Living in the Present: Remembering the Past

There are times we don’t see the forest for the trees. We become so involved in the issues of the day that we don’t sit back and look at the bigger picture. While this is a common human trait it is sometimes disheartening. We become inured to what is really happening in our wider world and get bogged down in the details of everyday events.

Such an occasion occurred this past Wednesday and Thursday in Jerusalem. In advance of International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27 and in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, President Reuven Rivlin and Yad Vashem issued invitations to leaders of the countries of the world to commemorate these events at Yad Vashem. I think the organizers and the entire population of Israel were somewhat stunned that not only did many world leaders accept the invitation but that altogether 49 kings, princes, presidents and prime ministers came to Jerusalem to attend and participate in the event. Considering there were no representatives from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Arab countries and only one from South America that is truly an amazing number. It was astounding that most came for 48 hours and some for 24 hours or less to be present.

The conference entitled the World Holocaust Forum 2020: Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anitsemitism, began with a dinner at the President’s home on Wednesday evening. Never had so many world dignitaries gathered together at the official residence and it created a great security and traffic nightmare. To the credit of the security forces the events of the two days went off without incident (the visit of President Macron at the church was blown out of proportion) and the population of Jerusalem took heed of all the road closures and traffic jams in good nature. Remarkable it was to see all these dignitaries in the official home of the President of the State of Israel in Jerusalem, the place we mark as the capital city of our country, but which most of the countries of the dignitaries do not.

The main event on Thursday at Yad Vashem was preceded by the unveiling and dedication of a monument to the defenders of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, during its siege by the Nazis, in Gan Sacher, a central place in Jerusalem. My wife Bryna and I watched the event live on Israeli television and were impressed that Russian President Vladimir Putin actually seemed somewhat emotional during his address, perhaps because he has a personal family history with the siege of the city. Even more impressive was when the national anthems of both countries were played and sung by the choir. Who would have thought during the dark years of the Soviet Union and its refusal to allow Jews to live an active Jewish life and for those who wished to emigrate to do so, that the flags of Russia and Israel would stand side by side and that the Russian president would be present in Jerusalem and stand at attention for the singing of Hatikvah. How we take it for granted in this day and age!

As for the main event at Yad Vashem it was truly remarkable. The event was well timed and seemed to go off without a hitch. At least 5 Israeli television stations showed it live and we watched the entire event. While one could complain that world politics somehow got in the way – President Putin’s riff with Poland and other countries concerning complicity of local inhabitants in the atrocities of the war, the mention of Iran by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Vice President Pence and concern that not enough survivors were present at the event, among other issues – one needed to step back and see the bigger picture.

Here was Prince Charles on his first official visit to Israel. He represented a country which has a checkered history in Israel. It was after all his country that refused entry to Palestine to many refugees and later survivors of the Shoah. Not only did he give, I think, a very good speech but he added in very appropriate Hebrew words and phrases a warning to us never to forget what had occurred.

Here was the President of the German Republic Walter-Frank Steinmeier recognizing the responsibility, and the guilt associated with it, of his nation. It was a speech laden with meaning and his recitation of the shehecheyanu prayer, not once but twice, both at the beginning of his speech and at the end in Hebrew caught me off guard. I gather that all those present or watching the event felt the same.

Here were Putin, Macron and Pence acknowledging the difficulty of coming face to face with the horrible events of the Nazi era and recognizing the importance of memory, education and learning from the event about modern day antisemitism, hatred, bias and prejudice. It was Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and a survivor himself, who urged all the leaders to follow through with actions to back up their words.

Here were both the President and the Prime Minister of the modern State of Israel welcoming all the guests, thanking them for their friendship and their strong stands against the current wave of antisemitism sweeping the world. Who would have thought 75 years ago that all these world dignitaries would be present for this event listening to the words of the leaders of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel and standing at attention as those assembled sang the national anthem of the Jewish state, Hatikvah. It was truly moving to watch all the leaders ascend the stage one by one, place a memorial wreath on the standards, and stand together as the Hazzan intoned the El Maleh Rahamim.

Perhaps the true wonder of the event (and yes I wish it didn’t have to take place and that these very same nations had prevented the murder of 6 million of our brothers and sisters) was stated by Prime Minister Netanyahu when he compared the past to the present: “Auschwitz and Jerusalem, an abyss and a peak. Auschwitz, extermination; Jerusalem, revival. Auschwitz, enslavement; Jerusalem, freedom. Auschwitz, death; Jerusalem, life.”

As Jerusalem once more returns to normal (if there is such a thing in this city) let us never lose sight of the forest for the trees. We have returned once more to our ancient land, revived our language and culture, and are a strong, vital and vibrant nation. Yes, we have not reached our potential yet and we continue to have security, social, religious and cultural problems about which we need to be concerned. But the miracle of Jewish revival is a fact 75 years after a third of our people were wiped out in an intentional mass murder program which threatened to annihilate the entire Jewish nation throughout the world. What a privilege it is to live in this age, especially in Jerusalem the eternal capital of the Jewish people, as we remember the past and create our own bright future.

About the Author
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz served 2 Conservative congregations in the Chicago area, the last one an 1100 family congregation for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. He is the author of Encountering Torah - Reflections on the Weekly Portion. He and his wife Bryna made Aliyah in June 2019.
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