Every year, I mark Yom Hashoah by discussing with my 12th grade Jewish history students (Bais Yakov of Miami) why we don’t do Yom Hashoah. The discussion is slightly subversive, in that by having this discussion on Yom Hashoah I am sort of observing the day I don’t observe.
So, what do I tell them?
First I ask them if they know why this particular date was chosen, and by whom. Only a few do. The answer: this date marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it was chosen by the Israeli government. The secular Zionists who founded the modern State of Israel thought that the Holocaust was shameful and embarrassing–to the Jews. Why had weak and pale Jews gone like sheep to the slaughter? The feeling of shame and humiliation was so strong that for decades after the war, survivors in Israel would not talk about the Holocaust. I’ve heard the same about survivors in America and Canada.
The only thing that redeemed Jewish honor, the Zionists thought, was the courage and strength of the Jews who battled German soldiers in the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Were all the other Jews cowards and weaklings? Were the young men and women of the Warsaw Ghetto the only Jewish heroes?
When the Uprising took place, the ghetto had been emptied of all but the young and the [relatively] strong, people in their teens and twenties who could still do hard labor. The children and the old folks, the weak and the sick, had already been liquidated. It wasn’t cowardice that prevented Jews from fighting back before, it was German ruthlessness: for every soldier killed, the Germans would kill a hundred Jews. Only when their families were all dead already anyway, and they knew (as they had not known early in the war) that the same fate awaited them, only then did the young men and women of the Warsaw Ghetto say, “Tamus nafshi im Pelishtim” and fight back with guns and bombs.
BTW, do you know how many armed Japanese soldiers it took to guard 200 unarmed American POWs? It took one. Just one! To guard 200 trained soldiers! So don’t give me any malarkey about how women and children and elderly people “should have” fought back.
Yes, there have always been Jewish fighters and soldiers. Read the Tanach, read the history of the first and second Batei Mikdash, and you’ll see that. And yes, what the young people of the Warsaw Ghetto did was admirable, and it is certainly a mitzva to kill your mortal enemy when you can. But we do not view them as having redeemed our honor. We never lost our honor.
I had a wonderful professor in Brooklyn College, Yaffa Eliach, who wrote a book called *Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.* She is a survivor herself. She was a child at the time of the war. She speaks of Jewish heroism, with emphasis on the word Jewish. Stories of shofars and siddurim smuggled into camps, of tefillin hurriedly passed around barracks, of small amounts of flour hoarded so that one precious matza the size of a pancake could be baked for the first seder night.
In a similar vein, Victor Frankl, in his book *Man’s Search for Meaning,* describes how those of his fellow prisoners who were religious Jews, especially chassidim, were able to keep up their will to live in the concentration camps. They maintained their internal spiritual independence and superiority to their Nazi captors, while people who had lost all sense of meaning in their lives, especially the most assimilated German Jewish professors and doctors, quickly succumbed to despair and threw themselves on the electrified fences. He writes that the religious Jews had a sense of themselves as part of the flow of Jewish history and could make some sense of their ordeal, while the most secular Jews could not make sense of any of it and were in a state of shock and disbelief.
Sometimes–to go off on a tangent for a moment–one meets people who say that they cannot believe in G-d because of what He allowed to happen. It’s the ancient question of theodicy, of “tzaddik vera lo,” of justifying G-d’s ways to man.
I tell my students that this is how they should answer such people: if the person went through the Holocaust himself, there is nothing to say. We cannot judge and certainly cannot condemn someone who has already experienced Gehenom in his lifetime. However, if the person who makes this case is a comfortable American Jew living in the lap of luxury, then he should be grateful to G-d for His bounty. If instead he rationalizes disbelief on the grounds that OTHER people suffered, we should not let him get away with it. The answer to him is that many Jews came through the Holocaust with their faith intact and even strengthened.
In his book *Faith After the Holocaust* the philosopher Eliezer Berkowitz makes this very point. How can we say that it is impossible to have faith, when people who lived through it held fast to their faith throughout their ordeal!? He tells stories similar to those told by Yaffa Eliach.
And here we come back to the many stories that survivors tell of amazing acts of faith and devotion to G-d in the darkest years of the Nazi hell.
Last summer there was a two-day Holocaust seminar for teachers in southern Florida, and Joseph Friedenson spoke. He is a survivor who was incarcerated in four different camps, an amazingly eloquent and good-humored and inspiring speaker. He recounts that when he parted from his father during the war, his father said to him, “I don’t know whether you and I will survive this war, but whatever happens, remember this: KLAL YISRAEL WILL SURVIVE.” His father’s parting words left him with a profound feeling of optimism, faith and hope even in the darkest hours, gave him courage and strength.
Now back to the secular Zionists who founded the modern State of Israel. They were ashamed of the shtetl Jews, the yeshiva bochorim who pored over ancient tomes. They thought it was no wonder there was so much anti-Semitism in the world, given how weak and pathetic and cowardly the Jews were. They would fix all that. They would create a New Jew. The New Jew would be brave and self-reliant. There would be a Jewish army and Jewish policemen. Jews would get their hands dirty and work the soil and be productive. They wouldn’t be parasites anymore, living off of other people’s labor in a foreign land. Everyone in the world would admire and respect the New Jew.
Well, look around. Look at the salons of London and Paris, look at the faculty clubs of Columbia and Harvard. Look at CNN and the BBC and NPR. We know how that turned out. Israel is the same old Jew, after all, hated and despised as much as those poor German Jewish Herr-Doktor-Professors ever were. As much as the pale yeshiva boys with their payos ever were.
The Israelis have lost their cocksure arrogance, and no longer look at Holocaust victims with the disdain and contempt they used to feel. (Dear G-d please watch over them and don’t let Israel come to any harm…Please don’t teach them any more lessons, let there be peace, please.)
Remember now the flow of Jewish history I mentioned? We have a date for remembering and grieving and weeping over our losses. That date is Tisha B’Av. At the time of the destruction of the Second Bais Hamikdash, the Romans murdered a third of the Jews alive at that time, the same proportion that the Nazis murdered. The Romans tortured Jews and took them captive and destroyed Eretz Yisrael and sent Jews scattering to the winds. It was a time very similar to the Holocaust and it was the cause and forerunner to all the other tragedies and horrors that we have suffered in a long and bitter exile, including the Holocaust.
Today I told a fellow teacher in Bais Yakov, an Israeli, that the majority of American Jews have never even heard of Tisha B’Av. She was shocked. Israelis may not all fast on Tisha B’Av but at least they’ve heard of it.
When he was the rabbi of the Orthodox shul in Chattanooga some years ago, my husband once gave a speech before Tisha B’Av. Most of our congregants were not observant and did not fast on that day or know much about it. He asked them: after how long will it be OK to just forget about the Holocaust already? Would it be OK for your grandchildren to forget? Would it be OK to forget after four generations, after ten? Of course they were all murmuring and saying, “No, no, never. Never forget, never forget.”
“But you HAVE forgotten. We went through this before in our history, and you HAVE forgotten. So obviously you think that after a certain amount of time elapses, it IS OK to forget.”
How dare the Jews who have never heard of Tisha B’Av–or of Sukkos, or Shavuos, for that matter–preach to US because we don’t join them in their day of mourning? They don’t join US in OUR day, in KLAL YISRAEL’s day of mourning!
In America, the Holocaust has become a substitute religion, an alternate source of Jewish identity to replace the original Torah. Instead of learning Torah, we have Holocaust Studies. Instead of identifying Jews as “those who keep the mitzvos” (or even “those born of a Jewish mother”) we identify Jews as “those who are killed and persecuted.”
This identity in a sunny and prosperous country rings hollow, and young Jews want no part of it. In fact, increasingly, they sympathize with the poor downtrodden Palestinians if they think about suffering at all.
Every year fewer and fewer Jews show up at Yom Hashoah observances, and the crowd that comes is aging. Fewer and fewer young Jews give money to Federation or visit Israel, either, which is a source of much hand wringing and angst in philanthropist circles.
When people who are not halachically Jewish but have, say, a Jewish father, ask me plaintively, “How can you say I’m not a Jew? Hitler would have killed me!” I reply: We do not define a Jew as “anyone Hitler would have killed.” Hitler is not our posek.
Indeed, there is something pornographic about the obsessive study of the gruesome details of the Holocaust, without context, without history, without a sense of the whole flow of Jewish life through the centuries.
In detective novels, there is a corpse on the floor on the first page of the book, and the whole rest of the book is devoted to Whodunnit and how. The victim is little noted nor long remembered. He is of most interest to the plot as a victim. The reader learns little about him in life and does not weep for him. That’s how young Jews today study the Jews of old in their college classes. As victims. What they were and who they were BEFORE the first page of the book is of little interest to them.
It is not true that Orthodox Jews do not mourn our dead. Just the opposite. We mourn more deeply and more painfully than anyone else, because we knew the victim. We know the life and blood and heart of our Jewish grandparents when they were still alive.