Seventy-five years ago, death camps and labor camps were liberated one by one as the Allies marched across Europe. On May 8, 1945, the armed forces of Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies. The Jews of Europe as a people were liberated, freed from their slavery and oppression. Free to emerge from hiding; free from the threat of arrest and murder; free to be Jews again.
What does it mean to be liberated?
On Passover, we remember the trauma of slavery. At the same time, we celebrate our passage to freedom and engage in endless discussions about what it means to be free. On Yom HaShoah, we remember the trauma of the Holocaust. At the same time, we should be celebrating our liberation and contemplating what it means to be liberated.
What did liberation mean to the people in the camps? What does it mean to us?
“It is the fact that we have a Haggadah, and a Seder, that is responsible for Jewish identity being handed on from generation to generation,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Britain, said in an interview on Yom HaShoah this year. “Without that ritual, we wouldn’t do it.”
Yom HaShoah does not yet have a set ritual to help us consider the deep questions of Jewish identity posed by the Holocaust. At the moment, we are still working through the story, the trauma, and the idea that this unimaginable horror could happen at all, let alone to us. We are beginning to expand our focus, though. We are developing new rituals and considering what deeper lessons we can learn from this experience.
Light from the Darkness, a new ritual for Yom HaShoah, uses the Passover Seder as a model. Passover is a good model for Yom HaShoah. Like Passover, Yom HaShoah encourages us to find larger moral meanings from the atrocities that have been inflicted on our people.
The Haggadah tells us that we should each feel as if we ourselves left Egypt. Identifying with the suffering of the enslaved reminds us to treat others better than we were treated. Slavery comes in many forms, and through this recognition, we can contemplate what it means to be free. We left Egypt by the hand of God with Moses’ help, reminding us that we must be God’s hands and voice on Earth. We contemplate all these lessons on Passover, through the ritual of the Seder.
If we put ourselves into the story of the Holocaust, what sorts of lessons might we contemplate through a ritual for Yom HaShoah? For this blog, let us contemplate the meaning of liberation.
To leave Auschwitz
If we should each remember how it felt to leave Egypt, then perhaps we should each also remember how it felt to leave Auschwitz. We often talk about what it was like to experience Auschwitz, but we sometimes forget the importance of what happened afterwards. “Auschwitz, in terms of a Jewish story, has to be chapter one, not the last chapter,” Rabbi Sacks tells us.
In truth, of course, Auschwitz is not chapter one – it is a middle chapter. All of the people who were liberated from the Holocaust had a life before. This, perhaps, is a difference between “liberation” and “freedom.” When we were freed from Egypt, we had known no life other than enslavement. When we were liberated from the camps, we had memory of life before our enslavement. That earlier life needs to be acknowledged, remembered, and, in most cases, mourned. Of the small proportion who survived the Holocaust, an even smaller proportion were able to return to their old lives.
When considering the meaning of liberation, therefore, in some ways Auschwitz is chapter one. Most of those who walked away from the camps had lost everything. To them, liberation meant gathering their grief for all that had been stolen from them and finding the strength to create a completely new life.
“Every element of their life is shouting out to us: choose life.” Rabbi Sacks says. “[It] doesn’t matter that you have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, choose life.”
To liberate Auschwitz
There is another perspective from which we can contemplate liberation: from that of the liberators. What does it mean to be a liberator?
Even in the midst of the horror, a few good people recognized the evil for what it was and did what they could to stop it. They acted at great risk to themselves. Some saved many Jews. Some saved one. Some gave their lives, having failed to save anyone. We take great inspiration from these Righteous Among the Nations. Liberation is enabled by individuals who take responsibility for other people.
For the European Jewish community as a whole, however, the end of their enslavement came from the Allied armies. Those armies were not fighting to liberate the Jews; they were fighting to protect their own interests. And many of them had no love for Jews. Nonetheless, it was the armies of the outside world that, in the end, vanquished our oppressors.
Opening the gates is only the first step to liberation, however. For the people in the camps to move forward, they needed to reclaim the humanity that the Nazis had worked so hard to strip from them. It was the kindness of individual soldiers and nurses that helped them to reclaim that humanity and facilitated their liberation from bondage.
At its heart, however, liberation is something you do for yourself, not something that is done to you. The opening of the gates by the allied armies and the kindness of individual liberators are powerful steps forward. Nonetheless, the strength to create a new life has to come from within.
What can we learn from this? We can learn that in the end, no matter our initial motivation, we are responsible for each other. We must treat each other with kindness. The acts of the Righteous and the liberators show us how significant the impact of that kindness can be. But true liberation, the ability to move forward on a new path, is a gift we must give ourselves.
What does “liberation” mean to us?
How do we apply the concepts and values of liberation to our modern lives?
It is a tricky concept, to contemplate the meaning of liberation while the liberated and liberators of the Holocaust still live among us. Nothing we experience compares to what they experienced. Still, we must learn from them.
“This is what I learned from survivors,” Rabbi Sacks continues. “That you can come through anything. And somehow, if you don’t lose faith in life, then you will do incredible things.”
Oppression comes in many forms, and through this recognition, we can contemplate what it means to be liberated. We talk about liberating people of the world from physical bondage and danger. We can also talk about liberating ourselves from toxic ways of thinking, from our own insecurities, and from those things that hold us back in life.
In thinking about Yom HaShoah rituals, we must contemplate our personal meaning of liberation. We see how we can start anew, whatever we are experiencing. We can choose life and move forward. We can recognize that we are part of others’ passages to freedom, as well as our own.
How can we help ourselves and each other to move forward, to choose renewed life?
 Available from Behrman House: store.behrmanhouse.com/index.php/light-from-the-darkness-a-ritual-for-holocaust-rememberance.html
 In truth, I don’t know any stories of people who left the camps and were able to return home. If you have one, I’d love to hear it. (I know stories of people who came out of hiding and were able to return home, but not who came out of the camps.)