Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Omer 5775: Day 12 - Yom Hashoah. What is Heroism?

The Holocaust is a topic I shy away from. I don't like visiting Yad Vashem. I visited Poland once and don't want to repeat the experience of going to that bloodstained land.

And yet, every year on Yom Hashoah I watch the national ceremony at Yad Vashem on television as the survivors, surrounded by their beautiful grandchildren, light six torches, and I cry as I spend the day listening to survivors' testimony on the various TV and radio channels. This day, a sacred day of sorts, is an intense period of communing with our collective memory and also the memory of my own ancestors, my family in Poland and in Germany, who were murdered so brutally by the Nazis. It is my good fortune that my grandparents escaped Germany in February 1939 or else I would not be here today. Yom Hashoah is a powerful experience during which we engage with a whole host of aspects of the Shoah; the systematic murder and humiliation, the defiance, the dignity, survival, the memory, the religious implications, and so much more. To me it is a highly important day.

And yet, I would like to reflect upon the manner in which Israel as a country has remembered the Shoah, subject it to some criticism, and then reverse and find the power in that mode of memory.

Where to begin?


Tonight at Yad Vashem, the official national commemoration ceremony is held in front of two huge bronze relief sculptures, both by the artist Nathan Rappoport (They are also on the central memorial in the Warsaw Ghetto). These two monuments tell a story.

The first is low and long. What do we see in it? It is called "The Last March" and it depicts Jews being led away - to the ghetto? the cattle trucks? the gas chamber? death march? – We can imagine all of the above. All the Jews look broken, weeping, bent over. Two figures stand out. One, a man, carries a Sefer Torah and is raising his face to heaven – is he praying? Protesting to God? And if he is praying, he is the only one. And a second figure, a child, stares out. To whom? - To the perpetrators? the bystanders? to ourselves? Is he too young to know he must lower his head? Is he so na├»ve that he still retains his faith in humanity? And in the background, the helmets of the German guards. The posture of the Jews aligned with the soldiers helmets in the background is supposed to recall the relief from Titus' arch in Rome (see below) that depicts Jerusalem's exile.

Rapopport's second relief is vertical, not horizontal but erect and proud, and it shows the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto. In the centre like a Greek hero is Mordechai Anilewicz who led the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. One figure lies slain at the base, but all the other figures appear heroic, victorious, glorious. We even wonder whether certain of the figures are the same as the first relief. Has the religious man taken off his kippa, discarded his Torah and joined the fight? Is the boy on the right the same young child of the first relief but a few years older?


But what is the message of all this. Quite clearly, the placement of these two sculptures alongside one another conveys the sense that it is the fighters who are the true heroes of the Holocaust. The horizontal relief remarkably shows no actual violence; the Jews march to their deaths "like sheep to the slaughter." The second image is one of pride at the ability to strike back, to resist.

These sculptures reflect the atmosphere of Israel in the 1950's. Yom Hashoah is actually named "Yom Hahoah veHagevura -  The day of the Holocaust and Heroism" and was set on the date 27 Nissan because it marks the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

In the 1950's many Israelis were embarrassed by the Shoah. The new Jew of Eretz Yisrael who built the land and defended himself derided the meek, cowering Eastern European Jews, who, they assumed had done little to defend themselves. In the 1950's Israel the Holocaust was a source of shame and almost all that young Israelis could salvage from it was the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto, so that is the day upon which they fixed Yom Hashoah.


But Israel grew up. The Eichman trial in 1961 suddenly brought the stories of the Shoah into the public eye for Israel, and ever since that moment, Israeli society has become more hospitable, more sophisticated about the Shoah. Movies, music, the second generation and now the third have added layer upon layer to our understanding of the Shoah. Today, every dimension of the Shoah is embraced and examined, the survivors are cherished and venerated, and virtually every Israeli High School student takes a trip to Poland, the army sends missions to Auschwitz, the Knesset too.

The Holocaust has become a huge part of Israeli consciousness. But. I believe that a central feature of the messaging is still somewhat problematic and open to distortion.

Why? What message? For many Israelis, the very existence of Israel has become somehow rooted in the Holocaust. The Holocaust expressed the powerlessness of the Jew and Israel is the embodiment of Jewish power. That is why we need a strong military, that is why Israelis look down at diaspora Jews for their powerlessness.

For a good expression of this perspective, see this scene from Operation Thunderbolt which recreates Yoni Netanyahu's speech as the soldiers embark on the famous Entebbe mission. There he tells his men how their job is to ensure the safety of Jews worldwide: (Now is not the time, but the movie itself is saturated with overtones of the Holocaust. For another post some time.)


Now this is not a problematic perspective in its own right, but it is worrysome when it becomes the sole or dominant approach to the Holocaust and Zionism, and this for several reasons:

First, because Israel is not invincible. In 1967, there was a genuine fear that Israel may be overrun by Arab forces. Thank God Israel has survived calamity time and time again, but Israel is not immune from disaster. If Israel is just about safety, and American Jew may argue that he is safer in the US than in Israel and see no reason or motive for residing in Israel.

Second, it reduces Judaism and Israel to a central principle of survival. But as a society - Jewish and Israeli - we aspire to so much more. Whereas some Zionist thinkers and founders saw Zionism's essence as obliterating anti-semitism, many of those thinkers and Halutzim dreamed of reviving a new Jew and a new Judaism; they sought to build a new society. And we should aspire to a society of justice and equal rights, we aspire to culture and progress, we aspire to a love of the land and its history, we aspire to create a successful ethical society, we aspire, as Jews, to realize our religious values and create an exemplary society.

The sole focus upon survival and strength eclipses this lofty vision. This was stated by one of my teachers, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits: 

"…we must beware against breeding a Holocaust mentality of morose dependency amongst our people, especially our youth…Should we not replace negative by positive factors to vindicate our claim in survival? The slogan, "Never Again!", now so popular is a poor substitute for purposeful Jewish vitality. We exist not in order to prevent our own destruction but to advance … the ageless values which are our national raison d'etre" ("Religious Responses to the Holocaust: Retrospect and Prospect" L'eyla, 1988)
As Jews we must understand why we live as Jews, and not put all our energies into how to avoid death as Jews; we should not keep Judaism so we may survive or persist - we must live so that we may live Judaism!

Third, when the Holocaust becomes our founding principle, we are prone to distortions of victimization, seeing all the nations as hostile and perceiving ourselves as perennial victims; we are prone to suspicion and defensiveness towards adversaries, and less open to conciliation and bridge-building.


This has been a long post, but let me just take this further and challenge the "sheep to the slaughter" attitude, and by the same token, open to other vectors of remembrance of the Holocaust.

The Heroism of the Shoah is not measure merely by armed resistance. The heroism can be in areas of simple humanity, dignity and spirit. When a mother comforted and reassured her child in Auschwitz, that is heroism! When a Jew shared a piece of bread with another inmate in Theresienstadt, that was true heroism! When we read of Janusz Korzcak who lead his orphans to their deportation singing even though he might have saved his own life, that is true humanity, true heroism. When we read of Rabbis who led their communities in faith and halakha despite the adverse conditions, and Jews who retained their commitment to their Jewish faith and law despite adversity - that is true Heroism!

The Haredi community do not commemorate the Shoah at Yad Vashem, with readings and with a minute of silence. But teh Haredi community has a heightened sense of Shoah awareness. The mourn for the communities lost, for the righteous who were murdered. But how do they respond? They have rebuilt institutions - indeed Mir, Ponevezh, Brisk, Gur, Belz etc - are institutions in Eretz Yisrael that bear the names and legacy of their European forebears; they live with the desire to revive what was lost. Ponevezh has a verse
emblazoned on its main entrance "And on the mount of God, there will be a remnant, and it will become holy". When Haredim are asked why they have such large families, they will frequently explain that they wish to replenish the ranks of the Jewish people who were lost in the Shoah. Their Holocaust sensibility is deeply entrenched.

This is a different response, but an incredibly powerful one - have children, rebuild Torah institution, replace the Torah communities that were lost. I would argue that this group's response - statistics show they are the largest growth group in Jewry today - may do more for the Jewish people than the Holocaust museums and the memorials. For they are filled with a burning desire to live Judaism, to continue its legacy in the world. The Holocaust spurs them to intensify their commitment to Judaism. But they focus on Judaism itself; not on the Shoah. This is a very different perspective and it should raise questions about limiting the response of the Shoah to mere survival or Jewish strength.

The questions of what is the desirable response, what is the best mode of commemoration is far more complex, far wider than the Israeli official narrative of memorial. We must widen the messages; encourage Jews not merely to ensure our national survival and the eradication of violence and hate, but also to foster an understanding of how to live as Jews.

On this point, I will end with a story by Rabbi Dr. David Weiss Halivni from his years as a teenager in a German labor camp. He studied Torah before the War, he got through teh Shoah inspired by Torah, and continued learning and teaching after the war. For him, Torah AND survival is the true response to the Nazis:

I passed by the Todt (German Guard) as he was eating his scheduled snack, his meal between meals. In characteristic German style, he ate at the same time every night and, what's more, he ate the same thing every night: a thinly sliced sandwich containing some greasy substance that stained the wrapping paper and made it transparent. He and his eating habits became as much a feature of the tunnel as the chila (wagons) and carrying the drills.
This time, however, our meeting was different. His sandwich was wrapped in a page of "Orach Chaim," a volume of the Shulchan Aruch… It was my ambition as a child to own a … Shulchan Aruch. Here, of all places, in the shadows of the tunnel, under the threatening gaze of the German, a page of the Shulchan Aruch, with fatty spots all over it, met my eyes.
Upon seeing this wrapper, I instinctively fell at the feet of the guard, without even realizing why; the mere letters propelled me. With tears in my eyes, I implored him to give me this bletl, this page. For a while he didn't know what was happening; he thought I was suffering from epilepsy. He immediately put his hand to his revolver, the usual reaction to an unknown situation. But then he understood. This was, I explained to him, a page from a book I had studied at home. Please, I sobbed, give it to me as a souvenir. He gave me the bletl and I took it back to the camp.
On the Sundays we had off, we now had not only Oral Torah but Written Torah as well. The bletl became a visible symbol of a connection between the camp and the activities of Jews throughout history. It was not important what the topic was… The bletl became a rallying point. We looked forward to studying it whenever we had free time, more so even than to the phylacteries. It was the bletl, parts of which had to be deciphered because the grease made some letters illegible, that summoned our attention. Most of those who came to listen didn't understand the subject matter, but that was irrelevant. They all perceived the symbolic significance of the bletl.
That is Heroism!

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