This year, as Jewish communities around the country gather to observe Yom Ha-Shoa, my memory is drawn to one particular survivor, Professor Yaffa Eliach, who passed away last November. A child survivor of the Holocaust, Professor Eliach ultimately emigrated from Lithuania to Mandatory Palestine before moving to the United States in the 1950s. In America, she pursued higher education, and pioneered the field of Holocaust Studies at Brooklyn College. She ultimately served The President’s Commission on the Holocaust; chaired by Eli Wiesel, the commission recommended the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Professor Eliach is perhaps best known for her contribution to the museum: she envisioned the museum’s famous Tower of Faces—a collection of about 1000 images all taken in her hometown before the war. The tower elicits a profound sense of loss: if all of this was destroyed in just one small town, how vast was the Nazi destruction of European Judaism?
I had the unique good fortune to study with Yaffa through the efforts of Rabbi Abie Ingber. While I was an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, Abie helped me to audit Professor Eliach’s course when she visited Xavier University. Her philosophy changed the way I think about the Holocaust–while every year we pledge to remember the shoah, she challenged me to think about the nature and contents of memory. She offered me three great lessons:
Human tragedies are unique; we should remember catastrophes in their distinctions.
In many ways, the Twentieth Century can be seen as the era that produced genocide.In addition to the catastrophic destruction of European Jewry, the Century witnessed the many of the greatest atrocities in human history. In the banaly-titled “List of Genocides by Death Toll,” Wikipedia offers a chilling summary of events, beginning with the murder of over 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks in World War I, before closing with the terrible genocide in Bosnia at the Century’s close.
While these tragic events share the common thread of mass murder emerging from religions and ethnic enmity, to group them together does a disservice to their victims. In Eiiach’s understanding, we must strive to understand the unique set of circumstance that gave rise to each atrocity. Each stands alone—in its own way—in human history. The Holocaust is unique in that it emerges horrifying interaction of several historic forces. New pseudosciences of eugenics merged with older religious and economic versions antisemitism during a period of wartime industrialization. The result was the literal manufacture of death on a scale unheard of in human history; its expressed goal was the total extermination of the Jewish people. While it shares features with other modern atrocities, we diminish the Holocaust in comparing it with other events.. The opposite also holds true: as Godwin’s Law has asserted, by comparing other human atrocities to the Holocaust, we trivialize them as well, shading them in the Shoah’s awful shadow.
Only in exacting specificity does the true nature of suffering and loss emerge. To say that 6 million Jews perished is insufficient: Hitler succeeded in murdering two-thirds of European Jewy, and entire communities were all but destroyed. Vilna, the cultural citadel of Jewish Europe, had a Jewish population of over 70,000 on the eve of World War II; perhaps 2,000 survived the war. Earlier this year, I officiated at funeral of a dear friend, Zoltan Birnbaum, a Czech Partisan. Of the nearly 600 Jews who lived in his town of Podhradie before the war, he was one of only 60 survived. Or, perhaps more to the point: of his 5 siblings, only he survived.
Professor Eliach taught me that detail gives meaning to human experience.
We diminish the Holocaust’s meaning if we deploy it to justify causes beyond itself.
All too often, the Holocaust is invoked to motivate support for a particular cause: “The Holocaust teaches us that we must welcome Syrian refugees.” Or: “The legacy of the Holocaust and our vow of ‘Never Again’ underscores the need for robust sanctions against Iran.” At best, these claims highlight a limited understanding of the Holocaust–at worst, they trivialize or even usurp its meaning. Certainly, the Holocaust highlights the profound dangers of totalitarianism and nationalized racism. It is a powerful and compelling example of what happens when the nations of the world turn a blind eye to evil. But does it show us how to make public policy decisions today?
Perhaps only in the broadest strokes–are the 7 million displaced Syrians analogous to the several thousand Jews who were able to escape Europe before the war? Or even to the quarter million Jewish refugees seeking resettlement after?
Similarly, it is problematic to use the Holocaust as justification for public policy around Israel. While the Holocaust provides a compelling argument for creating a Jewish autonomous state, it is important to remember the diversity of the Holocaust’s victims. Certainly Zionists were persecuted by the Nazis. Jewish life before the war, though, was intellectually diverse. Anti-Zionists of all stripes, ranging from secularist Bundists to orthodox Jews in the Agudath Yisrael, were equally represented. To use their murder as a call to a particular political position is profoundly unfair.
How, then, do we remember The Holocaust? What does it mean to “never forget?” For Professor Eliach, that answer was clear.
Remembering The Holocaust means remembering its victims for the value of their lives, as opposed to the horror of their deaths.
In her book There Once Was a Word: A 900 Year Chronichle of the Shtetl of Eyshishok, Eliach describes the experience of standing over the killing field where her family was murdered:
Standing on the grass-covered grave, with yellow buttercups dotting the ground everywhere I looked, I found myself riveted to the spot. I could feel my beloved grandmothers Hayya Sonenson and Alte Katz holding on to me, my aunts, cousins, friends, and neighbors pulling at me. And I could hear the voices of those buried beneath my feet. By this stage of my research I had read many of their diaries and letters, collected their birth and marriage certificates, pored over their photographs. They surrounded me now, my family, my parents’ friends, and my own little friends, asking with new urgency to be remembered, not as heaps of skulls and bones but as the vibrant, dynamic people I’d known. They wanted the world to see them as they had looked at their weddings, on their picnics, in their social clubs, and during the course of their daily lives.
Our obligation, according to Eliach, is to do our best to understand the lives of Jews before the war. Who were they? What did they value? What were their arguments? Their passions? What values would they want to guide our lives today? How can we carry their legacy into the world?
Today, as we observe Yom Ha-Shoah, we can honor Yaffa Eliach and all who were touched by the Nazi Horrors by recalling the values they embodied in the world. In that way, Yom Ha-Shoah can become not just a day of sadness, but a day of uplift as we recall and reclaim what the Nazis sought to destroy: a diverse, rich, complex Jewish world, always striving for greater meaning and peace.