This week we witnessed another impressive Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel when the country came to halt to remember. As well as the return of the annual March of the Living pilgrimage to Auschwitz. Elsewhere? Hardly anyone noticed.
The Holocaust is unique in the history of humanity for the sheer size manner and process of the aim and execution, to destroy a whole people. There have been plenty of other atrocities, massacres, enslavements, tortures, and deaths throughout human history but none to match the single-minded determination of a depraved nation to dehumanize another in the way the Holocaust did. It was not just a crime of the executioners but also of almost the whole of the so-called civilized world that did nothing to help either before, during, or after.
How can we respond? Can we explain why there is evil in this world? The rationalist will say that this shows what awful things humans are capable of. It proves either that there is no God or that God does not care about human beings. Only different tools, different circumstances, and different situations give different opportunities both for cruelty and benevolence. This is a constant challenge that we will always, face. We as individuals have to make sure we’re on the right side of the choice. The mystics will say that it reinforces the belief in a spiritual world that rejects the norms of the physical.
All religions have grappled with the problem. Some say that God rewards humans and nations for being good and punishes them for disobedience. Others say that there is an evil energy or personification they call the devil in this world to rival the good. Some say that humanity is intrinsically evil and God, in one way or another, offers humanity a way to overcome the bad. And others argue that we cannot know how God works and must just get on with the business of living as best we can. We have seen that some survivors abandoned God. But others became more committed. Does God not care? Must we simply accept that this is not explainable and remain silent in the face of a cataclysm? Where was God at Auschwitz? Did we fail God? But where was humanity?
As long ago as the second century, Rebbi Yannai in the Mishna said that “We simply cannot explain why the good suffer and the evil prosper” ( Avot 4.11). Though most other rabbis preferred to see justice in another world.
Many will point to the Seder Night when we say, “ In every generation, people stand up against us to destroy us, but God ensures we survive.” We might say that 2000 years of Christian contempt in Europe and dehumanization inevitably culminated in the Holocaust, a product of demonization whether it came from the church first or from nationalism later. Others prefer to see it as the result of the human tendency to be scared of the other, the alien, combined with jealousy and envy. Both Christianity and Judaism tried to explain it in terms of atonement, penance, and suffering. And both have tended to think of another world, an afterlife where justice is executed.
Throughout our history, we have been responsible for our catastrophes through our own failures and backsliding. And if one wonders why the pious suffered numerically far more than the rest, they will answer that the community is judged as a whole not individually. When we push God away, in mystical terms, God hides from us, and it is up to us to bring God back into our lives. This is the message of the bible and the Biblical Prophets. God’s benevolence is communal rather than individual. And there is a difference between “ Hashgacha Pratit” and Hashgacha Leumit”. Divine care on the individual level in contrast to the national.”
The Kabbalah introduced the idea of the transmigration of souls. Our souls pass through many physical iterations. What happens on this earth is just one relatively unimportant phase and there are more and greater worlds to come and it is there we must go to seek answers. As with all attempts to explain the Holocaust, none rings true, none satisfies logic or assuages the pain.
Over time martyrdom became a feature of religious thought. In Christianity, it was the idea that Jesus died on the cross for humanity’s sins. A human sacrifice. We have to be passive in the face of tragedy. This was something historically that Judaism rejected.“ Yet the idea of being prepared to die for our religion gained currency in response to Christian and Muslim persecution. “Kiddush HaShem,” Sanctification of God’s Name, was a way of showing the primacy of the Jewish spiritual world and walking to one’s death with dignity and pride, mentioning God’s name as the end approached.
Why do some in the Charedi disregard the State Holocaust Day? Sadly, this reflects the ongoing battle between the secular and the religious. Secular Israel always tended to glorify those who did stand up and fought. The Day is called Yom Hazikaron VeHaGvurah, The Day of Memory and Power. The idea of Gevurah, power, and resistance in Europe and Israel brought about the State. In contrast to the Charedi emphasis on Kiddush HaShem, passive power. Yet there were examples of Charedi Jews who took up arms and joined resistance when they could.
Just as there is no single way of understanding God, and so many different ways of understanding Judaism, there are many different ways of deciding how to respond to the Holocaust. For some people remembering the Holocaust, talking about it, and trying to ensure it is not forgotten, is their religion, and mission, not Judaism. The Charedi world has focused rather on how to respond to Holocaust practically, by devoting themselves to life, having many children, to redouble their commitment to a Jewish way of life and Jewish study, denying Hitler a posthumous victory. The Charedi community has found its raison d’etre and has succeeded. It feels that it does not need a specific Memorial Day.
What is the best way for the rest of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive? The concept of remembering, Zikaron has always been a crucial part of our tradition and one we are personally responsible for and cannot delegate. When the greatest authority of the last generation the Chazon Ish, Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (1878 –1953), when asked why he opposed a special day for a Holocaust memorial he said that we remember the Holocaust every day of our lives in our prayers and hearts. It is better to reinforce what exists than add new ones. Most Orthodox synagogues remember the holocaust martyrs every day in Tachanun, on Shabbat after reading the Torah, and again during the Yizkor prayers on Festivals. The Kaliver Rebbe, who survived the Holocaust on the other hand, did institute a specific daily prayer to identify with and commemorate those who suffered. For us, it is in our genes, our consciousness, and our subconscious. Many others link the Holocaust to the Ninth of Av when the worst catastrophes of our history are commemorated.
Have Holocaust Days and Museums and Memorials succeeded in preventing other disasters, removing antisemitism, and educating the masses to never let it happen again? In Israel, there are two Holocaust days. One fixed by Chief Rabbinate on the Tenth of Tevet and a secular one fixed by the state on the 27th of Nissan that we have just had. Then there is the International one fixed by the United Nations on January 27th which is observed by very few States and has been hijacked by some to claim that is a deliberate attempt to diminish the Palestinian cause. Attempts to explain are met with derision or aggression. Or the day is denuded of its Jewishness and applied to other tragedies. Most of us however believe a Memorial is necessary.
But what do they achieve? It would be nice to think we can say “Never Again” but clearly this is not the case. Unspeakable horrors continue. I do not mean for one minute to say that all these memorial days, museums, educational projects, and pilgrimages have no importance. However, we humans have short memories. Even in Germany itself which has done so much to try to atone, antisemitism is a rising concern despite all its efforts, as it is in the rest of Europe and the USA, from the right, the left, and Islamists. In England, the well-meaning are putting up a memorial near Parliament, and ignoring the reality that in most schools the Holocaust is neither taught nor remembered. General history is being taught less and less everywhere in schools and universities.
How much does it matter to most Jews who feel more at home in the secular world and less committed to their Jewish roots? If we don’t still feel the pain and the horror and abandon our duty to remember those who lost their lives practically, we are giving up the obligation to keep the memory alive. But the more we remember and act on it, each in whichever way we choose to, and make it part of our lives, the more we are ensuring that it is not forgotten, at least by us, if nobody else.