My relationship with the Shoah has continually evolved. I have been attending memorial commemorations for decades now, and seldom depart without having my emotions disturbed and my philosophical understanding of human indifference challenged.
The Jewish Community Council of WA consistently delivers our community with a dignified and well balanced commemoration for Yom Hashoah. I am generally not the type of person who responds well to ceremony as a form of observance. I do not think that poetry, and the composition of literature and liturgy, or that song and expressive art are generally suitable forms of response to the Shoah. They may be the limited means at our disposal, but they are insufficient as a medium of connection and understanding.
The keynote address from tonight was delivered by Professor Mark Baker. His response to the question what is the future of the Holocaust was to talk of various expressions of remembrance in Jewish tradition. He eloquently drew on his personal experience, and cited various forms of use of zichronot within Jewish festive life. In reflecting on Mark’s words, I recalled that in the Hebrew language there is no word for “history” (modern Hebrew has borrowed the English term), but rather there is the concept of memory. The difference is that one is finite, and the other infinite.
My own relationship to the Shoah was initially defined extensively by the writings of Ellie Wiesel and through encounters with a number of survivors, most of whom are no longer with us. However it was a trip to Europe and the uncovering of my own family records that redefined my relationship. I had been under the illusion that I had a small family, and that my own forbears had been spared the horror of the Shoah. I have since mapped hundreds of relatives for which there are records of murder by the hands of the Nazi’s.
The JCCWA commemoration attracted a full hall tonight. Possibly as many as 600 to 700 people came to mark their respect for the victims of the Shoah. I’m sure that each and every person relates differently to the Holocaust, and has a different understanding and response to the big questions. Why? How? Was this the work of G-d, of humankind, and exactly who was punishing who?
To assist with grappling with such questions, I often find myself at odds with common convention. I am often upset by “Holocaustism” when expressed as the sum total of Jewish identity. I am greatly offended by the belief that Israel arose consequentially out of the ashes of the Holocaust, as a type of guilt offering from a morally compromised humankind.
Rabbi Sacks of the United Synagogues in Britain recently wrote that all has been done in the wake of the Holocaust, but we still lack a way of giving the Shoah religious expression. He goes on to talk about remedies for this. While I subscribe to much of the initiative of the Chief Rabbi, on this occasion I also find the efforts communicated to create a religious dedication to be a move in the wrong direction.
I believe the response has to be holistically Jewish. As I scanned the room of participants tonight, I wondered how many would also sit in mourning on Tisha B’Av in a few months time reading Kinot and reflecting on the religious aspects of Jewish disunity. I wondered how many would make the effort to sit in Shule on Parshat Zachor and internalise the mitzvah of banishing the irredeemable evil of Amalek from the world. My thoughts were not to pass judgement on the individual levels of observance from amongst the community, but rather to question how distant many of our community members have come from recognising the unique traits of Jewish remembrance, and how foreign some of our traditional observances are to our own people.
If I could choose a way to honour the victims of the Shoah it would not to be to stand in silence and think of their memory. It would be to use every fleeting moment to advance the cause of Jewish literacy. It would be to connect our community to the language of the Mishna and the source texts of Jewish philosophers. By responding in this way, we create Jewish continuity. The words Am Yisrael Chai are no more than a platitude if we are unable to reinforce them with deed and growth in the knowledge of Jewish tradition, and of the creation of a new generation of Jewish people and Jewish thought.
The Holocaust was one of the darkest hours of humanity. It was the time that humankind took its own technology and established the manufacture of genocide. It created a morally depraved society, and, not for the first time in history, the victims were the Jewish people. In any situation, our character is defined not by what happens to us, which is often beyond our span of control. Our character is however defined by how we react to what happens to us, and the true lessons of the Shoah are embedded in this notion. Stories of great tzedekus, and of tremendous righteousness emerged from situations where hope itself was a futile objective. We need to internalise these aspects of the Holocaust as well.
In sharing these thoughts, there is one further reflection that I feel is worth commenting on. This weekend, in the context of Yom Hashoah, I experienced a measure of mixed emotion, being anger and pride, all directed towards an even stronger determination to be the visible Jew that I am. It did not come from the Yom Hashoah commemoration, but rather from my walk home from Shule on Friday night.
Recently Yitro posted a note to this blog about the idiots that direct anti-semitic slurs towards Jews in the street. Sure to form, on the way home from Shule on Friday night some lowlife threw his arm out of the car window in the form of a salute and yelled “Heil Hitler”. I’m sure that he and his mates thought it was absolutely hilarious. I’m equally as sure that they had no comprehension whatsoever about what they were actually saying, and how deeply disturbing it was.
This type of hoonism is sadly not occasional. I invite any reader of this blog to walk with me on any given Friday night. Hardly a week goes by where some type of verbal abuse is not directed towards Sabbath observant Jews walking home from the Synagogue. It is an utter disgrace to Perth that racism is allowed to openly fester in our streets, and that people’s safety can be compromised.
How does this random moment relate to the Holocaust commemoration that we hosted tonight, other than the use of Holocaust vilification? Simply put, Jews not only need to educate themselves, but also need to educate the communities around us. It is time we moved beyond the superficial level of Holocaust awareness. The average person’s exposure to Holocaust imagery comes from the fantasy realm of movies that do little to convey the true horror of what occurred, and do even less to explore the political environment by which this was able to occur.
There was a time when I used to ask myself how could the Holocaust occur? It seemed to me that free thinking people would have been able to overpower and overcome the brutality of the third Reich. Today, I no longer wonder. Seeing the lies that are spread about Israel on a daily basis through seemingly credible news services, seeing the open abuse of Jewish people in the streets, and observing the sheer level of ignorance that exists about what Judaism actually is and what its contribution to the world truly means, it would seem quite easy to understand how all of Europe was duped. We are not immune from a further Holocaust by failing to heed the warning signs that are clearly visible to any discerning observer.
It is beyond the power of any one individual or any blog to solve all these problems. However the starting point is to raise awareness of the reality that exists. There are those who will dismiss it as negative paranoia. There are those that will despair yet do nothing, and there are those who see, hear and understand but yet still fail to respond.
My own reaction is to strengthen my resolve. The Holocaust is too close to our generation to be anything other than an ingrained part of our Jewish identity. We need to treat it with reverence, and we need to learn from it, both the positive and negative aspects of the human condition. We cannot however let it consume us. Nor can we ignore the sad reality that the resolve of “never again” will be a wasted slogan if we continue to allow modern expressions of Jewish identity to be misunderstood and misrepresented by the community of nations.