Yom Hashoah has passed. I generally do not attend Yom Hashoah programs despite being a second generation child. My Father was liberated soon after Passover and because Pesach is the holiday of freedom we talk about his liberation from the bondage of slave labor and extermination camps at our Seder. We have done so every year since I was a very young child. The discussion is engrossing and uplifting and when we get to the part in the Haggadah where we read “In every generation…” the meaning of the phrase takes on a special intensity for our family.
The discussion at our Sederim is about the impossible events of those times, the months spent in a small ghetto in Hungary, the rampant anti-Semitism and the small good deeds of a very few, the pain of separation from family members who were cremated upon arrival at Auschwitz, the death of others, relatives and friends, in the camps, the constant daily struggle to just go on, and the days following liberation. The focus in recent years at our Sederim has been upon the events, both common and miraculous, that led to my Father’s survival and how he got to America with his two remaining brothers.
Our Yom Hashoah commemoration takes place at the Sederim. When I am in Israel on Yom Hashoah I stop while the sirens wail and I think about the day and its meaning. Historically there had been debate about whether Yom Hashoah should be combined with the traditional day of Jewish mourning – Tisha B’av. On some level I am happy that the decision was made for it to have its own day. The events of the Holocaust were unprecedented. The Shoah needs its own day and all Jews affiliated and not affiliated need the day to reflect.
There are some hagiographers who are attempting to rewrite the history of the Shoah as an event directed primarily at Haredi Jews. No serious student of history or psychology will accept that premise. Jews were defined by the Nazis according to their race, even their physical features but never by their religious observance. Poor Jews, rich Jews and Jews of every religious stripe were gassed in the crematoria or forced into slave labor or shot in the fields of Europe. This attempt to change facts will likely develop very little traction. What is, however, more insidious and detrimental to the memory of the six million Jews who died is the lack of willingness on the part of certain individuals to accept the errors of certain religious leaders just prior to and during the Shoah and the willingness to accept the impression that most Jews living in Europe were Haredi. Many Haredi leaders told the members of their flocks to not leave Europe when they had the option. They were against Zionism, even religious Zionism. As I wrote in my book, Abuse in the Jewish Community, the devotion to Daat Torah in extremis leads us to believe that some humans are infallible. That makes us all as both a religion and a race to be more prone toward error. Our religion is based on questioning. We are meant, perhaps even genetically programmed at this point, to ask questions and debate with our leaders. Had more done so in the 1930’s perhaps more would have survived.
The other issue is leading us to a schism that is probably unprecedented in Jewish history. Some leaders, in their attempt to create what they believe life was like in Europe, are adding stringencies to Halacha that are causing Jews to turn against one another. But life in the Shtetl was not at all like life is now or the way they would like us to believe it should be. Many Jews in the Shtetl world were observant but many were not. Certainly in medium and large cities the world of Jewry was diverse. Unlike today, many religious leaders in Europe attended college and very few if any young men spent years learning in Kollels in Europe. Virtually all men had jobs and women helped out in the fields and shops. There was an intense fear of the Haskalah but it did not create such intense animosity among us as separate groups.
We have to start learning again to work together. We can handle the crises. Those are easy because there is no choice. They don’t give us a choice. It’s the simple act of daily living that is difficult for us.