Never Forget – But Don’t Stay Trapped in the Past
Films that reawaken the horror of the Holocaust are an unfortunate necessity. They introduce that time of despicable inhumanity to the uninformed and misinformed, and expose the duplicity of fraudulent anti-Semites. But their message is often damaged by anthropomorphic sentimentality that should be edited out. No, the Lord was not holding the hands of the victims the Nazis killed in their gas chambers. Rambam taught us long ago that “the hand of God” is a metaphor, and in this case – though well intended – it is a pernicious metaphor. God had nothing to do with the death of those innocents. Those innocents died in unrelieved anguish. No one held their hands as they clawed the walls and tried to climb out on top of each other.
Faith among survivors after that horror was an almost inconceivable challenge. Elie Wiesel, utterly steeped in the faith and Talmud as a pre-Holocaust youngster, saw the slow death of a child, incompetently hanged by the SS, as the death of God. The debasement and systematic depravations and tortures to which the Nazis, with their factories of death, reduced the victims they chose to kill slowly with forced labor and starvation are too deep for those who never experienced it to recognize without the aid of those who did.
In fact, one of the lessons in the films the Nazis made to document their crimes is that the human species is capable of depravity of such depth that they can be proud of it. We must learn from what the victims went through and honor them for somehow moving on from that experience. Israel, the reborn Jewish nation that welcomed them, recognized that to function in the world it would have to accept relations with Germany. The decent among German survivors of the Nazis were filled with shame; some of the indecent have also survived. Still, Germany, under the honorable leadership of figures like Angela Merkel, has been a crucial supporter of Israel and an opponent of anti-Semitism.
Individual survivors of the Nazis, too, must move on. Many were outraged when Eva Kor, who survived Auschwitz, said she forgave the Nazi guard on trial for complicity in 300,000 deaths there. Disapproval of her response is acceptable only from other survivors. The rest of us must try to understand. She is determined to move on from the all but inconceivable horrors she was subjected to. Her way of doing that is to say she forgives the monsters. That puts them behind her and allows her to look forward, instead of forever grinding in retrospective anger.
The lasting damage the Nazis can do to survivors and their kin is to have infected them with a responsive hatred to the Nazi hate – a version of the Nazi’s own unexamined repugnance of others. “Forgiveness,” whatever that means in her heart, allowed her to live, and, to that extent, to defeat the enemies of decent life. There are many who feel we cannot move on from the Holocaust, but in the end, life leaves us no choice. We must move on.