Where have all the survivors gone? Bernie Adler, who saw his sister murdered before his eyes. Joseph Flonders, with all he experienced, leaving synagogue singing the traditional Sabbath song veshamru. Carola Greenspan, her closest friends’ heads shaven, unable to distinguish one from the other.
It’s 70 years since the Shoah. That generation is dying. The second generation, my generation, is growing older. With all of this unfolding—how shall we remember into the future?
Some suggest that, moving forward, memory will be carried on through Shoah M’s: Manuscripts; Movies; Museums; Monuments.
As important as these may be, my sense is that nothing in Jewish history is remembered without ritual. Think of the exodus from Egypt: without the Passover Seder it would be forgotten. Or our victory over Haman: without Purim, it too would have faded into oblivion. Or the overcoming of the Syrian Greeks—which few would recall without the holiday of Chanukah.
In a similar vein, if Shoah memory is not ritualized the Shoah will be relegated to a footnote in Jewish history—perhaps a piyut, a special prayer, said for the six million on Tisha B’Av, but nothing more.
How, then, can Shoah memory be ritualized? A good starting point is to consider the Passover Seder. After all, the exodus from Egypt and the Holocaust are two of the most defining events in Jewish history.
Ritual at the Seder involves two fundamental steps. It’s based on the Haggadah’s dictum: bechol dor va’dor chayav adam lirot et atzmo … “In every generation we must tell the story as if it happened to us (lirot).”
And this is precisely what we do. Sitting around the Seder table, we declare: avadim hayyinu—“WE were slaves.” We go on: veachshav karvanu haMakom leavodato—“and now God has drawn US close to serve Him.”
Maimonides takes it to the next level. For him, the text is not lirot but leharot. In other words, we must reenact the story, moving from verbalization to action. And so we eat the bitter herbs (maror) symbolic of bitterness; and drink wine while reclining, symbolic of our freedom.
A parallel approach is needed for Shoah memory. We—all of us—had our land expropriated, were placed in ghettos and carted to death camps. Or we escaped east and were hunted by the mobile killing units—the Einzatzgruppen.
And we reenact the Shoah: numbers are stamped on our arms, symbolizing physical destruction; the Hebrew alphabet, aleph bet, is burned, symbolizing spiritual devastation; children separate from their parents and walk to a roped-off area, symbolizing the million and a half children murdered during the Shoah.
We can also remember through activism. Years back, I protested President Reagan’s visit to Bitburg. I joined the Christian Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld demonstrating in Austria, Italy, and Turkey against the unrepentant Nazi Kurt Waldheim, then president of Austria. And I went to Auschwitz to raise a voice of Jewish conscience against the Carmelite Convent. In each of these protests, we always wore a death camp uniform.
Survivors were critical of this practice, declaring that only they could wear such shirts—as only they had been there.
I respectfully disagree. Unless all of us, when appropriate, wear death camp clothing, unless all of us recite and reenact the narrative as if we were there, the Shoah will be forgotten.
Indeed, fifty years or one hundred years from now, we will have the challenge of remembering the atrocities of the Holocaust with no survivors remaining to tell their story. But if we ritualize Shoah memory until it becomes imbedded in our consciousness, that challenge would instead become a meaningful aspect of our collective identity.
In this manner, from the vantage of hindsight, we will be able to recall the past with greater precision, greater objectivity, greater clarity. And this clarity through retrospection is not without precedent. The most basic text of the haggadah, which comes from the Bible—arami oved avi—was not originally recited by the Jews enslaved in Egypt: it was recited by the next generation, upon entering the Land of Israel.
The ritual of remembering Shoah has drawn some criticism. Some have said it’s blah-boring, as every year it’s the same. But constancy is what ritual is all about. There is a reason we recite the same Shema twice daily, light Shabbat candles every Friday night, fast every Yom Kippur, and light the Menorah on Chanukah.
The power of ritual is its standardization. But standardization should not exhaust spontaneity; rather, it should inspire personal analysis and storytelling. Like at the Passover Seder, we at our Yom Hashoah Seder try to do just that. Though it’s the same, it’s always different.
Some argue we should invite an exciting guest speaker to commemorate the Shoah. But such events engender an atmosphere in which people become spectators. Through ritual we are all participants, much like when sitting together around the Seder table on Pesach. When we thus participate at our Yom Hashoah Seder, we honor its memory more meaningfully than we could sitting in an audience.
Some argue that, since our children observe Yom Hashoah in their schools, Yom Hashoah programs in the synagogue are unnecessary. But the beauty of ritual is that it is predominantly intergenerational—like the Pesach Seder. So, too, the Yom Hashoah Seder. The test of its success is whether it is shared by people of all ages.
In sum, Shoah ritual encourages C-P-I: a Constancy that is Participatory and Intergenerational.
And so, at our Yom Hashoah Seder, we eat potato peels, wear yellow stars, symbolically separate children from parents. We relive the physical and spiritual devastation, the decimation of our children.
And we relive it through Shoah poetry and song in Hebrew and Yiddish, the language of many Jews in Eastern Europe. Song was particularly meaningful for survivor Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She has told the story of being sent, in 1939, from her home to a Swiss orphanage. The eleven-year-old was frightened as she boarded the train for her long trek. All she could do was sing; song blocked the tears.
For me, our Yom Hashoah Seder reaches its crescendo in the final section of resolve, of overcoming, of rebirth of Israel: when our survivors lead us in the partisan song Zag nisht kein mal: “Never say this is the final road for you.”
My hope is that this year the young will join in singing this song of perseverance against all odds. My hope is that this song will become the equivalent of when young and old open the door at the Passover Seder for Elijah the Prophet, harbinger of redemption.
I urge you – come; bring your families, young and old, to join the survivors as we sing together:
Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leaden skies may cover over days of blue
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message—we are here!
This talk was given by Rabbi Weiss on the last day of Passover 2014, a few days before Holocaust Remembrance Day – Yom HaShoah .