Deborah Fripp
Teaching the Holocaust through stories of Jewish Resilience

Lessons of the Holocaust: Lock the door or welcome the stranger?

Our best defense is to be a strong, visible part of a connected, respectful, interfaith community. (Source: the author)

“Why do we need to teach the Holocaust?” This week, as we mark the first yahrzeit[1] of the eleven people murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I want to explore this question from a different angle, an angle of hopeful action.

In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, and approaching the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the question of why we need to teach the Holocaust takes on renewed urgency. Antisemitism is not a thing of the past. The stories of the Holocaust suddenly feel less like sad history and more like stark warning: Do not ignore the rising shadow of hate in your community or it may engulf you.

But what lesson should we take from that warning? We know we cannot ignore the building hatred but what should we do about it? We could take the primary lesson of the Holocaust to be fear: to lock our doors and arm ourselves for battle. Or could we take a different lesson from the Holocaust, the lesson of community: to recognize that the more we build communities that are accepting of everyone, the less danger we are in.

The lesson of fear

For some in the American Jewish community, their sense of security was torn apart last year. Some people are so afraid that they have been unwilling to attend services. A year later, they are no closer to regaining that security. Pittsburgh was not the last attack on us. Other communities have also been targeted (we remember Christchurch too), but this fear feels disturbingly familiar to us.

Synagogues everywhere, mine included, are having hard conversations about security. How do we balance the welcoming nature of our community with our need to be safe? Do we lock the doors after services start? It feels so unwelcoming, but then again, the synagogue in Halle, Germany was protected by their locked doors.

Looking back, we wonder – should we be more afraid? A year after Kristallnacht, Germany invaded Poland. Pittsburgh wasn’t Kristallnacht,[2] and we clearly haven’t gotten that far yet, but is that where we are headed?

Really, no. Fear is not the answer. In spite of the increased drumming of white nationalist rhetoric, we still have time to turn from the path of hate and fear. Because fear is not the only lesson we can take from the Holocaust.

The lesson of hope

If we look more closely at the story of the Holocaust, we see there is also a lesson of hope.

The fate of Jewish populations in the Holocaust had a lot to do with how the local community felt about the Jews. In Denmark, Finland, Albania, areas of Southern France, and towns in Greece, for instance, the local population stood by their Jewish neighbors.[3] National governments and local leaders refused to give the names of Jews to the Germans. When the Nazis came to round up the Jews, the locals hid them and snuck them out.

In these areas, few Jews lost their lives to the Nazis. The Jewish population of Albania actually increased during the Holocaust, from 200 to 2000, as the primarily Muslim population took in and hid Jewish refugees fleeing across their borders. These Holocaust stories feel less like stark warning and more like signs of opportunity.

Building communities

In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and many other recent incidents, communities across the globe have stood up to reject the ideology of white nationalism. People of all backgrounds have come together to “spin dreams of interfaith listening and learning” and to “weave them into reality.”[4]

Amidst our nightmares of renewed antisemitism, we can build the dream of strengthened community.

There is a well-established path from small acts of bias to hate-motivated violence.[5] There is an equal path from tolerance to respect.[6] We can pull our community away from the path of hatred and toward the path of respect by helping to build a respectful interfaith community.

As Jews, we can start by being part of that connected community. Build that 8-foot menorah in your yard so everyone knows that you are joyfully celebrating your winter holiday while they celebrate theirs. Invite the community in for a shabbat dinner or for your Hanukah celebration and Passover seder.[7] When folks say “Merry Christmas,” respond with a smile and a cheery, “and a Happy Hanukah to you!” At Rosh Hashanah, I say “Happy New Year” to everyone I meet. I get a few strange looks, but mostly a lot of interested inquiries.

The lesson of the Holocaust is not that we should lock our doors but that we should welcome the stranger. We must continue to teach the Holocaust with these connected lessons: we must remember the danger posed by hatred, and in the face of that hatred, we must also recognize the need to be part of strong interfaith communities.

[1] A yahrzeit is the anniversary of a death. Jews traditionally mark such an anniversary with prayers of remembrance.

[2] See Love is stronger than hate (my blog from last year): blogs.timesofisrael.com/love-is-stronger-than-hate

[3] See There is no Jewish Questions: blogs.timesofisrael.com/there-is-no-jewish-question

[4] Jennifer Zunikoff, Lifting the curtain, seeking the light. Nov. 11, 2018. medium.com/imagining-justice-in-baltimore/poemsafterpittsburgh-ee30d384d97e

[5] See the ADL’s pyramid of hate: www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/pyramid-of-hate.pdf

[6] See Coexist is not enough: blogs.timesofisrael.com/coexist-is-not-enough

[7] Check out 2 for Seder: Pushing back on antisemitism with love and matzah, 2forseder.org

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Fripp is the president of the Teach the Shoah Foundation. Her website (www.TeachTheShoah.org) provides resources on commemorating, teaching, and understanding the Holocaust for communities, families, and educators. You can sign up to hear about her new blogs at www.teachtheshoah.org/#optin.
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