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What We Remember and Why – Yom haShoa

April 17, 2015

This week, Jewish communities throughout the world observed Yom haShoa, the commemoration of the Holocaust, a day of remembrance inaugurated in 1953 by David ben Gurion, the Prime Minister of Israel. The original proposal was to hold it on the 14th of Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising {April 19, 1943}, but that is the day immediately before Passover, and so it was moved to the 27th of Nisan, eight days before Israel Independence Day. That we gather this year, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, is particularly noteworthy.

The definition of the word “Holocaust” is “a great destruction resulting in the extensive loss of life, especially by fire,” though its specific application is with reference to the State-sanctioned murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War Two. This has not prevented other people from claiming to be victims of other holocausts, and in truth there is no ‘ownership’ of the word, though I have the pervasive sense that it has been misused and politicized, and sometimes intentionally so, in ways that minimize the horrible scope of what happened.

Worse, Holocaust denial is ascendant and we can be assured that historic revisionists will come scurrying out of their caves once the last survivors die and no eye-witnesses remain to testify about personal experiences. Steven Spielberg’s ‘Shoah Foundation’ – established in 1994 – was created to record testimonies in video format of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust, and between 1994 and 1999, the Foundation conducted nearly 52,000 interviews in 56 countries and in 32 languages. Kol ha’kavode – all honor to him – for his monumental effort to document history and preserve testimony.

This is one of the reasons that Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, opened an exhibit this week called “Children in the Holocaust: Stars Without a Heaven” because in the words of Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, “Children are the most vulnerable in any society. They are innocent and symbolize in any given society the future, the hope.” So their stories are told, and their mementos – dolls, books, drawings and art – offer visual testimony to levels of bestiality that are still so difficult to grasp.

Jakov Goldstein survived the Holocaust as a child by hiding alone for two years in a narrow attic, sustained by books delivered each day by the eldest daughter of the Polish family that sheltered him. Eliahu Rozdzial hid alone in the forest around his hometown in Poland after his family had been killed. He observed his Bar Mitzvah by digging an imaginary synagogue from the earth and filling it with upright twigs to serve as a silent congregation. A doll in a blue dress belonged to Inge Lievbe from Dresden, Germany. She was deported with her mother to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where both died. Johanna Rosenberg took a doll – floral dress and blue shoes with ribbons – with her when she left Germany at the age of 5 on a Kindertransport, a rescue that took her to England in 1939. I find it a remarkable moment of serendipity that the family of our own Nigel Blower is here with us this weekend from England to celebrate Aaron’s Bar Mitzvah. {source for previous two paragraphs: “Looking Back at the Holocaust, Through a Child’s Eyes,” New York Times, April 15, 2015}

These are reasons to do everything possible to preserve authenticity, as has been done since the creation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation in 2009 to keep that site intact, exactly as it was when the Soviet Army liberated the camp in January, 1945. This has meant restoring the crumbling brick barracks; reinforcing the pile of rubble that was the gas chamber at Birkenau; preserving 110,000 shoes; 3,800 suitcases; 88 pounds of eyeglasses; hundreds of empty canisters of Zyklon B poison pellets; 246 prayer shawls; more than 12,000 pots and pans carried by Jews who believed that they were simply bound for resettlement; 750 feet of SS documents; and thousands of memoirs by survivors.

The emotional toll on the preservationists has been high. For one of them, it occurred on a day when she was cleaning a little girl’s wooden sandal and could see the small footprint inside: one footprint from among the 150,000 to 200,000 children who died in Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1940 to 1945. {source for previous two paragraphs: “Preserving the Ghastly Inventory of Auschwitz,” The New York Times, April 15, 2015}

We preserve memoirs, artifacts and sites to provide visual testimony to the horror of the Shoah – a Hebrew word that means “catastrophe” – and yet it remains a word that pales in comparison to what it attempts to define – and so on Yom haShoa we honor those who died, as well as those who stood with us during those long, dark, nightmare years of terror.

The words “Never again” have become a call to conscience, yet I am left to wonder not what is being remembered, but rather what has been forgotten or is being denied. I am reminded of the words of Lawrence Langer, a respected Holocaust scholar and author of numerous books about the Holocaust – and the scholar-in-residence at our congregation in 1998: “The Holocaust still mocks the idea of civilization and threatens our sense of ourselves as spiritual creatures” {Lawrence Langer, Admitting the Holocaust, Oxford University Press 1995, p. 184}. That quote is particularly appropriate in the context of ISIS, a self-proclaimed Islamic state, a caliphate, that murders Americans and Europeans, as well as Shiite Muslims, and wantonly destroys the artifacts of ancient civilizations in order to erase the history of “non-believers.” Beheadings are intended to instill fear among those under its power and in its path, and to horrify the West. Its use of social media has been effective and, for that reason, frightening: a tool to bring the fervent, as well as the disaffected, into its ranks.

Catastrophe follows catastrophe – not everything is a Holocaust – but parsing the difference is of no consolation given the terror that lurks throughout the world and that has raised its hoary head with alarming frequency and disastrous results in European cities.

Right-wing, paramilitary, anti-Semitic groups are ascendant in Europe, some of them elected to sit in governments, all of them wielding disproportionate power to influence acolytes all too willing to embrace their hatred of “the other.” Our government looks on in dismay and hopes that things will change for the better someday. We cannot intervene in the affairs of sovereign states and, it seems, we can no longer influence.

Where this leaves the United States on the world stage is, I think, akin to being bumped from Broadway in the 1960s to Toledo, Ohio, where we have remained since, having failed courses in diplomacy and crash courses in war. It seems to me that America’s foreign policy is murky at best, a state of confusion that allows space to be filled by those most opposed to democracy. For me, a tipping point was reached in August 2012 when our President declared a ‘red line’ for Syria and its ruler, Assad, after it used chemical and biological weapons against its opposition. It was never clear what the consequence of crossing that ‘red line’ would be – military intervention by the United States, or by a coalition of governments – but suffice it to say that rhetoric did not resolve the situation or save the lives of those who died horrendous deaths as the result of biological warfare traced to Syrian military installations from which chemical canisters had been launched.

What am I to do? What are we to do? We wield no power, save for our collective voices, and yet that is not a small thing. In fact, it is rather important. And if we cannot influence governments by bending them toward the ‘good,’ then perhaps we can inspire each other. Tomorrow is, I think, a case in point: we will gather to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of a young man whose family has been instrumental in sustaining a dream become reality, the creation of a synagogue, our synagogue, dedicated to values in the spirit of tikun olam – healing the world – in the name of righteousness and the pursuit of peace. Those are great things: both in scope and as ideals.

I spoke earlier about Eliahu Rozdzial, who hid alone in the forest around his hometown in Poland after his family had been killed, and who observed his Bar Mitzvah by digging an imaginary synagogue from the earth and filling it with upright twigs to serve as a silent congregation.

At tomorrow morning’s service, we will celebrate Aaron’s Bar Mitzvah and, at the same time, symbolically celebrate Eliahu’s distant Bar Mitzvah as well: not in an imaginary synagogue dug from the earth, but in a real synagogue; not amidst twigs that served as a silent congregation, but in this congregation that prays with intentionality and sings with passion.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest Jewish philosopher and theologian, said, “Should we refuse to be on speaking terms with one another and hope for each other’s failure? Or should we pray for each other’s health and help one another in preserving our respective legacies, in preserving our common legacy?” Then, in answer to his question, Heschel responded, “Our world is too small for anything but mutual care and deep respect; and our world is too great for anything but our assuming responsibility for one another.”

Tomorrow, we will gather to pray because we care about each other, and we claim responsibility for our mutual well-being. We pray in languages that ask The Holy One to help preserve our respective faiths and legacies, and the nation-states that gave birth to democracy. This too we remember.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin