The Days Of Atonement

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is being observed by Jews this weekend.  That day is of utmost importance to the faith, holy even to those who are not regular attendees in synagogue.  I can recall that it was important to my dissertation director at Illinois, Michael Shapiro, a kind man of great faith every day of the year; and it was important to my splendid teacher of Milton, Arnold Stein, who died in 2002 after a long and distinguished career.

It is just a coincidence, but I found last week that Europe and the Jews: The Pressure of Christendom Over 1900 Years, by Malcolm Hay, had been made available on Kindle, so I snapped it up.  My first reaction was one of truly startled surprise.  I thought that this out-of-print book, written by a Roman Catholic, about the relentless Christian persecution of Jews over the last 2000 years had been forgotten.

My second reaction was one of quiet gratitude that it has not been forgotten, for this is one book that I would point to as my answer  when skeptics claim–as they sometimes do in our post-modern world–that objectivity and fairness are not possible in the writing of history.  Hay has a case to make, to be sure, but he is dispassionate in presenting it.  That dispassion is, I believe, the very quality that makes his disturbing opening chapter on the Allied discovery of the concentration camps in World War II so effective.  He begins with the revelation of the most intense, systematic attempt to wipe out a people that the world has yet seen and goes on over the next 270 pages to trace that hatred to its sociological and theological roots.

There are, of course, other, more modern books that tell (and will tell) the same story.  Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews, published in March of this year, takes Jewish history up to 1492.  Schama’s canvas is larger, however, and I have read that volume two of his work has been delayed for an undetermined length of time.  Hay’s book, originally published under the title, The Foot of Pride, was published in 1950; so Hay had the advantage–at least for the twentieth-century portion of the book–of writing when the memories and perceptions of the Holocaust were very fresh, and the world was first trying to come to grips with the magnitude of what had been done to the Jewish people.

As more years pass from the time of the events, it is harder to feel the guilt that our ancestors felt over the extraordinary damage that World War II did to the peoples of the Earth, but we should feel that guilt, and most of us do feel it, however faintly.  The destruction was even more profound than the calculated elimination of a single race.  The war cost the lives of millions of others, twenty million in the Soviet Union alone.  It inflicted a blow to the once-powerful British economy from which that country has never recovered, and it exhausted material and spiritual resources everywhere else.  The deaths of soldiers all over the globe from 1939 through 1945 represent not just the sacrifice of military men and women doing their duty in an awful time; the deaths represent millions upon millions of missed opportunities to change the course of human history in the ways it usually gets changed every day: through the acts of non-violence, and the ways of peace.  We will never get any of those lives back, nor will we ever be able to calculate the staggering loss of human creativity those deaths also represent.

Hay’s book makes it impossible for rational human beings to hide their hatreds and their prejudices behind the cover of their religion.  Those of us who choose to do so may worship a God, but the truth remains that what we do in this life, we do to each other.  We alone are responsible for our actions.  This is what Malcolm Hay teaches us.  This is the lesson of his book.  Of all the weights that we carry from the wars of the last century–the endless hatred, the deaths of millions–the greatest weight, that thing for which we most ought to atone, is the appalling knowledge that we did it to ourselves.

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