David Breakstone
Deputy Chairman of the Jewish Agency executive

Auschwitz. What’s there to remember?

Israel isn't compensation for the Holocaust. It's the broken windows, the burned pictures, and the new photographs of those aching and smiling
A man walks through the gate of the Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp below the phrase 'Arbeit macht frei' (work sets you free) at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, Jan. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
A man walks through the gate of the Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp below the phrase 'Arbeit macht frei' (work sets you free) at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, Jan. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

The Jews are like photographs in a display window
All of them together of varying heights, living and dead,
Grooms and brides and Bar Mitzvah youths with babies.
And there are pictures restored from old yellowing photographs.
And sometimes people come and break the window
And burn the pictures. And then they begin
Photographing anew and developing anew
And display them again aching and smiling.

These words of Yehuda Amichai, excerpted from his poem “The Jews,” weren’t spoken during the World Holocaust Forum that took place at Yad Vashem last week. Still, I heard them clearly as I sat among the 750 honored guests at this historic and emotionally charged convocation of world leaders from 46 countries who had assembled in Jerusalem alongside some of the last remaining survivors of the unspeakable atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.

I heard them, as they resounded throughout the remarks delivered by President Rivlin on this extraordinary occasion. Addressing the remnants of those who had somehow managed to outlive the horrors of the Shoah, he recalled how as a child he had witnessed their arrival in our new and ancient homeland. “You are our miracle,” he told them. “Out of the turmoil of your souls you built a home, you planted a tree, you raised new families…” The broken windows. The burned pictures. And the new photographs. Of those aching and smiling.

Rivlin continued. “Through your heroism you secured for us our freedom in a Jewish and democratic state. Democratic and Jewish in a single word… for we Jews cannot live other than in a state that is democratic.” And in his speech he affirmed the humanistic and universal values that the Jewish state, together with those present, believe in, and in the affirmation of which all had gathered.

We are here, he said, “In order that we remember. In order that we not forget,” and repeated the mantra no fewer than four times. “The Jewish people is a people that remembers. We remember not out of a sense of superiority. We remember not so as to dwell in the barbarities of the past nor out of a sense of self-righteousness. We remember because we understand that if we don’t remember, history will repeat itself.” A history, he reminded those he was addressing, that sought to annihilate not only the Jews but also the fundamental moral underpinnings of just societies. “It wasn’t only human beings who burned in the furnaces of Auschwitz,” he recounted, “but human dignity, freedom, and human solidarity – all these were turned to smoke in the crematoria.” While it may have been the obsession with exterminating the Jewish people that fueled the Nazi war machine, Rivlin reminded us that an additional 66,000,000 people lost their lives in the cataclysmic consequences of their actions.

His was an eloquent reminder that in Judaism, remembering is a collective imperative and a moral one as well. The Bible enjoins us to remember more than 100 times, and the charge is not only about what is recalled and but also why it is recalled, from the injunctions in Deuteronomy to “remember the days of old” (32:7) and to “remember what Amalek did to you” (25:17) to the persistent theme of remembering “that you were slaves in Egypt” leading into the oft repeated commandment, variously phrased, that “You shall not wrong nor oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). The content of Jewish memory is at the core of our sense of self, our relationship to the other, our rootedness in a common past, our belief in a shared future, our aspiration to a unique moral code, and the deeply ingrained Talmudic ethic that “all Jews are responsible for one another.”

It is also at the foundation of the Zionist enterprise. Rivlin stated as much when he resolutely declared that “Israel came into existence not in order to compensate the children of Israel for the horrors of the Holocaust. Israel came into existence because it is our home.” He then described the sort of home our tradition would have us build: a strong democracy and proud member of the family of nations, together fighting the cancers of antisemitism, racism, national supremacy, ethnic purity and xenophobia that metastasize, destroying societies from within and to which no nation is immune. A society that is a light unto the nations and a source of pride for Jews everywhere.

That, too, we must remember, for just as Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust, antisemitism in and of itself is not going to drive people to Israel. While the number of hate crimes directed against Jews has increased considerably over the past couple of years, the number of Jews migrating to Israel from some of those countries where the phenomenon is most pronounced – France, Germany and the United States – has not.

The Jewish Agency understands that well on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and, facing the growing epidemic of antisemitism, recognizes that the task before us is twofold. On the one hand, working with partners around the globe to secure the safety and peace of mind of all Jews everywhere – in their synagogues, in their homes and on the streets. On the other, ensuring that Israel be the sort of place in which every Jew might take pride, and be proud to call home or homeland, antisemitism aside.

Today it is we who are the photographs in Amichai’s display window. We were well aware of that when the leaders of the world came to take a peek. Let us not forget it now that they have gone home. The lesson of Auschwitz is indeed that we need be masters of our own fate, but also that we, even more than others, have the responsibility of sounding the clarion call for upholding the values that will ensure it not reoccur. Nowhere. Never again.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is deputy chairman of the executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel and the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational Center in Jerusalem. He also serves as a member of the executives of the World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (JNF) and Keren Hayesod. The opinions expressed herein are entirely his own.
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