My daughter has just read Maus, the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, based on interviews with his father about his experience of the Holocaust. Although she has long worn my father's Star of David around her neck, she's never read or seen anything of the Holocaust before, but on this occasion she was compelled by her university curriculum.
She had a mark to achieve. She cried throughout.
I have a running gag with Catalina (since she was a small child) whenever the prospect of us watching a film together crops up – "shall we watch something on the Holocaust honey? I have a great new documentary..."
Of course, she has never watched anything with me, it is a tired joke, but its edge was always serious. She is as much a product of that abomination as I was, albeit once removed again. Somehow though, that broken, ink-spotted, black and white documentary that was the Holocaust, bleeds through the generations.
What is it about the Holocaust?
For me, it is partly driven by the five dozen members of my father's family – people he played, ate, and laughed with in the foothills of Bohemia and the streets of Prague – first wrenched from their innocent lives, then stripped of their humanity to their very nakedness, suspended in fear for years behind barbed wire, and then coldly butchered by their fellow human beings without mercy at any step.
Men, women, children, babies, it didn't matter. Five dozen of them; count that number off. Slaughtered like chickens.
Something about that tired joke of mine though, reflects the utter incomprehensibility of the Holocaust: its historical non-existence until 1942, something that only a mad person or a science-fiction fantasist would have dreamt up.
Then its awful, grinding emergence – this hallucinatory mayhem thrived for just three years; and then its disappearance like a fleeting wraith, a vortex that had simply swallowed in one giant gulp the civilisation that was European Jewry, leaving just a dirty mound of the detritus of industrial mass murder, the shaking of heads, and seething, culturally-retarded, inextinguishable European anti-Semitism.
My father certainly understood the fear of the Occupier. That cold fear ran through his veins. He described watching the columns of German soldiers rolling into Prague in 1938, the worst day of his life, as like "a long, grey snake," entering the ancient capital of the Holy Roman Empire.
The hardscrabble Bohemian village in which my father was born.
As I've written elsewhere, my father often expressed chauvinistic views about many things, his Judaic prejudices especially strong.
It always alarmed and baffled me, this aspect of my worldly, well-read, lawyer father's character.
His martinet third wife, who suffered so terribly in the Holocaust, whose family were slaughtered in the pits of Babi Yar, was even more brutal, spiteful, and de-humanising when speaking of great slabs of humanity like black people, Arabs, and homosexuals.
A person apparently devoid of self-irony, she was incapable of situating herself as just another specimen of humanity, each with an equal right to dignity and fairness.
She was a living and breathing speculum for examining the central tragedy of the human race, which is that we think our own suffering so much more worthy than another's.
This is also the core tenet of the modern state of Israel, that it bears a suffering unlike any other, which confers on it an immunity to scrutiny. To be sure, the Holocaust was a human event unparalleled in history in terms of its proportion, wickedness, cruelty, and mass delusion. Suffering, however, is relative to every human being.
Add to that the spurious Biblical title-deed to the whole of a land once occupied exclusively by a people who called themselves Jews ("a land without a people for a people without a land," that was, in fact and according to common sense, always shared with other tribes who failed to inscribe themselves in a best-selling book), and you have a modern nation-state claim to exclusivity which I have written about in my book, The Cage, in the context of Sri Lanka and its ancient title deed called the Mahavamsa.
But when it came to the modern Israeli treatment of the Palestinians (particularly under the Machiavellian might of the now sweetly-departing prime minister Bibi Netanyahu) and the slow crushing of their national boundaries, their human and land rights, their hopes and dignity, their freedom of travel, and the very intentional de-humanisation of a whole people through a state-sponsored process of divide, conquer, and erode any strands of sympathetic association between the two peoples, my father was surprisingly unforgiving.
"Bloody idiots," he said of the Israeli leadership. Like Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister of Israel, my father held to the view that if he had been a Palestinian, he too would have thrown stones at the soldiers (Barak also warned that Israel would become an apartheid state).
Holocaust survivor Dr. Gabor Maté describes his experience of Gaza, one that I share.
I have always thought of Israel as one of the last great acts of racist colonisation. But it wasn't the racism of the Jews.
After all, it was only possible through Hitler's psychotic, murderous regime.
His regime was only possible because of mystical, fantasised Europe hatred for Jews, fuelled by Christian doctrine.
And it was only possible through a belief that Europeans had a right to divvy the world up, in this case supported by a groaning European guilt born of its just-completed racially-driven conflagration (although the 'guilt' bit is an untested hypothesis so far as I know, more pop psychology than proven phenomenon).
And yet, most countries in the modern world are products of the same process of colonisation/decolonisation, and the radical re-working of post-WWII power that led to the founding of 200 states, many of them with internal contradictions often every bit as unjust in the form of racial domination and land grabs, sometimes underwritten by fantastical millenarian doctrines.
The founding of Israel is an act of just historical injustice but, it was of its time, and that time has passed. It is a fixed fact, and only a mad lust for murder would suggest that it should be otherwise, that the Jews, for example, should be driven into the sea as so many people have called for.
Unlike most people, but like Gabor Maté, I've also travelled through Gaza and the West Bank, as well as other parts of the Arab world that hold huge bodies of Palestinian refugee communities.
In Gaza during the Second Intafada I broke bread with a family whose ten year-old daughter had just been shot dead by an Israeli sniper (a Druze, as it happened) on her way home from school.
I've carried that child's photo with me ever since to remind me that the oppressed are equally capable of becoming the oppressors.
This is not to say that there is any equivalency between the Holocaust and the Nakba, because there is not, and it is dishonest, mischievous, or ignorant to posit such a thing. And yet, every person's suffering is relative.
As one with skin in the game, one cannot help but grimace at the irony of uniformed Israelis beating, shooting, and dispossessing unarmed and penned-in Palestinian civilians while the state, foreign money, and millenarian exceptionalist and racist fantasies conspire to steal their land.
It is a state of disgust, that sits uncomfortably in the pit of the stomach.
My father's Nazi-era identity card for Prague
Dad and me, exterior of my apartment, Barcelona.