Yom Hashoah – So I Believe

Boy in the striped pajamasRitualizing remembrance was a straightforward matter when I first began to organize, create, and lead Yom Hashoah programs thirty years ago. Holocaust survivors played an important role; hearing their stories and contextualizing them with honor and respect was my task.

Three decades later, the Holocaust has become a cliché for horror and terror. Now it is frequently a subject for thinly developed stories of heroism, personal tragedy, or revenge. Popular films and children’s literature have proven that the Shoah is marketable to a wide and varied audience.

But the marketing of the Holocaust has transgressed — even violated — the memory of the victims. An example: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a children’s novel that features a lonely German boy whose father is a camp commandant. Though the boy sees the inmates from his bedroom window and plays yards away from the electric fence that separates him from a city of death, he hears no screams and smells no burning bodies. By asking the reader to accept this absurd premise, the author renders the real victims’ experience invisible and inaudible.

The little fable manipulates its audience. The German boy meets a Jewish one imprisoned in the camp while he takes a walk on his side of the electric fence. In the end, the German boy ends up dying in the camp because sneaks in to visit his friend. We are more conscious of his tragic death than those of the camp inmates, who face death in the gas chambers each and every day.

In identifying with the German child we have exchanged history for a fantasy. We have traded grief that can honor the actual dead for a cathartic experience that tells us nothing about the Holocaust – not how genocide is constructed, and not how it succeeds.

Frequently, I teach a text describing the way Hungarian Jewish children were burned alive during the Shoah. I do not do this as an act of grisly insistence on shocking my students. Shock value is of no educational value.

But historical reality presented inside a context is important. My students spend weeks contending with Europe’s long acceptance of anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Then they read that terrible, brief text. In class, I ask: How are these two histories related? Can mass murder occur without an embedded history of disdain or contempt for a given people? If so, how would that alter our understanding of the Holocaust? Does it?

I want to inspire critical thought and understanding. I hope that my students can become better human beings. Isn’t that the only education that matters?

What do I long for? I wish we could look our history in the face. It tells us: We must understand and protect the sacredness of human life.

Last Sunday morning, I taught a preschooler about the Torah using a paper model about sixteen inches high. I taught him how to dress and hold our “Little Torah” and how to raise it high for hagbah. We discussed the pretty silvery crowns, the breastplate, and the Hebrew letters on the mantel, and the funny hand at the end of the pointer.

“Yosef,” I said, “we are asked to hold the Torah near our hearts. Where is your heart?”

Joseph touched his chest. I laid our Little Torah against his heart and rested it against his shoulder. Instinctively, he wrapped his arms around the Torah and held it tight.

“Why do you think,” I asked, “that we hold the Torah close to our hearts?”

“So we believe,” he said.

I hold the Torah of the Holocaust close to mine. So that I believe. I can and must honor those we lost. I can and must try to give renewed life to Judaism. I can and must understand and protect the sacredness of human life.

May we, this Yom Hashoah and all those to come, remember our dead and sanctify life.

Elie Wiesel – From Witness to Lobbyist

Hedy Epstein
Hedy Epstein

Hedy Epstein hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years.

When I knew her, university classes did not include semester-long studies of the Holocaust. Holocaust centers and museums were yet to become natural aspects to the way Americans memorialized twentieth-century history.

Hedy lived through the terrors of Nazi Germany. She escaped via the Kindertransport. She spoke often of the last moments with her parents – watching as their figures grew smaller and smaller as the train pulled away from the station.

They did not survive.

Hedy went back to Germany after World War II ended – to translate documents and records needed to prosecute the architects of medical experiments (read: crimes) at Dachau. Eventually, she moved to America.

During the mid 1980’s, she visited my classes on the Holocaust at the University of Missouri-Columbia, bringing small remnants of her past with her. I remember that she had a tin cup that relatives used while interned in a Vichy concentration camp.  The cup was used for all liquids, she explained. Eventually my students understood that the cup was used as a toilet as well as a drinking vessel.

She described each tormented aspect of her young life — being forced out of school, the breaking and plundering and torching of Jewish stores and synagogues during Kristallnacht, her father’s internment at Dachau, her parents’ justified fears for her survival, the finality of their murder.

A picture of Hedy Epstein was in The Charlotte Observer just days ago. She was one of hundreds of children of Holocaust victims and Holocaust survivors to sign an enraged condemnation of the ad Elie Wiesel took out in the New York Times on August 1.

Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and a towering presence, a prolific author and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, began his ad by referring to the near-sacrifice of Isaac. The biblical narrative that rejected child sacrifice, he wrote, should be understood as the start of monotheism and western civilization.

This claim alone is deeply disturbing. It reflects a terrible and astonishing ignorance of the history of the Ancient Near East and Israel that I find hard to associate with Wiesel.

There is much, much worse here than clichés about the origins of civilization. Wiesel compares the deliberate annihilation of one million children by Nazi Germany to the use of children as human shields in the recent weeks of war between Israel and Hamas. But genocide is not the same thing as the long-standing and historical capacity of human beings to make civilians — especially children — pay the terrible costs of war.

I am not minimizing the latter. But equating all things violent with the Holocaust is a horror of our times. Wiesel should know better than to engage in the appropriation of the Holocaust to fight a political battle.

Further, one simply has to wonder how Wiesel manages to exonerate Israel from any guilt whatsoever in the death of Palestinian children. He writes that it is “the terrorists who have taken away all choice from the Palestinian children of Gaza.”

Wait, what? Nothing Israel has ever done has contributed to the debased conditions so many Palestinian children endure? Does Israel bear no responsibility whatsoever for the lack of access to anything from food to water to medical care that has been part and parcel of life for so many Palestinian children? Nothing about the wall or checkpoints influences the lives of Palestinian children and the choices they can make about their future?

Is nothing about the way Prime Minister Netanyahu parlayed the death of three Israeli teens to gain support to, as the Israeli military calls it, “mow the grass” relevant to the choices Palestinian children have?

Wiesel paints the conflict as a “battle of civilization versus barbarism.” Is every aspect of the terrible destruction we have witnessed the product of “civilization” at war with “barbarism”? How could Elie Wiesel produce this simple-minded sound bite?

Barbarism is not simply the product of uncivilized descendants of the ancient world. Ordained rabbis in Israel have openly called for the wholesale destruction of the Palestinian people.

I think of Hedy, describing that scene at the station, watching her parents faces as the train pulled away.

The sources of barbaric, brutal, evil behaviors and evil outcomes are many and varied. No one will be served by denying that Jews, too, are capable of them.