attack, horrible as it was, seems more like a poorly executed copy-cat murder. This is not to deny the emotional overlap with Jewish collective memory but to say that we have to deal with the feelings as feelings.(13) It is not logical to conflate the attack with the Holocaust any more than with, say, 9/11, Pearl Harbor, or the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. These events differ. There are choices to be made. And that is what some scholars and journalists are asking us to consider and bear in mind. (14)
My position in sharing my reflections is not to vindicate Hamas in any way, nor to identify what makes "real Nazis." Hamas, from my position, is a deadly and ruthless entity. I don't doubt the organization's mission to destroy the state of Israel and wipe out the Jewish infidel. (14) The Hamas Covenant issued in 1988 self-identifies the organization as a Palestinian movement "whose allegiance is to Allah" and that "strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine" (Article 6). The Covenant rejects any negotiated peace settlement:
[Peace] initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement... Those conferences are no more than a means to appoint the infidels as arbitrators in the lands of Islam... There is no solution for the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility. (Article 13). (15)
Hamas amended its charter in 2017 (16). Article 20 accepts the concept of a Palestinian state as a provisional step toward the ultimate liberation of the territory occupied by the Israeli state. It affirms Palestinian rights to the lands "from the river to the sea" including the 1948 borders and the 1967 occupied West Bank and Gaza:
Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea. However, without compromising its rejection of the Zionist entity and without relinquishing any Palestinian rights, Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.
The 2017 charter renounced antisemitism against Jews except as Zionists:
Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not
with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage
a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity (Article 16).
I am not greatly reassured. Hamas terrifies me. But Hamas is not the whole of the Palestinian people. I am broken hearted and fearful of the spike in neo-Nazism, white supremacy, antisemitic speech, and hate attacks in the United States and the world. I keep in mind the fragility of humane responses, the importance of rescuing the Israeli hostages, and the necessity to avoid further advances into World War III.
I want to highlight the pragmatics at stake with deadly word play. The "New Nazi" slogan bypasses careful reasoning and, if allowed to run its course, forecloses prudent restraint. In history's hall of echos, "Nazi" has arguably become the most potent contemporary symbol of ultimate human evil, eclipsing Satan himself. For Jews, invoking the Holocaust is the present Israeli government's justification for all-out war. Does Israel have no more sophisticated, effective, and proportional means to deal with Hamas' real and actual threat? (17)
WHAT GENRE? NOTES FROM A REGULAR SHMOOZER
This posting shouldn't end without touching on the book Babi Yar as literature (Scroll to bottom for discussion questions). For example, in what way is Kuznetzov's book a documentary novel? This is not a litany of facts, but a set of first-person episodes of experience interspersed with factual and contextual material. The book also shows the development of a young person into an adult with conscious awareness.
Professor of English Literature Andrea White (CSDH) comments on the latter:
My thoughts about the book have been particularly connected to its novel status as a bildungsroman, the narrator coming into a moral consciousness. That growth is demonstrated dramatically and it's largely what makes this more of a novel than simply a document of facts even though he is determined, he tells us repeatedly, to tell only the truth. But as he says, to tell the truth he must include his cat and his own reactions - his thrill, for example, at the freedom of looting - as well as the histories of his grandparents. Those contexts are all relevant.
What Tolya comes to know, as a 14 year old becoming an adult, is that this report of his will resonate with future audiences, that the insidious nature of disinformation provided by the abundant propaganda will always be a factor. An Atlantic article last March included an article about the "new prose genre" that emerged after the Holocaust, the literature of witness, in which the first person voices lack rhetorical flourishes.
But in Kuznetsov's novel, the narrator's "digressions" and honest responses and questions reveal a presence, not simply a dry documentary account. He does use sources, he quotes written accounts and conversations. He is a personal memoirist, and a historical witness of Ukrainian suffering and collaboration.
It's the history of this time and place, of the German occupation of Kiev, and of this child's moral awakening, when he rejects the momentary anti-semitism he falls into. That moment reminded me of Huck Finn's awareness of the evils of slavery; he could see it with fewer illusions than could the socialized adults around him.
Looking forward to co-facilitating with Andrea White.
(8) At a press conference on October 17 alongside German chancellor Olaf Scholz, Netanyahu said: "'Our people experienced the worst savagery in the history of humanity with the Nazi crimes against the Jewish people on the soil of Germany and Europe. . . I must tell you, my friend, that the savagery that we witnessed, perpetrated by the Hamas murderers coming out of Gaza, were the worst crimes committed against Jews since theHolocaust."
(10) According U.N. graphics of the combined annual conflict-related deaths in Israel and Palestine since 2008, deaths in Gaza in the first month of war outstrips every other year. In no other year did the combined Israeli and Palestinian deaths exceed around 2,000. The data indicate that "thousands more Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the last month than those who died in conflicts with Israel over the last 15 years." https://www.cnn.com/2023/11/07/middleeast/palestinian-israeli-deaths-gaza-dg/index.html
(13) There is already a book of reflections, Am Yisrael Chai: Essays, Poems, and Prayers for Israel, compiled to help Jews deal emotionally with the trauma of October 7. The blurb on Amazon.com explains the collection as an "emergency response" and "anthology of voices from all over the world, grieving and writhing from the horrors perpetrated upon the State of Israel on Simchat Torah 5784, October 7, 2023. Unfathomably terrible images are now forever emblazoned in our eyes, spread through social media where children have seen them as well. The entire Jewish world is in trauma. This was not Poland in 1942. It was 9 days ago in the State of Israel. We bear witness." https://www.amazon.com/Am-Yisrael-Chai-Essays-Prayers/dp/B0CLS6W5FP
1. The book Babi Yar was published in redacted form in the Soviet Russia in 1966 and, after author Kuznetzov defected to England, appeared in English with restored text in 1970. The current text shows the restorations in bold. How and why do the versions differ?
2. Other bystander accounts of events during the Holocaust exist, notably Ponary Diary, 1941-1943: A Bystander's Account of a Mass Murder by Lithuanian Kazimierz Sakowicz. What are the implications of Kuznetzov's book as a "documentary novel"?
3. If we do think of Kuznetzov's book as a novel, it takes the form of a bildungsroman, the story of a young person's development into an adult with conscious awareness. What lesson did Kuznetzov learn and aim to convey?
4. Kuznetzov's youthful self appears to have survived many terrible wartime events with great resilience. Given what he tells us, what contributed to this outcome?
5. How did you first hear or learn about Babi Yar? What does this book add to your understanding of the Holocaust?