Right Here in River City…

The Crematoria Ovens at Auschwitz

For forty -two years, the length of my rabbinate here at The Forest Hills Jewish Center, I have worked hard to make the observance of Yom HaShoah a sacred day on our synagogue calendar. I am sharing my remarks from this year’s observance because what precipitated them was something I had not before experienced, nor was I prepared for…





A few short weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I was invited to spend some time with our Religious School’s fourth, fifth and sixth graders in an open forum setting. Ostensibly, the purpose of the gathering was to afford the students an opportunity to address to me any questions they had about Passover, which was fast approaching. But when it quickly became clear that questions of hametz and matza were not what was on their minds, our Education Director changed the focus of our gathering, and encouraged the students, given that they had the rabbi of the shul’s attention completely devoted to them, to ask whatever was on their minds. In no particular order, these were the questions that were on their minds- remember, fourth, fifth and sixth graders, all in public school settings, all in this geographical area of Central Queens- about as dense a Jewish population as you’ll find in New York City:

  • Why do people hate us?
  • When did anti-Semitism begin, and why?
  • Why is it that people seem to love Christians, but hate Jews?
  • What should I do when a kid in school, whom I don’t know, tells me that Hitler was right?
  • How should I respond if I feel bullied in school by groups of kids spouting anti-Semitic comments? Whom should I tell? My parents? My teachers? The Principal? The guidance counselor?
  • What do I do if school doesn’t feel like a safe space?

I was stunned.

Fifty-six years after Israel’s miraculous victory in the Six Day War, seventy-eight years after the liberation of Auschwitz, and seventy-five years since the founding of the State of Israel, we still are obliged to admit- perhaps now more than ever- that knowing how to properly and appropriately bear witness to the tragedy that befell the Jewish people during the Shoah remains a daunting if not overwhelming challenge.

There are not enough words in any language to adequately express the pain and loss that lingers, not enough evocative musical elegies to do it justice, not enough art or literature to paint a definitive portrait of the suffering that claimed fully a third of world Jewry, and not enough insight into the human psyche to adequately understand how very completely it has affected- and often poisoned- the way we look at the world- and the way the world looks at us, even among school-aged children in our little Anatevka. We are obliged to acknowledge that we are not the only people who suffered in the Shoah. Between a quarter and half-a-million Roma were murdered by the Nazis, as were gays and lesbians, people regarded as political subversives, the mentally and physically challenged, and many more…

I am always careful to point out when talking about the Shoah that we are not the only people who have suffered. In 1915, the Ottoman Turks slaughtered a million and a half Armenians. To this day, the Turkish government adamantly balks at owning up to its horrific legacy, and threatens all who would challenge its version of history. Our own beloved country of America has its own painful legacy of slavery which, while it didn’t involve mass slaughter, certainly caused enormous pain and lasting trauma to so many Blacks of African descent. And, of course, as regards the slaughter of innocents, there are Rwanda, as recently as this past week Sudan, and the killing fields of Pol Pot. Not all that long ago, tens of thousands of Syrian civilians were killed in that country’s civil war, and some of them- more than once- were subjected to death by gassing. The civilized world, even now, was maddeningly slow to respond, Democrats and Republicans alike. I remember President Obama saying that if the Syrians resorted to poison gas, that would cross a red line in terms of an American response… but he did not follow through on that commitment.

And now we are, on a daily basis, witness to the unfolding horror of what is transpiring in Ukraine. Many tens of thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians, caught in the crossfire generated by Vladimir Putin’s senseless and horrific war, are subjected to attack by air, land and sea, their bodies thrown into mass graves reminiscent of the dark times of World War II.

No, we are not the only ones who have suffered, and to whom history has not been kind. It does us no service to be so impaired, so inwardly focused, as to be blind to the suffering of others. But we are the only ones who have been the loudly and very publicly declared targets of a state-sponsored campaign of hatred, delegitimization, and, ultimately, genocidal mass murder that played out over twelve achingly long years, as the world watched- and did nothing. What is happening in Ukraine is awful and tragic, but it is not the Shoah, which is what brings us here this evening.

At every stage of the early years of the Holocaust, Hitler gauged the willingness of the Western countries to challenge him on his treatment of Jews. When he saw that he was basically given a free hand, he implemented in 1941what came to be known as the “final solution.” You can’t get too much more “out in the open” than to have gas chambers and crematoria spewing smoke, ashes and stench for all to see and smell. But as any of you who have visited Poland will testify, the terraces and balconies of nearby apartment houses at camps like Maidanek and Auschwitz were in an uninterrupted sight line to the gas chambers. Human ashes rained from the sky, and the stench was unmistakable. They knew. They all knew. And they did nothing. President Roosevelt, who was next only to God to people of my parents’ generation, wouldn’t even bomb the tracks that led into Auschwitz, because he “didn’t want to divert valuable war materials” from the main goal of defeating the Germans. Winston Churchill, an undoubtedly great man, knew. Polish soldier and diplomat Jan Karski heroically tried to make them all understand- he, a non-Jewish Pole- knew exactly what was happening, and he risked his life trying to do the right thing, but somehow, world leaders either couldn’t hear what he was saying, or chose not to hear. Our people were being slaughtered en masse, but a few well-placed bombs that could have literally derailed Eichmann’s transports of European Jews was too much to ask.

Al eileh ani bokhi’a… For this do I shed tears, even all these years later. For the utter moral depravity of a world that, with few notable exceptions, let the Nazis carry out their campaign. For the babies that would never grow into adulthood, for the children who were shown the worst that humanity had to offer, for the men and women separated from their spouses, children and grandchildren never to see them again, from their parents- never to see them again, brothers from sisters, never to see them again, for the scholars of Torah whose countless hours of learning came to the most brutal of ends as they watched their precious Torah scrolls torn and burned, for twins who encountered the devil incarnate in Josef Mengele…Yes, al eileh ani bokhi’a. For all of this and for so much more, I cry, even all these years later. And so must we all. That’s why we are here.

And yet still, today, the ugly underbelly of our beloved country makes its presence known. A vile and primitive form of racism and anti-Semitism lurks not at all far beneath the surface, with some parents, as you’ve heard, either consciously or unconsciously transmitting their primitive hatreds to their children. Synagogues today are attacked and vandalized around the country, JCC’s and grocery stores and private homes, Jews on the streets of major American cities are randomly attacked.. and as a result, we have increasingly had to transform our synagogues and communal meeting places into fortresses… like the locked doors of our Sanctuary testify to. Particularly in the aging grandeur of this Sanctuary that bears Rabbi Bokser’s name, that most non-violent of men, to be constrained to enter and leave via one door alone lest we expose ourselves to the barbarians quite literally at our gates, the pervasive sense of hatred is brutal and penetrating.

And as we gather here, in an America that has taken on a strange and scary new form, Europe is yet again, country by country, becoming a hostile environment for Jews, with right-wing movements ascendant in virtually all of its countries. And we are all, regardless of political inclination, obliged to admit that there have been disturbing manifestations of anti-Semitism on the political left as well. COVID and the hostility that it generated among certain elements of this country during the pandemic years have only served to amplify the madness.

So no- we’re not the only ones who have suffered. But what was done to us was, indeed, sui generis– unique in its myriad horrors, and unlike any other experience that a nation has known on this earth. The categorical imperative of survival is, primarily, to tell the story. Just like, regarding the exodus from Egypt, the Torah commanded us V’higad’ta l’vincha bayom hahu, And you shall tell your children on that day, so too is remembering what happened to us, and insuring that future generations know as well the primary commandment relating to having survived. The number of survivors among us in shrinking, literally by the day, and clearly, we cannot in any way assume that others will take this responsibility as seriously as we do. The hiyyuv, if you will- the obligation- falls on us. It always will. We ignore that truth at our own peril.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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