Yom HaShoah at Ft. Hood (Part Two)

[continues from an earlier piece]

There is no easy way out of the quandary about presenting the Shoah to non-Jews, at least not if you have to pick a single approach. It is like standing at a fork in the road, knowing full well that both lead to washed-out bridges ahead.
Here are the two chief options. You can speak about the Jewish experience, hoping to elicit a bit of understanding and a great deal of sympathy. This will only work with certain groups of people; even there, sympathy can have an expiration date, especially if drawn upon too often. The gain may be mostly cathartic on the part of the presenter. Or, by proxy, it may be cathartic for the community that he represents. It leaves the presenter feeling true to his or her principles. It preserves the uniqueness of the Jewish experience, which was so different from that of the other groups who were not hunted as animals, and brutalized for pleasure by a bestial enemy bent on systematically achieving their total annihilation.

The alternative is to develop themes of universal application, especially after presenting the figures about the millions of non-Jews like Polish intellectuals and priests, Roma, gays, Soviet soldiers and the handicapped who suffered during the Shoah. The latter approach is more relevant and inviting to the non-Jewish listener, and can therefore aspire to educate and challenge. It demands paying a heavy price, however, in under-representing the Jewish experience. It can seem to be a violation of the memory of the kedoshim. How does one choose?

My instructions were delivered clearly and unequivocally. Several times, in fact, in the weeks before my presentation, various figures went over the battle plan. The theme was to be tales of resistance, but referring as much as possible to those who saved non-Jews, since they would be most relevant to a non-Jewish audience. Such an approach, it was felt, would be most consistent with the general diversity program within which the Holocaust presentation was embedded.

Still, they offered much latitude, and did not micro-manage my remarks. Hashgachah made my task so much easier. The general who introduced me offered definitions of the Holocaust, and some general background. He also ate up very little of the clock. When I stood to deliver, the program was well ahead of schedule, and part of my planned presentation had become irrelevant. I did not have to choose between two approaches. I could offer both. Anticipating this, I had hurriedly scribbled new notes in my outline while the general spoke, entirely changing the thrust of my remarks.

Briefly, I opened with some humor and segued to some information about myself, as it related to the Holocaust. I spoke of my mother and a few other teens, burying the burnt remnants of the sifrei Torah in what had been an imposing edifice of a shul in Konstanz, Germany. I spoke of her marginalization in school, leading to humiliation, culminating in expulsion – and the courage of local nuns who set up an alternative school for the Jews who had been thrown out. I continued with her deportation to a large concentration camp in southern occupied France, and how German policy changed just after she was released to head for the US. (Initially, internees who could secure papers to the West were allowed out. Immediately after my mother’s release, the policy changed, and the only destination became Auschwitz. My existence owes itself to what they would call good luck, and we know as Hashgachah.)

I owned up to the deaths of tens of millions at the hands of the Nazis, but I wanted them to know how the war against the Jews was different. I spoke briefly of aspects of the Jewish experience – of nowhere to go, and no way to defend themselves. (As a seasoned veteran of the ongoing battle against Palestinian designs on finishing Hitler’s work, I could not and would not resist the opportunity to throw in a reference to the emergence of the State of Israel – which was a popular country on base.) I spoke of physical resistance; I spoke even more passionately about spiritual resistance.

And I told one story whose lesson is complex. I told it primarily for effect. Its source is Rabbi Lau, and it concerned the last rov of Warsaw. He was murdered, as was his family. A close talmid made it his task to search out any survivors of his rebbi’s family, a search he continued for years. He learned that his daughter had indeed survived, and was living in , married to a non-Jew. She had a young son, attending a Catholic school. He sent her letters; she did not respond. He sent gifts before holidays, messages through travelers. He failed at breaking her silence.

Finally, he determined to make a trip and face her in person. He found her home, and knocked on the door. She opened it slightly. Recognizing him, she moved to quickly shut it. “I’m not interested in speaking with you.”

“Fine. I understand. But I have come from afar. May I come in at least for a glass of water?”

Reluctantly, she admitted him, and he was able to begin a conversation. It was clear that she had no interest in keeping any connection with anything Jewish. She explained. “Should I tell you how Tattie died? He was sitting at the table, learning, with talis and tefilin. The SS burst in. My father was such an angelic soul, that he simply didn’t understand what this was about. He greeted them warmly, asked them what he could do for them. This left them speechless for a moment, until one of them gathered his wits about him. He took the butt of his rifle, and smashed Tatty’s tefilin through his skull. That is how he died.”

The talmid thought for a moment, and asked her. “Will you always remember the face of your father?”

“Of course. How could I ever forget?”

“What about the faces of the SS? Do their faces remain etched in your memory?”

“Certainly. I could not forget if I wanted.”

“OK. Which image do you want your son to retain? That of your father, or that of the SS?”

She was stunned. “What do you want?” He replied that he wanted to educate her son as a Jew. She agreed, if he would take personal responsibility for him.

The son became a rosh yeshiva in Israel.

By this time, it was apparent that I had the full attention and emotional engagement of the audience. I don’t think they expected what came next. I told them that the story I told was cathartic for me – but I was a Jew, and they were not. What could the Holocaust possibly mean to them? Having made the Jewish case, I could now make the universal one with a clear conscience.

There were discrete lessons that were learned through the Holocaust, and I would share several of them. I will present them here only in summary form:
1) The SS didn’t murder millions. Thousands of ordinary citizens had to assist in the logistics, supplying the trains, coordinating the schedules, etc. How did ordinary citizens become mass murderers? One theory points to the ability of people to accept the premises of their governments. The unspeakable can become acceptable – unless people learn to think critically.
2) Others disagree. They argue that habituation is not enough. The Holocaust would not have occurred without strong ideologues. Mass murder will continue to take place if people cannot recognize pure evil for what it is. (I threw in that the military was one of the last places where people claimed to know pure evil when they saw it, and were prepared to resist it by force.)
3) Holocausts do not happen in a vacuum. Murdering millions required a run-up, in which Jews were dehumanized through hate speech, incitement, and legislation. There is a continuum between racial jokes, bullying, hate speech, and murder. The power of speech is more deadly than most realize.
4) Hatred can be more powerful than reason. Hitler denied soldiers on the front the backup they needed, preferring to send trains to Auschwitz instead.
5) Freedom requires discernment. Goebbel’s Big Lie strategy counted on masses of people not discriminating between truth and falsehood.
6) We have a hard time coming to grips with mind-numbing catastrophe. leaves us vulnerable, unlikely to act when we should. Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”
7) Individuals can and did make a difference – although there were not enough of them.

I then launched into a resistance primer, with very brief descriptions of people, mostly non-Jews, who did resist. By prior instruction, I included a good number of people whose resistance aided non-Jews, like other prisoners in death camps, and downed Allied fliers. The list included familiar names like Raoul Wallenberg, Chiune Sugihara, and Oskar Schindler. It then moved to names not so well known: Father Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Waitstill Sharp, the Ten Boom family of Amsterdam, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes, Irena Sendler, Feodor (the Russian officer who protected the young Rabbi Lau, sometimes with his body), and Recha Sternbuch and the Swiss policeman who helped her.

The descriptions, coming rapid-fire, were effective. They provided a good set-up for my final shot.

All the stories about righteous resisters and many like them would not have made any difference in the end without the single element most important in stopping Hitler: the use of force. Some people had to be so confident in the difference between good and evil that they committed the lives of millions to crush the Nazis. My children, I said, are third generation survivors; all of them in the US military, I continued, are third generation liberators.

There was no question that this last message was more than warmly received, from the enlisted men and women, and up to the top brass.

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15 Responses

  1. mb says:

    “By this time, it was apparent that I had the full attention and emotional engagement of the audience.”

    And mine.

  2. Guest says:

    “Every Jew a .22.” I’m sick of the victimhood. I’m sick of the pacifism. I am sick and tired of the Jews with their head in the sand. I am sick of it. The Jews learned NOTHING from the Holocaust. NOTHING. They learned ABSOLUTELY NOTHING from the Holocaust. NOTHING. ZERO. There’s not one lesson learned. NOTHING.

    If the Jews had stopped studying the Zohar & learned how to defend themselves, maybe the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened… Put the books down. Because millions like you went into the gas chambers with the holy books in their hands. Pick up a gun! When are you gonna learn what world you’re living in? Stop with the Zohar! Pick up a gun & learn how to defend yourself!

    Why are you teaching your children to be cowards, and to hide? Why don’t you teach them martial arts? In addition to teaching them how to bend over and pray to G-d, teach ’em how to stand up and beat off an enemy. Its wonderful to bend over and pray to G-d, but its really even better to stand up and punch an enemy in the nose. That’s what you should be teaching your Jewish boys, OK.

    The death camps didn’t originate at the beginning of the Holocaust – they were the terminus of the Holocaust. Do you know the first law that the Nazis passed? It was a very innocuous law. All they passed was a law which said – “Jews cannot swim in swimming pools, only Aryans can”. The Jews said “Ahh, Who cares about ’em anyway? I don’t wanna swim with them. What do I care?” That’s how it started. It started with that little innocuous law…

    When they went around in Germany at that point, and they took Jews out of their houses, they did so quietly. The German wanted order and they didn’t want disorder, and they knocked on the door very politely, and they told the Jews to please pack a bag and come with them, and they complied and went with them. If every Jew had a .22, and instead of going quietly they shot a Gestapo agent in their apartment building, maybe even giving up their own lives, the Holocaust would have been aborted right then and there – because the Germans did not want the average German to know about it. And that is why the refrain “every Jew a .22” came about — which is that, If the government starts taking you out of your house quietly – don’t go quietly into the night.

    BTW speaking of which – You know who the first ethnic group was in Germany that was actually picked upon, it was NOT the Jewish people, do you know who it was?

    The first group that the Nazis went after – were the folks who come around to your neighborhood in black suits and put out these little cartoon-like booklets about religion. You know the guys who walk around in the hot sun in black suits, you know that religion? They were the first people that were persecuted by the Nazis – very few people know that. Do you know the name of that religion?

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses were the first to be picked up and persecuted by the Nazi regime. Just so you understand how this began…and because no one stood up for them because they were such a small minority. They said “Ehh, They’re a bunch of nuts anyway. What do I care?” This is how it happens…

  3. Nachum says:

    I love the last bit, about use of force. What’s the old line? “Violence never solved anything…except slavery, imperialism, fascism, communism…”

    I must take exception to two lines, with full knowledge that R’ Adlerstein knows this “business” far better than I:

    “like Polish intellectuals and priests, Roma, gays, Soviet soldiers and the handicapped who suffered during the Shoah”

    No; they suffered during World War II and/or under the Nazi regime. (Gays, interestingly, suffered under Weimar-era laws. But in my humble opinion, bringing up gays opens a huge can of worms.) Prof. Deborah Lipstadt once wrote me that she limits “Holocaust” to Jews and Gypsies/Roma, and I see her point. (This came up in the context of a review she wrote of a book on Simon Wiesenthal; apparently he made up the “six million Jews and five million others” figure out of whole cloth for understandable but ultimately harmful motives.) To put it simply, you have to stop somewhere; otherwise you can go so far as to include every single person killed between, say, 1931 and 1945.

    My other quibble is with the Catholic woman story. I’m Jewish, and I felt a bit uncomfortable with the idea that the kid was being raised in the “image of the SS.” I can only imagine what a decent Catholic and/or Polish American would feel.

    [YA – 1) I agree with your point, but would draw the line elsewhere: at groups that were rounded up and sent to death camps. 2) I think you missed the point. The mother was Jewish. The remark about retaining an image had nothing to do with who was going to raise him. It had to do with having the child connect to positive parts of his history, or only to the pain and suffering.]

  4. L. Oberstein says:

    Rabbi Lau told this very story about the Rabbi in Warsaw and how his student found the daughter and now the grandson is a Rosh Yeshiva in Israel in Baltimore on Sunay night at the dedicationof the new campus of Bnos Yisroek School. He is one of the best public speakers I have ever heard, he had the audience enthralled. This, despite the fact that his English is not polished . I am sure that he is even better in Hebrew.
    Seriously, I wonder if deep down , this qauestion of G-d in the Holocaust is answerable. Even in the story, there is no defense of G-d, only a decision that Judaism is worth living for and the best revenge is to deny Hitler a postumous victory. I think that deep down, many survivors, even those who are very religious on the outside, are full of doubts and questions. Perhaps that is just the way it has to be.
    I have often asked why some survivors remain frum and others went in the opposite direction. The answers vary but I don’t know how much faith has to do with it, I think it is enviromental and who they married and with whom they lived.
    Since a large percentage of the frum community is made up of descendends of survivors, many did keep the practices and rebuilt their lives along Jewish paths. Those of us who are part of the majority of Amreican Jewry not children of survivors, owe this minority among us a lot of gratitude.

  5. meyer ben-elazar says:

    thank you,
    the hakaros hatov to the 3rd generation of liberators will , we shouldnt need it, keep on saving us.

  6. Chumi Friedman says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    You never fail to move me. Thank you.

  7. dan says:

    Beautiful. Our educational system should produce many like you, Rabbi YA!

  8. Bartley Kulp says:

    This was a great article. Though something in has gotten me to focus on something that is bothering me. Just to quote the part of the article that got me focusing; “There is a continuum between racial jokes, bullying, hate speech, and murder. The power of speech is more deadly than most realize”.

    That the power of speech being more deadly than realized is true. Ok, my problem is that a little over two weeks ago a gadol she b’Yisral called the rest of the human race a pack of sensless thieves and murderers. This would of course would include the members of the US armed forces.

    Rabbi Aderstein, everything that you wrote resonates with me. However there is a major Torah gadol who disagrees with you. This is something that needs discussion. My fear is that this retoric is going to continue until we will be competing with fundamentalist Imams for dominance of insanity,

    If we want to be treated with due respect by the rest of the nations of the world and achieve the major task of being a light unto the nations this has got to stop. We need some serious discussion and introspection.

    [YA – I saw the quote a while ago. I don’t think he meant what people think he meant. (At least I hope not.) The context was our receiving the Torah. He rhetorically asked why HKBH had created the world. Was it for those who agreed to accept the Torah (the answer he wanted), or those whose thievery and murder forced them to spurn it. I think he was doing nothing more than paraphrasing the gemara Shabbos about Yishmael and Esav declining to accept the Torah.]

  9. One Christian's Perspective says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, what a beautiful narrative given with great wisdom and grace.
    When you began with, “There is no easy way out of the quandary about presenting the Shoah to non-Jews”, I sucked in my breath and held it……….thinking “how can people ask a Rabbi to speak about the Holocaust ‘but’ only within a script he has been given by people whose ancestors did not experience what yours did”. Has political correctness come this far to steal the humanity and emotion of the presenter for the sake of the listener to make HaShoah palatable to their tender ears. Now, I was getting disturbed and more than a little angry. I hung in there and kept reading and I noticed a smile creeping in around my mouth…….and, a bit later a loud “Yes, he did it and he did it with grace !” I don’t know how a Jewish person would define ‘grace’ but a Christian would say something like this: “grace is getting something you did not deserve”. Thank you.

  10. Nachum says:

    “I think you missed the point. The mother was Jewish. The remark about retaining an image had nothing to do with who was going to raise him. It had to do with having the child connect to positive parts of his history, or only to the pain and suffering.”

    Ah, I see. Sorry for misunderstanding- it’s a good point! (It reminds me of the story of R’ Silver and Simon Wiesenthal, among others.)

    [YA – Good analogy!]

  11. Netanel Livni says:

    >I saw the quote a while ago. I don’t think he meant what people think he meant. (At least I hope not.)

    I hope you are right, but his quote was pretty clear. He equates the 8 billion [sic] gentiles of the world with the worst possible evils:

    יש שמונה מיליארדים אנשים בעולם. ומה הם כולם, רוצחים, גנבים אנשים בלי שכל. זה הכל נמצא, אבל מי התכלית של העולם, וכי הקדוש-ברוך-הוא ברא את העולם בשביל הרוצחים האלה? בשביל הרשעים האלה?”

    Of course, he may of misspoke … but when was the last time we saw a clarification from a chareidi Godol. As his statement stands, it is deserving of the utmost condemnation from anyone to whom the sanctity of the Torah is dear. The fact that this is one of the “moderate” Gedolim, is quite frightening as well.

  12. One Christian's Perspective says:

    As I mulled over my brief definition of grace, I felt that something was missing and arrived at the following:

    To give someone grace is as if you have received something from G-d and have given it to
    someone else in love without strings attached – unconditionally; and, to receive grace is
    as G-d has given you something so wonderfully awesome that you are entirely and amazed and humbly grateful but fully aware that you did not deserve it.

    A previous poster wrote about “being a light to the nations”, I think, perhaps, this is the Jewish definition of grace. Rabbi Adlerstein, you were a light.

  13. YM says:

    What lessons have we learned from those who were willing to risk their lives to save Jews? What drove them? Is there a way to educate our youth to be like them?

  14. Shmuel Burstein says:

    Yishar Kochacha Rav Adlerstein for this effective and meaningful treatment, of a angle within an already sensitive topic. You’ve provided for those of us who speak to audiences, Jewish and non, about the Holocaust, yet another path on the road to understanding.

  15. Moshe Schorr says:

    Your last piece, about the use of force struck a chord. Many fault Pres. Roosevelt for not attempting to destroy the death camps. I remember a movie I saw at Yad VaShem where he is being interviewed. He said, the bset way to save Jews was to defeat Hitler. I also imagine he was afraid of America’s enrty into WWII being called a “Jewish War”. There were a lot of influential isolationists in the country. For me, the jury is still out.

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