Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, historians and world leaders still struggle with the horrors of the Holocaust. Questions like who carries the responsibility for the atrocities that took place? who gets the credit for the liberation? How much did the world know? still rage unsettled. As leaders from more than fifty (!) countries came to Israel to mark 75 years for the liberation of Auschwitz, one country’s absence shocked the world: Poland. The people of Poland and some other Baltic states claimed they are mistreated. After all, was it not the Germans who spearheaded the Holocaust—the most heinous crime in human history? The answer to this debate is found in one of the most famous moments of our Exodus from Egypt.
After Pharaoh’s repeated refusals to let the Jewish people go, Moses sees Pharaoh for the last time. Moses delivers to Pharaoh the most harrowing, and ultimate message from God:
“Moses said, “So said the Lord, At the dividing point of the night, I will go out into the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave woman who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn animal. And there will be a great cry throughout the entire land of Egypt, such as there never has been and such as there shall never be again.”
These words are the warning for the most horrific plague Egypt was about to see: the plague of the firstborn. It is at this point that Egypt ought to hear the clarion call issued by Moses, one that can save their very own firstborn. The warning outlines a terrifying situation in which the Egyptian firstborn will be struck by God, even as the Jews in Egypt will remain unharmed.
“But to all the children of Israel, not one dog will whet its tongue against either man or beast, in order that you shall know that the Lord will separate between the Egyptians and between Israel. And all these servants of yours will come down to me and prostrate themselves to me, saying, ‘Go out, you and all the people who are at your feet,’ and afterwards I will go out.” [Then] he [Moses] exited from Pharaoh with burning anger.”
The contrast could not be greater; the Israelites will sleep peacefully as Egypt will be struck devastatingly. The enormity of this plague cannot be overstated; no longer are we talking about plagues of pain and property, now we are talking about the loss of real lives.
The rabbis, troubled by the broadness of the plague, state: “every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the maid who is behind the millstones.” Why should the non-Israelites who were also slaves in Egypt suffer the consequences of what Pharaoh had done? Why should they suffer when they, too, were enslaved?
The Midrash states:
“Why were the sons of the slaves smitten? Because they too were enslaving them [the Israelites] and were happy about their misfortune.”
While addressing the question, citing the happiness of those who enslaved the Israelites does not seem like a relevant point. Did they commit a crime, making them worthy of being punished or not, is all that is relevant to our question. Were they guilty, or were they not?
The great Rabbi Judah Lowe, known as the Maharal of Prague (1526-1609), elaborates in his Gur Aryeh commentary on Rashi here.
The Maharal explains that while enslaved Egyptians might say they had no choice but to enslave the Israelites, the joy with which they persecuted Israel, is their indictment. To excuse horrific behavior, saying one had no choice is one thing. To be joyous, efficient, even proud, is a whole other thing.
The best—or worst—example of this is Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the German “final solution.” When brought to court in Israel, Eichmann’s line of defense that he was “following orders,” it wasn’t his fault. Besides this being false and cunning, the argument was most easily refuted by Eichmann’s lack of remorse, laughter during the trials, and inability to show any sympathy to the millions whose lives he had destroyed. Once one shows joy in the evil they are doing and are uniquely good at it, the defense of being compelled to do so, no longer applies.
The same principle applies to the Polish people. To this day, the government and people of Poland, insist they were yet another victim of the Holocaust, rather than its perpetrators. When looking at more than half a million(!) Polls who joined the German Wehrmacht, the joy with which so many of them persecuted their Jewish neighbors, the ease with which they turned in Jews to the Germans, and the violence with which they greeted surviving Jews after the Holocaust, their guilt is more apparent than ever.
As we remember the horrors of the Holocaust, we must also learn its lessons. When seeing evil, we must not only steer clear of doing it; we must also make sure our minds, hearts, and souls stay clear of it. Seeing others in pain must evoke sorrow and sympathy in us, as we strive for a better world, a world that does not tolerate evil.