Letter: Decency in the heart of darkness

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your leading article (16 February) suggests reasons why the criminality of the Nazis exerts 'such a visceral grip on our emotions'. We forget that for nearly 20 years after the war, most survivors were unable to speak publicly, or even privately, about their experiences. The Holocaust was virtually a taboo subject.

But now they do speak. We listen to them because we sense that here are people who have been over the edge of suffering, survived and somehow managed to build apparently normal lives. What resources of the human spirit were they able to tap? The survivors I know feel the need to bear witness to what happened. They know how easily it can happen. Primo Levi reminded us that the previously unthinkable became the all- too-credible. A survivor told me last week that they cannot remain silent in the face of what is happening in former Yugoslavia.

You rightly suggest that the Holocaust has lessons for our time. Those lessons will be ignored if the Holocaust is marginalised, and therefore dismissed, as a purely Jewish tragedy. It was that, clearly. But it was also a European tragedy, a catastrophe for European civilisation. The demonic fascination of the Holocaust is, surely, that it happened in the mid-20th century, perpetrated not by a barbarian and primitive country, but one that had been part of a great outpouring of art, music, literature, science, culture, for the previous 200 years.

What heart of darkness is there in European culture that could enable such a radical breakdown in human compassion? What can we learn about human decency and goodness from Oskar Schindler and the, alas too few, 'Righteous Ones among the non-Jews' (as they are called in Hebrew) who, acting out of the highest altruistic motives, endangered their own lives to save Jews?

Yours faithfully,


Southgate and District Reform Synagogue

London, N14

16 February