On the 9th of Av, the events surrounding the saddest day on the Jewish calendar continue to be remembered, recounted and lamented by each generation anew. For me, the agonizing pain of that day in 423 BCE and 69 CE is vitally linked to another more recent human-orchestrated attempt to destroy the entire Jewish people — the Holocaust. Astonishingly enough, the actual date that began the chain of events leading to the Holocaust was also on the 9th of Av, 1914. At this early point, I will do something historians rarely do, that is, briefly tie in this connection to time.
On August 1, 1914, on Tisha b’Av, the Kaiser of Germany, William II, declared war on Russia after his cousin Nickolas had already begun mobilizing his troops two days earlier. The famous “Nicky-Willie Telegrams,” a last-ditch effort to stave off the war, failed miserably. Aggressive generals on both sides seized the moment. By the end of August, an assortment of multi-colored uniforms were excitedly donned by newly-enlisted men as they paraded off to battle. Soldiers from all nations enthusiastically answered their country’s call in a war “that would end all wars.” Tragically, this was not borne out by reality. The First World War and the infamous Treaty of Versailles were just the beginning. These events would lead to the rise of Adolf Hitler, the Second World War and the Holocaust. Thus, the twisted road from August 1, 1914 to September 1, 1939 started on Tisha b’Av.
The word “holocaust” (small h) means a great burning which conjures up horrifying images of Tisha b’Av —the burning of our Holy Temple, Torah scrolls and prayer books. Nearly 2,000 years later, a repetition of that tragic phenomenon occurred on Krystallnacht, when synagogues all over Germany were burned to the ground on November 9 and 10, 1938. Significant historical differences exist between the rulers of Babylon, Rome and Germany as they burned the Jews holy sanctuaries and orchestrated their war against the Jews. Yet, the overall goal of all three perpetrators was the same, to wipe out the stronghold of the Jewish people and destroy their enemy.
Still, despite the perpetrators’ unity of purpose–death and destruction, Jews managed to survive as a nation. After 423 BCE, the Jewish people not only hung in there but rebuilt their Temple in Jerusalem stone by precious stone. Five centuries later when the Romans destroyed the second temple, the Jews were without a central temple to worship in and a homeland. They were dispersed among the other nations. In such circumstances, other nations have disappeared throughout antiquity. Who remembers the Amorites?
In the Middle Ages and onward through modernity, the vigorously expanding Catholic and Protestant Churches persecuted Jews and associated them with the devil. Adolf Hitler had a solidly established Jew-hatred to build upon. The 20th century difference was that Nazi Ideology had moved beyond conversion, enslavement and expulsion as possible solutions to the Jewish Question. Instead, Nazis determined that Jews could only be stopped through genocide. German state-of-the-art technology made that goal realistic. Nazis and their collaborators succeeded in wiping out entire Jewish communities throughout Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia.
But let’s back up for a moment. After the burning of the 1st and 2nd Holy Temples and during the Holocaust, Jewish rabbis and leaders played a vital role in keeping the Jewish people from sinking to the lowest level of despair. Biblical figures such as Ezra, herded the Jewish people back to Jerusalem after the Babylonian conquest and offered encouragement and hope.
In the midst of destruction, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was able to make a deal with the Romans and save the lives of Torah students. The fact that the Romans spared these Jews demonstrated to the generation of spiritual leaders during the Holocaust, that nothing is impossible and that bribery and ransom were acceptable forms of life-saving measures. So too, Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the head of the Vaad Hatzola, (Emergency Rescue Community) would stop at nothing to save lives and Torah learning during the Holocaust. However, even as we remember Ezra and Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai as well as all our biblical sages and heroes, few recall the names and deeds of both religious and secular Jewish leaders during the Holocaust. In fact, almost no authoritative body bestows honors on righteous Jews.
Tisha b’Av commemorations can take a steps towards fixing this grave oversight with programs honoring Jews who saved Jews. Themes like “Behind every Righteous Christian there is a Righteous Jew“ can examine “forgotten” Jews who enabled their famous Christian employers to do their righteous deeds during the Holocaust. For example, who remembers Raul Wallenberg’s chauffer Zarah Wahrhaftug, who also put himself in harm’s way and was eventually interned by the Russians to never be heard from again? Then there is Oskar Schindler’s Itzchak Stern, the manager and brains behind the successful Emile factory. Vilmas Langfelder was the assistant to Japanese Consul General Chiume Sugihara. He worked tirelessly to help the Japanese Consul General save lives in Lithuania in 1941.
Thus, In addition to Kinot and Megillat Eicha and the traditional service remembering Tisha b’Av, the Holocaust can also be collectively remembered. Even as the Moshiach is said to be born on Tisha b’Av, so too, there is a place in Holocaust Commemoration by recounting the extreme good that was done by Jews themselves to save lives. A very long difficult day could end on an uplifting note by recounting the good that came out of the overwhelming evil.