Remembering Holocaust is only part of our duty

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Seth D. Gordon

Several of my congregants prompted me about CNN’s program last week on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  CNN should be applauded for its hourlong memorial.  

The testimony of the portrayed survivors was powerful, as was Steven Spielberg’s work and his comments about his visit to Auschwitz.  But I was also disappointed. There were relatively few survivors of Auschwitz – the Nazis forced even many would-be survivors to march, resulting in their deathsjust before the arrival of the liberating Soviet Red Army.  And most of those who survived were not quite as successful as those highlighted by CNN.  The story of survival and successful life stories is valuable but, without context, I am afraid that a softer message emerges.

Auschwitz is located in south-central Poland, just east of the Czech Republic and just north of Slovakia.  This matters if you want to go there or locate it on a map.  But some places transcend their coordinates. Auschwitz is the place where 1.1 million people were killed, more than 90 percent Jewish.  One million of the 6 million Nazi-murdered Jews were murdered in Auschwitz in less than three years – an average of more than 1,000 a day.  

We need to remember, and we are charged to remember. But what to remember?  

ADVERTISEMENT

To remember in order to understand, to make sense of the senseless, is absurd.  Trying to make meaning out of such horror, some would say, is itself sacrilegious because it purports that there is something redeemable amid utter hate and cruelty.  Any words, therefore, are so inadequate that some advocate saying absolutely nothing. And yet saying nothing, others say, is itself inadequate.  This, too, is the cruel legacy of the Sho’ah: the conflict of remembering.

So, too, counting the numbers – 6 million Jews were murdered because they were Jews, 4 million who lived in Poland and Eastern Europe – is itself a distortion because it subsumes the individual into the vast whole.  And yet not identifying with a number is to leave it vague and to suppress the magnitude of the crime.

And how can we speak of death, when the many excruciating moments of agony and torture – hunger, separation from loved ones, physical and mental ache and pain – dominated the long minutes and hours and days and are so preciously in need of a voice?  And how can we speak about pain and agony and suffering when death took loved ones permanently from this world? 

We have remembered by enabling others to remember, through museums: Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and local museums such as ours in the Kopolow Building. We commemorate the Sho’ah in programs, as we have done every year.  

Spielberg does so in video testimonies and in Hollywood through movies. But still, what to remember?

In six places, the Torah emphasizes the word “remember” and commands us, even admonishes us, to remember.  I cite three that were connected to last week’s Parashah, b-Shalach.

1. “Remember the day you left Egypt – all the days of your life.” We do this at the seder and in celebration of Pesach in every Kiddush, and in how we are to treat the stranger, unlike how we were treated.  

2. One of the most famous of the “remembrances” is to remember what Amalek did to us, first cited in b-Shalach.  The Torah repeats the idea to the next generation, by saying, “Rememberwhat Amalek did to you when you went out of Egypt,” and then adds, “Do not forget.”

3. And the Torah commands us, in this week’s Parashah, Yitro, “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy.”  And to the next generation in Deuteronomy: “Preserve/Guard/Keep the Shabbat day to keep it holy.”

I learn from our Torah: We ought to remember Auschwitz and the Sho’ah because love of our people requires that we remember the terrible crimes done against us, not only the murder, but the loss of time, the unimaginable cruel pain and suffering, the after-effects. Forgetting it would be a sin of disassociation and separation, especially for people who deserve to be remembered.

We ought to remember that evil exists and it needs to be fought, because as Jews, Torah demands that we care for the welfare of all people and to forget would be to enable that evil to rise again.

We remember because there is a message of survival and of goodness: those who risked their lives to save others.

But if we remember the Holocaust, if we commemorate the greatest human tragedy in history to the exclusion of other remembrances, then we will perpetuate our own demise, leaving museums and memorials of victimhood, of a battered people.  Those important museums need to be balanced by living museums of faith and righteousness, honor and pride.  

So we remember Auschwitz, as we were commanded to remember Amalek; we remember survival, as we were commanded to remember liberation from Egypt; and we live and remember Shabbat, as we were commanded, as a living and enduring testimony of holiness.

[Read a compelling account of life in Auschwitz, drawing from Dr. Miklós Nyiszli’s “Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account,” online at: http://bit.ly/Nyiszli]