Holocaust Remembrance Days Really Do Matter
by Jeremy Rosen
This week, we witnessed another impressive Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, where the country came to a halt to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust. We also experienced 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 and destroy 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 — that there are only different tools, different circumstances, and different situations that 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.
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 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 some Holocaust survivors abandon 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 believe that justice happens 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 2,000 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.
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 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 Haredi disregard Holocaust Remembrance 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. 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 Haredi 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, thus denying Hitler a posthumous victory.
What is the best way for the rest of us to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive? The concept of remembering has always been a crucial part of our tradition, and one we are personally responsible for and cannot delegate. The greatest authority of the last generation, the Chazon Ish, Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (1878 –1953), said he opposed a special day for a Holocaust memorial because 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.
Have Holocaust Remembrance 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 27, which is observed by very few states and has been hijacked by some to claim that it is a deliberate attempt to diminish the Palestinian cause.
But what do these days 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 efforts, as it is in the rest of Europe and the US.
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.
The author is a writer and rabbi, currently based in New York.