With Pesach in our communal rear view mirror, there is precious little room for us to kick back and relax. Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Memorial Day- is already upon us, and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel is to be celebrated next week. It is an incredibly dense stretch of the Jewish calendar, taking us on an emotional roller coaster ride from the high of Passover redemption to the low of the Shoah, and back again to the exhilaration of the miracle of Israel’s birth.
Though I mention Yom Hashoah in the context of what both precedes and follows it in the Jewish calendar, the sad truth is that it stands alone, sui generis, lacking real context.
It is certainly true that, as a scholarly endeavor, contextualizing the Holocaust is a legitimate and important field. The roots of European anti-Semitism, the role of the church and of Christian teachings, what America knew or didn’t know, did or didn’t do…. All of this is important for insuring that the historicity of this monstrous event is fully documented and proved, and cannot be called into question as too many have already tried to do.
What I have experienced personally, however, is that the truest and most effective way to grasp the utter horror of that time is often to focus in on the narrower more than the larger perspective. I personally came to this realization as I officiated, through the years, at the funeral services of survivor members of my own congregation in Forest Hills.
As their family members sat with me to share information for their eulogies, I would hear the most incredible stories about these survivors- the same people who had quietly come to services on Shabbat and holidays, who had kibitzed with me and others about everything from synagogue politics to the fortunes of our local sports teams.
This one was a partisan in the forest and lived for months on wild berries and rainwater; that one risked his life repeatedly to rescue his siblings; another was in five or six different concentration camps and then survived a death march when the Nazis had to evacuate the camp; yet another survived the war by fleeing to Siberia from Poland. These are but a very few of the sagas, the individual stories, that lie behind the veneer of normal life that most survivors show the outside world.
I have long been a proponent of the view that teaching children (and, for that matter, adults) that what was done to our people during the Shoah is the primary reason to live Jewishly today is an unfortunate and damaging idea. We need to preach, teach and live a Judaism of joy and celebration, and we cannot and must not let the horrors of our history color our present in such a debilitating and all-encompassing way.
But Yom Hashoah is a day when we are obliged to “go there;” to contemplate our enormous loss, grieve for the dead, struggle to absorb the implications of what was done to us, and understand the sacred challenge of memory. There is no way to honor those who were killed without memory, and there is no way to remember without the pain, anger and loneliness that go with it. And so it must be, at least on Yom Hashoah.