Reflections on Yom Hashoah

The Jewish Community Council always delivers a very dignified commemoration for Yom Hashoah, and each year a large attendance honours the occasion.  This weekend the JCCWA will mark the seventieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as part of the Yom Hashoah commemoration.

As a child and young adult I had an elderly friend who witnessed the famous rebellion of the Partisans as they fought back against the German’s.  Some 13,000 people died during the fighting.  Following several days of hiding under a staircase, he was one of many thousands who was transported to Treblinka, and managed to survive as a camp labourer.  The trauma of the Holocaust never left him, and was surpassed only by the grief he encountered when his daughter married out of the Jewish religion.  At that time he smashed all his kosher dishes, withdrew from participation in the Jewish community, and commented that he did not survive the Holocaust in order for his family to abandon their Jewish heritage.  Later in life he reconciled his relationship to Judaism.

These memories came flooding back to me just a few months ago.  During a trip to Israel I was able to host a business delegation of Western Australians to a three hour guided tour of Yad Vashem.  The impact of this event was in the words of one participant “life changing”.  A rare opportunity followed to discuss the experience with my counterparts.  Whereas I have been brought up with Shoah education, an understanding of the impact of genocide on my people, the group I was travelling with had notional, if any, exposure to the story of the Shoah.  What impacted them the most was not what had happened, but moreso, how it had happened.  They realised for the first time that societal sanctioned intolerance had led to manufactured murder.

The reaction of our tour delegation did not subside.  One of the participants was physically sick in the stomach as a result of the experience.  Another became theologically challenged.  We confronted this by drawing on the famous quote of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) who posited that “The question about Auschwitz is not where was God, but where was man?”  I promised to return to Perth and continue this discussion, and am most grateful for the opportunity.  The outcome, presented forthwith, has been to shift the focus of our Yad Vashem experience, from one of Holocaust memorial to one of promoting contemporary Jewish identity in a post Holocaust era, and a post Holocaust survivor era.  My friend has challenged me to assist him to understand how I espouse such resilient and strong Jewish identity, despite (or even because of) the lasting psychological impact of the Shoah. 

To assist with my response I drew on a stored communication initially penned by Ittay Fleisher.  He writes as follows:

Haim Watzman wrote an excellent piece about the trend of people choosing Judaism despite something (rather than because of something) in a blog post entitled “Jews, Despite the Holocaust.” In it, he writes, “I don’t want my children to be Jews who are Jews because they are victims. I don’t want my children to be Israelis because the world hates them. Our history, tradition and culture are rich and powerful and provide adequate reason to want to be a Jew and an Israeli even if Hitler had never been born and the swastika never had reigned.”

Watzman argues that we must have new reasons for engaging with Judaism.  “Why not say “I’m a Jew because the Jewish people produced the Bible, whose stories and poetry have become the common heritage of mankind?” Why not: “I’m a Jew because of my people’s ethos of learning, argument and dialogue, because of the Talmud, midrashim, and thinkers ranging from Maimonides to Spinoza to Soleveitchik?” Why not: “I’m a Jew because my people preserved its language and culture through centuries of dispersion and reestablished and recreated them in the modern State of Israel?”

I also drew another perspective, stored away on file, from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who will be visiting Perth in a few weeks time for Yom Yerushaliem as the guest of Bnei Akiva.  He writes as follows:

Of course, our collective tragedy is that even after the Holocaust, the total number of Jews in the world continues to decrease. Yet I believe that those who choose to remain Jewish are all the more committed, much more serious than parents who took so much for granted. This minority of serious Jews makes all the difference in the world.  If Josephus is correct that at the time of the Second Temple there were 5 million Jews, then the natural birthrate of Jews should have easily reached 200 million by today. And even with all the deaths due to the rampant killings throughout our history, we should still be left with a 100 million Jews. But where are they? How did they disappear?

We have to conclude that throughout our history, Jews have always been leaving our faith, we have always lost Jews to the prevailing winds and the marauding swords. Sometimes the temptation is too strong, and sometimes the sacrifice needed to remain Jewish was too difficult to bear. This is our destiny. Whoever is a Jew today is the product of generations of the most serious Jews in our history, the survival of the most committed.

Even if we can only speak of 13 million Jews today, we must remember that a significant portion of this group seeks commitment.

Perhaps this is why the words “You stand this day before G-d…” resound so profoundly for us as well. We, the generation after Auschwitz and Treblinka, can also be told by G d: You are here, you are still standing. Despite everything that happened to you in the desert and in Egypt and in the death camps, G d’s commitment to the Jewish people has not waned. You are alive, you are a people, and after two thousand years, you finally have your own Jewish state.  Doesn’t this demonstrate that a lot more than ‘gloom and doom’ hovers over the Jewish people at this present moment in our history?

These perspectives are critical to our community, and the way in which we approach Holocaust identification.  We will forever struggle to find meaning in the martyrdom of six million, but we will honour their sacrifice.  Our response must be to continue the revival of Jewish nationalism, and to campaign against the assimilation of both Jews and Jewish identity.  One of the salient lessons is that the greatest evil, the type which cannot be tolerated, is the normalisation of evil, and we can again see this occurring in many places. 

This is why our attendance at the Yom Hashoah commemoration has to be more than the passive marking of history.  Quoting Haim Watzman again:

“You see, being a Jew doesn’t just mean fighting to defend Jewish lives. It doesn’t mean just keeping yourself alive. To be a Jew, you have to do something with Jewish your life, and that means understanding your life in the light of your people’s history and texts and stories. It means understanding yourself as a Jew, and as a human being.”

The fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto were not as the Maccabi victors, and stand in history as the resistors that could never overcome the force directed against them.  We do not glorify their battle or accord dignity to the ghetto experience as the shadow of the Shoah is not a story of war, but rather a story of human depravity.  The Warsaw Ghetto partisan’s victory is posthumous, in the sense that seventy years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising we are able to make an astounding proclamation; “Am Yisrael Chai”, the people of Israel live!  Long after our generation has made its contribution to the rebuilding of Jewish nationhood, our descendants will continue to proclaim the same.  However they will do more than simply radiate pride.  They will not lament the woes of genocide without drawing on the energy created by internalising this experience, and translating this into a tikkun, a call to action to improve the quality of life of their generation.  We ourselves can only lead by example.