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Poland 2016 and the Legacy of the Shoah

by Rabbi James Prosnit   

Rosh Hashana Afternoon 2016/2777            

It was only one month ago that forty-four of our congregants and I travelled to Poland. We stood at the Umschlagplatz, the gathering place in Warsaw where some 7000 Jews a day for a period of months were loaded on cattle cars ostensibly for better lives in the East –but for most of the 300,000 the final destination was Treblinka.  Within 45 minutes of arrival nearly all were gassed to death.  

We stood too at Auschwitz and felt the souls of the 1.3 million men, women and children who were exterminated in the Auschwitz-Birkenau machine of terror; a systematic killing operation so vast that the expanse of the camps spread out as far as the eyes could see.  Barracks for 90,000 slave laborers; 5 gas chambers and crematoria taking turns to increase the efficiency of non-stop killing. Within a short time 75% of the arrivals perished and those who were selected for work — did so in conditions so deplorable that survival for some was a fate worse than death.

Like many of you I have visited Holocaust museums in numerous cities both in the States and overseas, but the experience and sense of place, a place of such mass horror had an overwhelming effect on me and the others. As you can imagine it was a most sobering experience.  One that I hesitate to call attention to on this the opening night of the Holy Day season. 

But, I promise I will not overwhelm you with more statistics and images, That said, you can tell the recent experience and the difficulty of getting my head and arms around it all has been very much on my mind. With numbers so beyond the capacity to comprehend, seventy-five years later it is hard not to wonder on this Rosh Hashanah, how many more Jews would be walking in to some synagogue be it in Europe, in Israel or here this evening if; if only.

 But we know “if only,” is not the tag line we need for building the Jewish future that we’d like our children and grandchildren to inherit.  To say to them, “Be Jewish because so many of your ancestors died,” is an identity built on guilt and victimization not on positive affirmation of what a Jewish life can provide. Why be Jewish? Because of our lachrymose, tearful history, culminating in the death of six million fosters a Jewish form of PTSD that we can’t sustain forever. 

This is the conundrum. We must learn and teach what happened in those killing fields, but the horrific nature of that history makes it so difficult to move beyond an identity founded on oppression and persecution. For most of us Jews today, the Holocaust was not something that happened to us nor did it happen in the country in which we came from or even in many cases, to any members of our family.   Still, recent surveys of the American Jewish community, even among millennials notes that three quarters of us feel that remembering the Holocaust is essential to our identities.  It’s was the highest essential in a list of other attributes that included things like leading an ethical life, following Jewish law, eating Jewish foods or living in or caring about Israel. 

It was far easier to fill a bus for our recent congregational trip to Eastern Europe than it was for our trip earlier this year to Israel.  Why is that?

I’ve told the story before of being at a meeting at Fairfield University where I teach. I was invited to be part of diversity week on campus.  Each ethnic, religious and national group was being encouraged to plan one event that would highlight some aspect of the group’s culture.  As the Latinos planed a program of music and the Asians considered a celebration of various foods and the African – Americans focused on African dance, someone suggested that the Jews show Schindler’s list.

So, the question to me is, how do we move beyond a cultural and religious definition based on that of victimhood.  And the answer I’d like to suggest is that given the magnitude of the Holocaust we can’t. But what we must do is to allow our journey into the heart of darkness to lead us into a mandate for justice and vigilance against evil. Jews are the reminder to the world that the unthinkable can happen. And as Jews, we must remind the world that evil unchecked becomes evil unbound. 

The particulars of our history must be studied and committed to memory.  But those lessons must lead us to active engagement in the never-ending work of fighting ignorance and prejudice, and building bridges of understanding between the people with whom we live.

In his provocative book, The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes, former Israel Knesset member Avraham Burg writes, “Wherever the Nazi turns off the light, the Jew comes to turn it back on. Just as our call (to pharaoh) ‘Let my people go’ is echoed throughout history …. , the term Jew can identify anyone who refuses to bend in the face of discrimination, evil, and persecution.”[1] 

The watch words  “Let my people go” and “Never again” are more powerful expressions of how best to move away beyond the “if only” mentality of resignation. They lead us to a perspective where I know I cannot be indifferent to human suffering – anyplace.  A recognition that social action/social justice is not a fad or an extension of liberal politics it is an authentic expression of our mission. 

The death of Elie Wiesel this summer brought to mind this tension. Wiesel was a unique figure among Jewish leaders because no one else held the moral authority that he did. His message was, “Remember the Holocaust: Remembrance must shape our character and has the capacity to transform the future”[2]  But the challenge he threaded so powerfully was to invoke the uniqueness of the Holocaust, an event as he said that invited no comparison, even as he spoke to circumstances around the globe that echoed his experience. While the Shoah may in fact have been unique evil the view that “We suffered more than you did,” was a perverse type of one upsmanship to which he gave no countenance.

When asked to speak at the dedication of the Holocaust memorial in Washington D.C. he said something that shocked people at the time. He said, there was no reason to stop building the complex now. “We might as well start building the Bosnia wing.” And, since then, we could add a number of other wings as well that would represent nearly every continent on earth. You see, ultimately, the Shoah’s bloody finger points to a universal, global issue that includes the memories of millions upon millions of victims of genocide, before, during and after World War II. It extends to places around the world where death and displacement abound, even as we gather tonight.

How painful that the slogan Never Again—hasn’t really been all that successful.  It may have been a rallying cause when Jews were in danger – in Arab Lands or in the Soviet Union. But in universal terms again and again we witness atrocities unfold and feel so powerless to do anything about it.  Our teachings ask us not to stand idly by, to step out of our own grief and give voice to the pain of others.  Suffering is suffering, the denial of human rights is a universal crime, the horror of genocide, a universal sickness — we can and must continue to be the world’s conscience.

My son’s synagogue in Westfield, New Jersey is working with a local church group to provide resettlement assistance to a few Syrian refugee families. With millions displaced and 2 million under siege in Aleppo it certainly is a tiny pebble in a wide ocean of despair.   Even if we feel we can’t do all that much we know that indifference and silence helps the oppressor it can never help the oppressed. But we know the ripple effect of tiny pebbles and we’re taught no act of goodness is insignificant in the eyes of God.

Emil Fackenheim, a Shoah survivor himself and one of the preeminent Jewish thinkers of the 20th century is famous for positing the 614th commandment. This commandment is in addition to the traditional 613 that have been a symbol of Jewish law and life for the past 2,000 years. His additional commandment, the 614th commandment is: to survive. Yes, survival is essential, but survival for its own sake is neither meaningful nor moral. As we move forward into the future; as we seek to redeem the memory of all those murdered by the Nazis, we must find a way to move beyond this notion of survival to one of human progress, where “Never Again” applies to all peoples, everywhere. A tall order, ideal in the extreme, but it is also a way to redeem those swallowed up in the jaws of genocidal hate and brutality.

To be a Jew is to believe in the promise of the future. To be a religious person is to never give up on the potential for a transformed tomorrow. We have learned some painful lessons – if only it could have been otherwise. We have seen the darkest side of humanity and last month I got to walk in the footsteps of those who died and those who somehow managed to survive.

During these Days of Awe we gather to affirm the faith that emerged from those ashes and reaffirm the way to the light of justice, compassion, truth and dignity for all humanity. We do not have the history or the moral authority and urgency of Wiesel or the philosophical wisdom of Fackenheim but the tradition both they and we affirm by our presence here during these Holy Days reminds us that like the prophets of old – Jews remain and remain an ‘or l’goyim’, a light unto the nations. A proud calling if there ever was one. Our task has long been to light a candle against the darkness. Or at least plug in a nightlight.  Thisour task; this our mission. This is the positive lesson which if we teach ourselves, we can teach the rest of the world.


[1] Burg, Avraham, The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes (NY:Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 144.