Auschwitz survivor: “I can identify with Palestinian youth”

1 June 2009

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Hajo Meyer (Christiane Tilanus)


Hajo Meyer, author of the book The End of Judaism, was born in Bielefeld, in Germany, in 1924. In 1939, he fled on his own at age 14 to the Netherlands to escape the Nazi regime, and was unable to attend school. A year later, when the Germans occupied the Netherlands he lived in hiding with a poorly forged ID. Meyer was captured by the Gestapo in March 1944 and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp a week later. He is one of the last survivors of Auschwitz.

Adri Nieuwhof:What would you like to say to introduce yourself to EI’s readers?

Hajo Meyer: I had to quit grammar school in Bielefeld after the Kristallnacht [the two-day pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany], in November 1938. It was a terrible experience for an inquisitive boy and his parents. Therefore, I can fully identify with the Palestinian youth that are hampered in their education. And I can in no way identify with the criminals who make it impossible for Palestinian youth to be educated.

AN: What motivated you to write your book, The End of Judaism?

HM: In the past, the European media have written extensively about extreme right-wing politicians like Joerg Haider in Austria and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. But when Ariel Sharon was elected [prime minister] in Israel in 2001, the media remained silent. But in the 1980s I understood the deeply fascist thinking of these politicians. With the book I wanted to distance myself from this. I was raised in Judaism with the equality of relationships among human beings as a core value. I only learned about nationalist Judaism when I heard settlers defend their harassment of Palestinians in interviews. When a publisher asked me to write about my past, I decided to write this book, in a way, to deal with my past. People of one group who dehumanize people who belong to another group can do this, because they either have learned to do so from their parents, or they have been brainwashed by their political leaders. This has happened for decades in Israel in that they manipulate the Holocaust for their political aims. In the long-run the country is destructing itself this way by inducing their Jewish citizens to become paranoid. In 2005 [then Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon illustrated this by saying in the Knesset [the Israeli parliament], we know we cannot trust anyone, we only can trust ourselves. This is the shortest possible definition of somebody who suffers from clinical paranoia. One of the major annoyances in my life is that Israel by means of trickery calls itself a Jewish state, while in fact it is Zionist. It wants the maximum territory with a minimum number of Palestinians. I have four Jewish grandparents. I am an atheist. I share the Jewish socio-cultural inheritance and I have learned about Jewish ethics. I don’t wish to be represented by a Zionist state. They have no idea about the Holocaust. They use the Holocaust to implant paranoia in their children.

AN: In your book you write about the lessons you have learned from your past. Can you explain how your past influenced your perception of Israel and Palestine?

HM: I have never been a Zionist. After the war, Zionist Jews spoke about the miracle of having “our own country.” As a confirmed atheist I thought, if this is a miracle by God, I wished that he had performed the smallest miracle imaginable by creating the state 15 years earlier. Then my parents would not have been dead.

I can write up an endless list of similarities between Nazi Germany and Israel. The capturing of land and property, denying people access to educational opportunities and restricting access to earn a living to destroy their hope, all with the aim to chase people away from their land. And what I personally find more appalling then dirtying one’s hands by killing people, is creating circumstances where people start to kill each other. Then the distinction between victims and perpetrators becomes faint. By sowing discord in a situation where there is no unity, by enlarging the gap between people — like Israel is doing in Gaza.

AN: In your book you write about the role of Jews in the peace movement in and outside Israel, and Israeli army refuseniks. How do you value their contribution?

HM: Of course it is positive that parts of the Jewish population of Israel try to see Palestinians as human beings and as their equals. However, it disturbs me how paper-thin the number is that protests and is truly anti-Zionist. We get worked up by what happened in Hitler’s Germany. If you expressed only the slightest hint of criticism at that time, you ended up in the Dachau concentration camp. If you expressed criticism, you were dead. Jews in Israel have democratic rights. They can protest in the streets, but they don’t.

AN: Can you comment on the news that Israeli ministers approved a draft law banning commemoration of the Nakba, or the dispossession of historic Palestine? The law proposes punishment of up to three years in prison.

HM: It is so racist, so dreadful. I am at a loss for words. It is an expression of what we already know. [The Israeli Nakba commemoration organization] Zochrot was founded to counteract Israeli efforts to wipe out the marks that are a reminder of Palestinian life. To forbid Palestinians to publicly commemorate the Nakba. … they cannot act in a more Nazi-like, fascist way. Maybe it will help to awaken the world.

AN: What are your plans for the future?

HM: [Laughs] Do you know how old I am? I am almost 85 years old. I always say cynically and with self-mockery that I have a choice: either I am always tired because I want to do so much, or I am going to sit still waiting for the time to go by. Well, I plan to be tired, because I have still so much to say.

Adri Nieuwhof is consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.