The unusual proximity this year of yesterday’s Holocaust Remembrance Day with tomorrow’s 71st anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender should not be misunderstood. Although the date for Yom HaShoah was chosen to honor courageous uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, millions of murders separated Jewish resistance from Nazi surrender. Even in 1945 when Allied victory was inevitable, months of monstrous slaughter continued from the liberation of Auschwitz in January until the liberation of Mauthausen in May.
What is the effect of remembering on us? Perhaps what we remember and what we do about it says a lot about who we are and who we become.
Many years ago, I introduced Rabbi Ben Zion Gold, of blessed memory, for an event at which he spoke of his freshly published volume on Polish Jewish life prior to the Holocaust. Eager to champion resistance (gevurah) among the Six Million, I asserted that onlookers used to depict our ancestors as sheep passively going to their slaughter were actually projecting their own passivity in failing to actively help or harbor Jewish victims. Rabbi Gold graciously pointed out, however, that he and his yeshiva contemporaries would have had little use for rifles. He was urging me to be cautious about projecting first-responder heroism onto beleaguered, incapacitated victims.
In this week’s potion of Torah the phrase ‘the stranger in your midst’ recurs five times. A Hasidic interpretation of the Hebrew wording, hager hagar b’tochechem, suggests a radically different reading. The passage does not speak about foreigners or strangers in our midst, but rather the foreign or strange parts of ourselves which are in some way counterfeit pieces of who we truly are. Near the Torah’s midpoint we are reminded to purge our souls of toxins that are not true to who can be when we’re at our best.
In a 1961 Jerusalem courtroom, Hannah Arendt described testimony about a German sergeant, Anton Schmidt, who supplied Jews with money, arms, and foreign papers until he was caught and executed. “A hush settled over the courtroom” wrote Arendt, “it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence in honor of the man named Anton Schmidt. And in those two minutes, which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of the impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutable, beyond question — how utterly different everything would be today in this courtroom, in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all other countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told.”
The memories we carry either amplify or quiet our ‘alien impulses within’ (hager hagar b’tochechem). While sustained indifference to evil facilitates its ferocity, disciplined goodness is today’s spiritual resistance. Native Americans describe a daily inner struggle between a mean dog and a good dog within every person. Which dog prevails? The one we feed the most.