Ritualizing 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.