I am haunted by the images I saw in temple sunday school in the 1970’s.
Bulldozers moving hundreds of bodies across the barren ground. The piercing eyes staring – from behind barbed wire – windows into the souls of emaciated human beings with a profound look of “nothingness” on their faces. Pits showing thousands of Jews slaughtered lying hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds. Jews wearing concentration camp uniforms with their yellow stars perfectly placed, should anyone question where they came from or what they were. Piles of clothes, personal belongings and eyeglasses….the eyeglasses reminding one that the thinking human beings that belonged to each and every pair were dead, slaughtered by the Nazis.
More than I care to remember, the teachers at my temple in a Boston suburb, felt it important, vital and necessary for us young American Jews to know the truths of the Holocaust. There was no “sugar-coating” going on. Especially when faced with the stark black & white images silently sharing the atrocities. I don’t remember there being any soundtrack or narration. One couldn’t look away. I imagine the teachers, standing in the back, were silently satisfied that another generation would know of the Holocaust and truly appreciate and embrace the phrase “Never Again.”
Uncensored and without commentary, we were exposed to movies that left a nightmarish impression. I gather that temple synagogues don’t do this anymore. The last few generations of parents have tended toward coddling, “helicoptering” and protecting their kids with a gravity blanket of safe spaces. So much so that the line “Kids don’t get scabs anymore” rings rather true. It’s not for me to judge whether we are better parents than our parents or our grandparents. But I would venture a guess that an absence of exposure to those movies makes it harder to teach Jewish kids about the Holocaust and the vital urgency and importance of “Never Again.”
I would never dare to write about the Holocaust itself as my only “experience” has been as a student of history and as a Jew who learned much from his father, a terribly proud and outspoken Jew. I listened to my teachers about those dark days and visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Inadequate to have much to add but I DID watch the black and while films.
Elie Weisel, in his January 24, 2005 speech to the United Nations commemorating the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, spoke for all Jews to remind and teach the world what the Holocaust was and why bearing witness was so important. He reminded his audience: “As I have said many times; Not all victims were Jewish, but all Jews were victims. For the first time in recorded history to be Jewish became a crime. Their birth became their death sentence. Correction: Jewish children were condemned to die even before they were born. What the enemy sought to attain was to put an end to Jewish history; what he wanted was a new world implacably, irrevocably devoid of Jews.” Does this sound familiar given October 7 and what Hamas tells us every day, in word and in deed?
On bearing witness, Weisel sounded a clarion call that rings even louder post October 7. “The Jewish witness speaks of his people’s suffering as a warning. He sounds the alarm so as to prevent these things being done. He knows that for the dead it is too late; for them, abandoned by God and betrayed by humanity, victory came much too late.
The realization that Hamas had documented and promoted its atrocities and these images were now being shown…at least to some, brought me back to my sunday school days and those Holocaust movies. The movies left an indelible mark on my soul that I will always carry with me. A rabbi friend of many years pointed out to me that today – in the wake of October 7th – there is a vigorous debate among some Jews as to what it means to “bear witness” to atrocities against Jews. He noted that there is a question as to whether we are “bearing witness” to the horrors or practicing voyeurism for our own sensitivities. Are we “gawking” at the video emanating from the October 7th attacks or merely watching and “taking notes”?
I would argue by watching and absorbing the images of the Holocaust and October 7th , we avail ourselves of the best way to truly “bear witness” to what Jews have faced, are facing and may face in the future. To worry about our intentions – are we gawking or practicing voyeurism? — is to overthink the matter. Because, after all, we are Jews! And we have an obligation to come face-to-face with antisemitism, hatred of Jews, and the desire by so many to eradicate the State of Israel and erase Jews from the Earth.
I would challenge every temple sunday school in the United States (and around the world) to bring back the black and white Holocaust movies and not be afraid of the sensitivities and worries that we will harm the children. I am willing to bet that virtually all of those children who were “bearing witness” to the Holocaust while staring at the black and white films, are just fine today. I would also wager they more fully understand the dangers Jews face because they saw what the Nazis did, with their own eyes, via old fashioned film projectors that brought the Holocaust into their classrooms.
The movies and images will be heartbreaking, gruesome and sickening…but we must not look away. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to “bear witness” to the horrors of yesterday, today and tomorrow.