The Torah portion of Acharei Mot, which means “after the death” opens with The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.
Thousands of years later, we remember that Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu died, or we are reminded of it at least once a year, in March or April when we read Parshat Shemini. Shul-goers and Bible scholars will never forget the death of these two boys because it is written down in a book, and prior to that it was part of our oral narrative until the words were transcribed onto scrolls.
We read Acharei Mot this year five weeks after we read about the demise of Nadav and Avihu. But with all of the weeks in between, about skin diseases and Passover miracles and sacrifices, in the world view of Moshe’s family, everything is still looked at in reference to after Aaron’s boys died, or after Moshe’s two nephews died. The world still continued to spin, but nobody, not Moshe, not Aaron and certainly not the editor of the Torah forgot what happened.
And so we don’t forget them either because their death is described in the Torah. We celebrated Pesach and reenacted the Exodus because it is in the Torah. But how are other post biblical events in Jewish history remembered? How well do we know the events of the various pogroms or the Crusades or expulsions that occurred when we had no land of our own. For many, those details are for our history books and they are dates to memorize. The Temples were destroyed in 586 BCE and 70 CE. The year 132 CE was the Bar Kochva revolt. The expulsion from Spain was in 1492.
But the Holocaust is something different. As of this week, there are 26,618 items that one can purchase on Amazon that have the word Holocaust in them and nearly 1900 that include the word Shoah. And all of these works have been written in the last 70 years.
We can see numerous artifacts and photos and films at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, which is free and open every day except Yom Kippur and Christmas Day. Shoah monuments and museums can be found all over the world. A stop at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is included in nearly every first visit by foreign dignitaries and birthright Israel groups.
But there is no Bible or 15 step Haggadah about the Shoah. What we do have in 2016 is actual footage and we have testimony. The footage and video of testimony will hopefully remain in our digital age. But as for live first hand human testimony-we are reaching the end of that era.
Seventy-one years have passed, acharei mot, after the death of millions of our ancestors. We will always be in the acharei mot period of the Holocaust. In the future students of Jewry will study pre Holocaust and post Holocaust Jewry.
Even though the camps were liberated in 1945, there are war criminals who are still on trial in Europe today. And there are survivors who are flying halfway across the world, to share their memories at these trials.
Last year, Oskar Groning was put on trial. And this year just in February, Reinhold Hanning, age 94, a German former SS-Unterscharführer and member of the Waffen-SS who was stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau , was put on trial for accessory to murder of170 000 people between January 1943 to June 1944.
Canadian Bill Glied, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Dachau, testified at Hanning’s trial. Toward the end of his remarks he said:
In retrospect in my almost daily recurring thoughts, and they do recur every day, I see this piece of god forsaken earth—this ramp, as the worst piece of ground on earth. Worse than Dante’s seventh circle of hell. And as much as the bombing of Hiroshima, Dresden or London were terrible, this football size of ramp, this hell on earth surpasses them all.
This site is the silent witness to the unbelievable occurrence where a small group of men, supported by some thousand SS men, guarding the place, condemned innocent people to a horrible death. Condemned, children with their mothers and old men and women. These heartless murderers decided with a flick of a finger, who is to live and who is to die. No warrant, no document, no judge nor jury. They could spare a person whose appearance they liked or condemn him to death because he wore a handlebar mustache.
Not accountable to anyone as long as they fulfilled the daily quota of human bodies to the factory of death. And as much as the death factory that followed was terrible, it was -as Oscar Groening so recently said – simply the “process”, the execution of a predetermined fate, a fate decided by these few SS men on the ramp.
Reinhold Hanning was accused of overseeing the selection of prisoners who were sent either to labor or to the gas chambers. Hanning is quoted as saying: “I’m ashamed that I knowingly let injustice happen and did nothing to oppose it.”
It my opinion, this was too little, too late.
Bill Glied gave testimony at Reinhold Hanning’s trial because Bill lives his life in a constant state of Acharei Mot, of after the death of his mother and sister and father and town and so much of European Jewry.
In an interview with the Canadian Jewish News, Bill said “I feel that there can be no time limit in prosecuting those who committed such horrible crimes during the Holocaust. While I feel some compassion for Hanning because of his age and health, the world must know about these unspeakable crimes, not only from the few survivors who remain, but from the monsters who committed them. It will forever remain a black mark on the post-war German government that only some fifty SS guards were convicted from the 8,600 who served in Auschwitz-Birkenau.”
The world continues to spin and Bill lives a successful life, both professionally and family wise. But he lives every day in a state of Acharei Mot. So too with Moshe and Aaron. We say in the Yigdal prayer לֹא קָם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶה עוֹד נָבִיא, וּמַבִּיט אֶת תְּמוּנָתוֹ: there was never anyone like Moshe. Absolutely. He was our greatest leader, but he lived with the grief of his nephews’ deaths.
The deaths of Aaron’s sons is certainly tragic for that biblical family. Grief impacted Aaron and Moses so much that the editor of the Torah needed to include it three Torah portions later. But, it was one case, about how the death of two people impacted one family. This took place a long time ago, before books and film and photographs.
Remembering Nadav and Avihu is not a mitzvah. But remembering what happened to six million Jews in the Shoah is, according to Dr Emil Fackenheim, who wrote that our 614th mitzvah is not to give Hitler posthumous victory. Bill Glied and others like him did a mitzvah by testifying. And we need to do our part by trying to eradicate evil in the world and never forgetting.