Well above the Arctic Circle lies Tromso, the northernmost city in Norway. During the summer, the sun never sets and in winter it never rises. Today, it is a quaint little town, and tourists flock there to see the midnight sun or to take picture of the northernmost edge of Europe. It boasts the record of most pubs per capita in the world. Go figure.
It was in Tromso that I really understood the Holocaust. I had visited Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and the killing field of Ponar in Lithuania. I had stood in the pits of Babi Yar, where thousands were shot to death. And yet, it was only in Tromso that I understood the sheer magnitude of the Holocaust. In the central square of this little Arctic town, there’s a monolith memorializing the 17 Jews of the town who were deported to Auschwitz in 1942. Only when I saw that did I grasp the unspeakable amount of hatred and evil that the Holocaust entailed. The Nazis had gone, literally, to the end of the world to find and murder 17 Jews. It was not just about killing Jews; it was about finding and destroying every last one of us.
There is a lot of discussion today about the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Was the Shoah different from other massacres and other genocides? In Tromso, I understood what made it uniquely horrendous: never before, and never after, was one group the object of a policy of total and systematic extermination. As the philosopher Emil Fackenheim put it “it’s the word judenrein that makes all the difference.” Jews had to disappear, to the very last one.
When I studied in rabbinical school, I wrote a paper about the theology of the Holocaust. I was trying to explain and understand the Holocaust from a religious and philosophical perspective. I thought I could find some meaning to the horror. I thought that there could be some sense in the ultimate senselessness of human history. With the years, I became more cynical. I no longer think that the Shoah can have any meaning, whatsoever. It’s pure, senseless, radical evil. And any attempt to find some transcendental meaning is futile, and even insulting. Faced with the Holocaust, the only thing I can offer as an explanation is silence. But not a quite silence. Rather, a silence that shouts, a silence that cries, a silence that accuses. And a silence that promises. I felt that deafening silence in Tromso. There, the only thing I could do was take a piece of paper and write a quote from Genesis that says, “The blood of your brother cries to me from the Land;” I force myself to hear those silent cries every day.
Did the Holocaust vaccinate us against genocide? Did it make another massacre inconceivable? Actually, and unfortunately, it didn’t. The opposite is true. The Shoah proved that is possible. That if one wants to exterminate a people, one can do it. It transformed extermination from an abomination to a distinct and workable possibility. Nowadays, it can actually be done much easier by just pushing a button.
So, in this bleak picture of senselessness and despair, is there anything that can give us an optimistic view of human nature? Is there anything that can make us find hope in the most unspeakable man-made tragedy in history? Indeed, there is. The Holocaust should have made us lose faith in human nature, and I would have lost mine, except for two things: the survivors and the righteous. Every survivor is a hero for the sole reason of having the will to live. Each and every one of them. In most cases, the survivors became heroes in spite of themselves. They became beacons of life, humanity, and courage for us and for every generation to follow. They force us to be courageous and to keep hope. How can we dare to lose hope if they didn’t? How can we despair if they didn’t? How can we not carry on, if they did? The survivors made every smile an act of defiance. They found the will to love, to build, and to be positive. In spite of everything, because of everything.
As for the righteous, they proved that even amid the darkest horror, some people kept the light of humanity alive. When I visited Latvia, I heard the story of Janis Lipke. He was a porter in the docks of Riga, a completely ordinary individual. He didn’t particularly like Jews; he didn’t particularly dislike them. He just saw what was going on around him, and couldn’t stand still. He volunteered to work for the Germans as a driver. Every day he’d drive Jews from the Ghetto to the countryside to work. Every day, he’d drop one Jew from the truck in a safe house. When the Nazis counted the number of people in the truck, he’d have his own son don a coat with a yellow star for the numbers to match. In this manner, he saved almost 60 people from certain death.
If life has any meaning after the Holocaust, if the human race has not forfeited its right to exist after the Shoah, it’s because of those who glorified life when death seemed to reign. It’s because of those who deprived evil of total control of the world. We shouldn’t call the survivors, survivors. We should call them militants. For they are militants of memory and militants of life.
In Kaunas, Lithuania, there exists a dreadful place called “The Ninth Fort,” an old Tsarist fortress where 50,000 people were brought to be shot. When the murderers ran out of local Jews to kill, they brought Jews from other places in Europe. Thus did “Convoy 73” leave Drancy in France on May 15, 1944, carrying people to be shot. In the walls of the Ninth Fort, we can still read the inscriptions left by the condemned. Names, ages, and a message that reads, “nous sommes 900 francais.” They knew they were going to die, and they were asking us to remember them, to never forget them. Today, we tell these 900 French people, and each and every one of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis, “We won’t forget you. We will never forget you.” Following the example of life and hope of the survivors, we stand today as proud Jews. We stand defiantly with the survivors and we proclaim, out loud, the words of the psalmist, “Lo amut ki echie,” “I will not die, for I will live.”