February 26, 2018
The modern day Haman and an ironic remnant
Visitors to the Museum may notice a damaged scroll in a cabinet next to our Kristallnacht display. What might the relationship be between the destruction of Jewish homes and property and this ancient text?
The scroll of Esther contains a story that tells of a genocidal campaign waged over two thousand years before the word “genocide” was to belatedly enter the English language. The viceroy Haman, second-in-command to the Persian emperor himself, embarks on a mission to eradicate the Jews in over one hundred provinces: from India in the east, to Ethiopia in the Persian empire’s west.
Scholars have long debated whether or not this story really happened. Its main characters, outside of the Hebrew Bible, are not attested in the historical record – leastways, not be the names that they are called within this particular scroll. And whether believable or not as a narrative, the way that it is constructed would testify to its being a well-crafted (and thoroughly deliberated) piece of literature.
For some two thousand years, the story of Esther and her cousin Mordekhai has excited and inspired Jews around the world. The festival of Purim, on which we celebrate the termination of Haman’s evil plans and the salvation of the Jewish people, remains to this day an occasion for feasting and great celebration.
In 1938, the genocidal campaign on which the Nazis had embarked was in full swing. They were two years shy of enacting policies that would allow for the widespread murder of Jews throughout their sphere of influence, but through a mix of violence and intimidation, and through the increasing pressure of legislation that was designed to marginalise and isolate Jewish communities within the Reich, the cultural eradication of Jewish life was well under way.
For the first time in all of Jewish history, the story related in the book of Esther was about to be enacted. For the first time, despite a long history of intermittent persecution, a government was going to exercise its unprecedented ability to completely eradicate the Jewish people of Europe. Only this would not be the story of Esther and Mordekhai. This story would not result in salvation for the Jews and a turning of the tables for their erstwhile oppressors. In this story, Haman would win.
In November of 1938, while synagogues throughout Germany and Austria were burning, untold numbers of Germans watched, unable to intervene. The stories of individual acts of heroism and resistance (both on the part of German civilians and police officers) is inspiring, but more striking is their paucity. By 1938, the state had thoroughly repressed all possibilities of anti-Nazi sentiment. By 1938, the German concentration camps had already been operating for five long years, many of their inmates being Germans who dared speak out against their government.
Amongst the various artefacts salvaged from burning synagogues at this time is a scroll of Esther. We do not know who rescued it, nor even whether or not they were Jewish. Damaged in parts to the point of illegibility, it nonetheless survives as a mute witness to the horrors of the period. Its content is starkly ironic: where the scroll speaks of a genocidal campaign averted, the scroll’s damage testifies to a genocidal campaign that succeeded. And yet, the very real possibility that it was a non-Jewish German who saved this scroll reminds us of how little we know about the thoughts and opinions of ordinary people at this critical time.
Author: Simon Holloway, Education Officer