The Power to Remember
A Yom Hashoa Message -- 1995
Why do we gather here this evening? We all know -- to remember the Holocaust. Still, some people asked me, "why?" They ask, "Why do some people continue to harp on the Holocaust?" "Why now?" And above all, "Why we?" There are folks who would like us to believe that there are other, more immediate holocausts, closer to home -- like that of the Native Americans, or the one of the African-Americans. Holocaust, holocaust!!
Then there are others -- who would like us to believe that this Holocaust, of the Jews, did not happen! They say that it did not happen like we tell it. They say that it was different. It was unplanned, unintentional. They say that the Jews brought it upon themselves. They even suggest that it was "the will of God." The will of God? I shudder to think!
Of course, it was not. It was the will of German bureaucracy. Pedantic, systematic, evil German bureaucracy. Every Jew was accounted for, even those who left the fold; their grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren were also accounted for. A mathematical formula was created. Half Jew, Quarter Jew, Three Sixteenth, and so forth. After which the accounts of loading and unloading were managed, dates were coordinated for the travel of the trains, the rate of expiration was discussed, the volume of the ashes was measured. Absolute Evil was a simple, almost irrelevant civil servant, an Adolph Eichman who "only followed orders" -- and received a medal to prove it. Orchestrated by a former chicken farmer, Himler, and his non-descript boss, Adolph Hitler.
They say that there is no difference between the destruction of the Jews of Europe and all other types of disasters, natural upheavals, misfortunes and mass murders! Did the Turks not massacre the Armenians? Did Stalin not create a kingdom of death in the Gulag? Biafra was only hunger? Uganda merely had a political upheaval? Cambodia was only a civil war? The destruction of the Kurds was not systematic? What happened to the Hootoos in Rouwanda last year was just a LITTLE RIOT??? What about the bomb that exploded last Wednesday in Oklahoma City? And only yesterday about a thousand or more refugees were reported massacred in Rouwanda, again... It is just too much, it numbs the spirit. We can't hear it, can't see it, can't internalize it any more! It devastates our spirit; it saps our strength. Please, let's turn to other, less vexing subjects.
Still, one thing is clear. There was never before such an organized, comprehensive and horrifying outburst of evil as in the Holocaust. The slaughterers were such normal, average human beings: soldiers, policemen and common clerks, even teen-agers and housewives. The Holocaust is a collection of human acts that should never have happened. Who will dare deny the uniqueness of the Holocaust?
Furthermore, it is absolutely impossible to comprehend it -- or to describe it in fiction or in a work of art, as it actually was. Was the Holocaust "Schindlers List?" I hope you know, I hope you realize that it was not. Nor was in that pathetic plastic replica, the mini-series presented on television a number of years ago. All those attempts merely blur the horrific humanness of the Holocaust, because they recreate one type of atrocity, and thereby exclude all other types of human atrocities that took place. They create heroes and villains and prevent historical understanding They make it difficult to understand the Holocaust as a product of a human, material and ideological system; they direct us almost exclusively to the past, showing us that which is beyond change, instead of pointing primarily to the future, to the prevention of a holocaust like the one which took place, or another, more horrible which is more possible today than ever before but is none-the-less in the realm of that which is crooked and can still be made straight.
Let me state here most emphatically: I am not trying to say that the Holocaust was anything less than Absolute Evil. I do not advocate that we may already forget, that we can already use the name indiscriminately. However, I do want you to note and realize that those who deny the holocaust do so because they don't want to admit that the Holocaust was exclusively a Jewish matter. Yes, I am well aware of the destruction of the Gypsies, the slaughter of Russian captives and the persecution of the communists and other opponents of the Nazi regime. However, even though these should be accounted for, examined and noted -- and the exact differences should be considered carefully, I mean to say most clearly that the Jewishness of the Holocaust, like its Germaneness, is the most crucial aspect. We have to recognize the Evil that was perpetrated if we wish to inoculate ourselves against it!
We must recognize and admit that the Jews were placed, from the first moment of the appearance of the Nazi phenomenon to its last gasp, in the focus of Nazi ideology, a final target of all the power and technology and a last release of its death convulsion. Once we take this first step, we must ask some questions: One question is, "what were those things which made it possible to turn the Jew into the object of that persecution?" This is the "Jewish Question" of the Post-Holocaust era.
Another question is, "what was it in the fabric of the German character, from which the Nazi phenomenon was composed, that allowed Nazism to emerge and to persist?" This is the "Universal Question" of the Post-Holocaust era. Still another question is, "what was it that made possible the combination which turned Nazism and the destruction of the Jews of Europe into an event without compare in human history?" This is the "why" question of commemorating the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, these are questions which we don't ask enough!
To answer these questions we must first make a choice: Do we wish to believe that the Holocaust was merely an event, one of many unhappy and unfortunate events whose place is in the past -- or do we believe that it is a possibility, whose place is in the present and in the future.
If we select the first -- we need go no further. Forget it! It's history! If, however, we see it as a possibility whose place is in the present and in the future, we have to examine closely the humanness of the event. We must determine what happened and how it happened. We must resolve: We shall have no other holocaust! We must face reality. One Holocaust has taken place; another is possible; therefore we must do everything possible so that you and I will not have one, so that "they" will not have one, so that there will be none at all.
You may ask, "but how?" And I will answer: By doing everything that can humanly be done to see, to truely see, almost experience, the horror. Study the evidence, watch the documentaries, read the accounts. Honor all the intricate details. Observe how humdrum and mundate were its day-to-day occurrences, its uncountable human, all too human, faces.
Remember. Always, remember.
First of all, try to understand. Remember in order to understand.
To understand the technology of power and the "system" which made the Holocaust possible: ask how a nation that was so civilized azznd cultured came to exclude a group of people from within the borders of the human race, and what technology made it possible to massively deport them to their deaths.
What is being discussed here is not simply a question of history. The definition of the modern human being, the self-identity of post-Holocaust humanity hangs here in the balance! It is absolutely no use to claim, "God wanted the Holocaust -- or else why didn't he stop it?" We must recognize that men brought it about -- some by comission, others by their silence. All share the blame.
From that conflagration we must today carry a message, at whose center lies the humanness and even banality of the atrocity, the fact that the atrocity is an existing human possibility which means that we could perpetrate it, too! When the required conditions exist, when the technologies of power are at hand, when love and hate are present in just the proper dose and directed through the appropriate channels, then any person may be the sacrifice, the Holocaust -- and everyone may be a participant in the slaughter. Furthermore, we must also take into account how much the technologies of destruction have advanced since then, and how much, as a result, the investment in obedience, loyalty and lust for power, required to operate them, has been reduced.
The moral confrontation with the Holocaust entails the personalization of the acts of destruction and the universalization of its possibilities. Let me repeat -- the personalization of the acts of destruction and the universalization of its possibilities.
It happened to the Jews -- and therefore it can happen to anyone else. No man is an island. Only when all are safe will you and your family, your town and your nation be safe. That is why we shall continue to remember the dead, study the crime, and inoculate ourselves against the disease of perpetration and of indifference to the suffering of anyone who is placed in peril.
Yom Hashoah 1994
Holocaust is a big word, and its connotation is so awesome that the mind cannot fully comprehend it. Six million victims... Who can understand such numbers. Can one visualize six million human beings? Let me try to put it in terms that you may understand: Imagine all the people who live in Central Florida, from Clearwater to St. Pete in the west to Daytona Beach to Cape Canaveral on the east coast. Every man, woman and child -- suddenly gone! Murdered! That would be about one half of the innocent victims annihilated in the Holocaust.
Well, if we cannot comprehend such a great calamity, let us consider just one little incident, one young victim. Imagine, if you can, the youth in the following story, culled from the writings of Elie Weisel.
Somewhere, far away, in a village in Poland or in a bog in Estonia, or high in the Carpathian mountains -- at the other end of the world, in another lifetime, a Jewish child is standing in prayer. His eyes are closed to concentrate better, and he sways silently to and fro, to keep the rhythm of his words on his task. Before concluding he repeats a passage he has recited so many times before, and his lips form the words, Ani ma'amin be'emuna shlema bevi'at hamashi'akh. Ve'af al pi she'yitmahma, im kol zot ani ma'amin -- "I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry, nonetheless, I believe." Suddenly, his dead grandfather begins to speak to him:
Long ago I taught you fervor.
I remember Grandfather, I remember.
Then sing! I want to hear you sing.
I cant grandfather. Please understand. Dont be angry with me. My gaze is burning, but all my eyes encounter is that which is extinguished. I dwell in a cemetery grandfather. Like you I am dead. Only your voice reaches me. Tell me grandfather, if I were not dead, would I hear you?
Sing, child, sing. אני מאמין I believe with a complete faith...
No grandfather, I cannot.
You dont hear me well! You misinterpret my teachings. Youre ALIVE, therefor live!
Im incapable of it, grandfather. I did try in the beginning, I failed... I loved you too much. Now you are gone. All those I loved, I love them still, and they are all gone. I try hard to emulate them -- also to follow them.
Stop! I shall not permit this! I order you to live. In ecstasy, if possible. But surely in faith... And you must sing. Do you hear me, you must sing. Do you want me to help you? Think back... The last time we were together... It was for the High Holiday Days of the new year. ראש השנה
I remember, grandfather.
We had gone to the Rabbis home to participate in the solemn services. The disciples were weeping, the Rabbi was not. He remained silent. We recited our prayers and our litanies; we implored the heavens to protect us, to let us live, and we shed unending tears; not he, not our Rabbi. He may have had some inkling of what was to come and that it was too late: the decree had been signed. It was irrevocable.
But if thats so, grandfather, why was he silent. If he knew, he should have wept all the more!
At one point, just before the sounding of the Shofar, do you recall what he did?
Now I recall, he began to sing.
Yes, child, he began to sing. Something he had never done before.
Yes, I do recall. His song tore at our insides. It plucked at the strings of our very soul.
The words, do you remember the words?
No... I only recall the melody.
So hum, child, hum the melody.
Think, child, remember the words... From Psalms:
לא המתים יהללו יה "The dead do not praise the Lord, nor those who dwell in the netherworld...." Oh, yes, our Rabbi knew. And therefore, he tried the impossible -- to revoke the edict. "If you kill your people, if you condone its annihilation, who will praise you? Who will sanctify you with song?" He sang with all his heart, with all his soul. Sensing that it was the last time...
That is what we had failed to understand... For us, this was the first time. For him, it was the last time... Of all the men, of all the women present, you are the only survivor. The Rabbi told us to hide you under the floorboards so that you would carry his song in you. Now let it burst forth, let it ascend to heaven. Sing in his place and in mine.
I cannot, grandfather. Dont push me to do the impossible.
No! You hear me? I implore you... I command you! Live, Sing.
My place is with you. My heart is in mourning. They have murdered the child that I was and you want me to sing.
I want you to live.
Try to understand me grandfather, try to forgive me...
There is nothing to forgive. Foolish child. It is natures way. It has always been this way, and we always sang. Sing, my child, sing. Sing, and you defeat our enemies. Sing, and you redeem the dead. Sing, and death itself is conquered.
I believe, I believe...
I proclaim Your name,
I extol Your fame --
Ever I will do the same!
See, grandfather, I'm singing, I'm singing... For you, for the Rabbi, for all those that I loved so dearly. And, yes, for God, who suffered in silence with us, who is eternal, but who died with us a million, six million times... For all -- I sing...
I exist. Tell the world that I am well.
I believe, I will live to tell the tale.
I exist. Through the fire, through the hell.
I believe. I am a son of Israel!
Yom Hashoah 93
Do Not say, "here's my last path."
Though dark clouds hide the light of day.
The day we hoped for shall yet dawn and arrive --
And our footsteps shall proclaim, "we are here:"
The early break of day sheds light upon our being --
It is not the harbinger of freedom and redemption.
It is a song we sung while our world collapses around us -
Sung by a people with arms in their hands.
The daily suffering of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II has been the subject of a number of fictional and nonfictional works. "The Wall," "Mila Eighteen" and "The Bravest Battle" are just some of the titles that cone to mind.
Dan Kurzman, the Pulitzer winning journalist, author of "The Bravest Battle," summarized as follows: The uprising, when dealt with at all in books, has usually been telescoped into a few climactic pages. And many of these brief accounts are based more on legend than on firsthand testimony and original documentation. Those few works that do concentrate on the uprising itself are either short, sketchy and shallow summaries or records of individual experiences.
Yet the military encounter was one of the most stirring, impossible, and important battles in history. Seldom, if ever, before has a single armed conflict produced greater heroism or more explosive political consequences. Indeed, this conflict, an enduring symbol of resistance to man's inhumanity to man, reverberated far beyond the pale that enclosed it.
Although groups of Jews have at various times revolted against their persecutors, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, more than any other event, symbolically ended two thousand years of Jewish submission to discrimination, oppression, and finally, genocide. It signaled the beginning of an iron militancy rooted in the will to survive, a militancy that was to be given form and direction by the creation of the State of Israel.
To understand fully that nation's mood and mentality, its pride and policies, and thus the tensions shaking the Middle East and the world today, it is necessary to know the story of the uprising, to glimpse the anguish, the euphoria, the eternal hope of the ghetto defenders, young men and women in love with life yet determined to fight to the death.
For twenty-eight days (according to official German calculation, but actually longer), some fifteen hundred fighters, armed with little more than pistols and homemade bombs and supported by about sixty thousand civilians passively resisting in hidden bunkers, fought off several thousand Nazi soldiers equipped with rifles, artillery, tanks, armored cars, flamethrowers, and aircraft. Whole nations fell under the German yoke in a far shorter period of time!
This battle lasted as long as it did because, essentially, there was no room for bargaining on either side. The Germans, led by SS Major General Jurgen Stroop, were bound by Nazi ideology to murder all captured Jews, either on the spot or in death camps. The Jews, most of them led by Mordekhai Anielewicz, were bound by a pact of honor to die by their own hands rather than surrender.
This was truly a battle to the death. And it took time to root out and kill tens of thousands of people."
The Germans planned to "clear out" the Warsaw ghettoes (there were actually two ghettoes!) in time for Hitler's birthday, on April 20th. Instead, as things turned out, they gave their leader the most bitter pill he had to swallow: The "untermenchen" the subhumans, those wretched Jewish people that the Nazis believed were vanquished, had tied down a whole division of his crack forces, the S.S., and the whole world watched as they heroically defended their few remaining blocks of Jewish habitation in Poland's capital.
The world watched with bated breath - but they did not lift a finger to help. Other allied partisans and resistance fighters had arms dropped to them to continue the fight. Special agents were sent to teach them how to engage in battle with the enemy and survive to see the day of liberation. Other armies received supplies, and expert advice. The Jews received silence. Still they fought, though the outcome was clear from the start. Still they hoped, though their experience should have dictated despair. Still the believed in God and in humanity, though it looked as if they had been abandoned by both.
His day we remember them. We recall their heroism and their spirit of sacrifice and pride in being Jewish. They have died to sanctify Gods name and the name of Israel. They willed to us our future. We honor and pledge to live and prosper as free people and as Jews. We shall never forget.