Every Jew, Every Generation

There is something remarkable about Jewish commemoration of the past. All nations revere their patriotic heroes, honour their fallen and remember their tragedies and triumphs. Yet the Jewish attitude towards the past goes much further. The Jews regard the momentous events in their history as personally touching and concerning every Jew in every generation.

On the Passover, the Jews recall the birth of their nation and the anguish which came before it. But they are commanded not to merely remember the suffering and redemption of their ancestors as events confined to history; rather that:

“In every generation, each man is to look on himself as if he came forth personally from Egypt.”

This requirement of empathy and not sympathy, participation and not just commemoration serves several vital functions for the Jewish people. For one, it links the life and fortunes of every Jew to those of their predecessors by reminding them that without freedom from bondage then, they would remain in bondage now.

Also, by transplanting the suffering and joy of the ancient Israelites into the consciousness of subsequent generations, a powerful national bond is forged. If each Jew is filled with the soaring pride of the Maccabean rebellion and solemnly reflects on the suffering of slavery in Egypt and the destruction of the Temple as a personal experience then they will feel a far greater connection to their countrymen who are conditioned by the same colourful national history. The bond will always exceed anything which can arise from a passive treatment of the past or a connection merely through common language or geography.

This profound connection with the past through a tradition of study and enquiry fiercely guards the events that shaped the Jewish people from those who would seek to injure the Jews by denying them their history.

Perhaps most decisively, a personal, active connection with history is most likely to ensure that not only will the past never be forgotten but that its lessons will never be overlooked.

Yet in the commemoration of the Holocaust we see a distinct departure from the notion of personal acceptance of the experiences of generations past. We may embrace enslavement in Egypt but there is no desire to take on the horrors of the concentration camp or to rejoice in stories of liberation or survival.

In fact, the Holocaust often seems to evoke the opposite reaction.

Consider for example the words of Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel who observed that many Israelis showed little sympathy for the suffering of the European Jews and even held them in contempt for a perceived complicity in their own downfall. He summarised the attitude in this way:

“Six hundred thousand of us defeated six well-equipped Arab armies. Six million of you let yourselves be led like lambs to the slaughter.” 

The disconnection between a great number of Jews and the Holocaust is not confined merely to the Israelis who successfully repelled (and continue to repel) their own exterminators. The Jewish Diaspora, frustrated by the theological calamities thrown up by the wholesale destruction of God’s Chosen and unable to rationalise or understand how such horrors could be allowed to pass, have sought to move on from the Holocaust. And while they may recall it as the darkest chapter in the history of human suffering, they view it as one best left closed.

It is not surprising that the Holocaust has not been integrated into the collective Jewish consciousness in the same way as the flight from Egypt or the rededication of theTemplefollowing the desecrations of the Greeks. There is no story of redemption here. No victory in the face of impossible odds. No miracle. Only death and suffering on a truly incomprehensible scale. The six million dead are too vast to understand. The ease and speed with which prominent communities were dispossessed and destroyed is difficult to grasp. The wounds are still fresh. Many of the victims and their tormentors still live today. Guilty men and guilty states. Tacit consent and active support. And all in modern times, in modern states, emanating from the centre of western refinement and civilisation.

Difficult as it may be to adopt the suffering of the European Jews, we owe them that debt. We owe them no less than to treat their pain as our own and their loss as ours. The Jewish tradition of understanding the significance of history, of honouring those who came before us demands this.

This means not merely remembering the dead, but participating in their suffering in the same way that the Jews are commanded to participate in the Exodus each year. Not merely pausing on a single day of remembrance to honour the victims but adopting a national devotion to commemoration, reflection and most importantly education. Only in this way will each generation comprehend the enormity of the tragedy that consumed the Jewish people.

If our children enquire about the flight from Egypt at the Passover Seder, why is there no duty to enquire and to teach about the greatest tragedy in the history of the Jews?

Each generation must be capable of protecting the history of the Holocaust from revisionists who would seek to deny that their ancestors ever lived and died. And every Jew should serve as living testament to both the enduring human desire to survive and to the unimaginable suffering that man chooses to inflict on man.

If the Jews of Europe were pursued and murdered with an unwavering determination, surely those who survived owe a duty to show at least equal determination in ensuring that their suffering is never forgotten or distorted?

Surely the greatest tragedy in history must now form a part of the consciousness of every Jew?

Surely it is now time to say:

“In every generation, each man is to look on himself as if he came forth personally from the clutches of Hitler.”

This piece was written in a personal capacity and the views contained herein are not necessarily representative of NGO Monitor.

About the Author
Alex Ryvchin is Public Affairs Director for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the peak representative body of the Australian Jewish community. He is a former Israel Research Fellow at Jerusalem-based research institute, NGO Monitor, a lawyer and the founder of opinion website, The Jewish Thinker.