Seeking Light Amid the Darkness
The Nazi Holocaust (in Hebrew Sho’a – catastrophe) which saw the systematic slaughter of one-third of the Jewish nation – the word “decimate” which means “to reduce by one-tenth” cruelly mocks the heinous extent of our losses – in an evil scheme of attempted genocide, was indisputably the most heinous, brutal and monstrous war crime to have been committed in human history.
So why am I about to talk about the Sho’a in the same breath as thanksgiving?
Because Hitler y.sh failed miserably in what he set out to do.
His aim was to kill every Jew on the face of the planet. And thank G-D two-thirds of world Jewry survived while he and his minions have perished from this world forever, not to mention the next.
This is in no way to minimize the scope of our loss. We are still too close in time to this cataclysmic event not to weep for, lament, bewail and mourn the six million (and their unborn descendants) who are lost to us forever.
But just as at the Seder we commemorate both the negative and the positive, the oppression and the freedom, the bad and the good, so let us also, when contemplating the Nazi butchery, reflect that ultimately – to borrow from the Hagada – “the Holy One saved our nation from their [murderous] hands.”
I could mention, too, that out of the ashes of the Sho’a sprang Medinat Yisrael. But I am not going to be drawn into that aspect here, having already touched upon the topic in a previous essay (Acute Angles 48). The miracle of the State of Israel is a cause for thanksgiving in and of itself and while one may argue a possible causal linkage between the events of 1939-45 and the event of 1948, it would be callous to even suggest that the State is in any way a substitute for six million lost lives.
Rather I base my argument upon the fact that while the chalice of world Jewry was spilled of one-third of its sacred wine, a cause of mournful commemoration, two-thirds of the contents of the sacred goblet remained intact – a reason for thankfulness and celebration.
The Human Tendency to a Negative Mindset
Were I to ask anyone familiar with the Book of Genesis the question: what is G-D’s first commandment to man (bearing in mind that “be fruitful and multiply” [1:28] is really couched as a blessing rather than a command), most people would point to the prohibition to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (2:17).
Yet, let us look at the text more carefully:- G-D commanded the man saying: Of all the trees in the garden you shall assuredly eat. But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat ….
Rabbi David Kimche, the RaDaK (1160-1235), declares that both of these statements are mandates to Adam. It is a mitsva, he declares, for a person to “eat of all the [other] trees in the garden”, to sustain himself with what is permitted to him. Meshech Chochma (1843-1926) agrees, citing the famous Talmud Yerushalmi passage at the end of Kiddushin which exhorts that “man will have to give an account and reckoning for every legitimate pleasure which he unnecessarily denied himself in life”. (It was this exhortation that persuaded Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zl to visit the Swiss Alps for the first time together with his wife when they were both at a very advanced age!).
It should not have escaped our notice that while the eits da’at (tree-of-knowledge) prohibition ceased to be relevant with man’s expulsion from Gan Eden, the preceding positive commandment remains in essence! Yet we continue to be persuaded that the negative injunction regarding the eits da’at is the first mitsva of the Torah.
I cite this only to illustrate the truism that situationally we seem to be hard-wired to single out and emphasize the negative while taking the positive for granted. This mindset has been ‘bequeathed’ to us from the first man and woman who glossed over “all the trees in the garden” and obsessed only about the one forbidden tree, the eits da’at.
The Finger of G-D – or the Great Hand?
In one of his most memorable essays, my friend, former UK colleague and fellow-author Rabbi Michoel Fletcher sketches this vivid word-picture of the Normandy landing on 6 June 1944 popularly referred to as D-Day – the event which proved the turning-point of World War Two leading to the ultimate defeat of the “Third Reich”.
The invading general had grave doubts about the success of the mission even in good weather, but with this sudden storm, the odds of failure had increased. To succeed they needed a low tide, little cloud cover, a light wind and low seas but the storm was getting worse. The latest forecast said that the weather might improve for thirty-six hours, but would it happen and would that be enough time? The general prayed to G-d for guidance. The king had already urged his subjects to pray. Failure would have been horrendous for millions of people. With a heavy heart, he gave the signal. ”We’re going ahead.”
The general of the opposing [German] army had also seen the weather conditions, although he hadn’t heard the latest more favorable forecast, and assumed that no invasion was possible and went home to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Many of his officers also took advantage of the situation and took a few days’ holiday leaving many of their troops leaderless. This was the first miracle. As the battle was about to begin, the invading army considered one of its priorities, the capturing of an important local bridge intact. If they failed, the enemy might make a tactical retreat and then destroy the bridge, trapping the invading army and making them ‘sitting ducks’ for enemy defensive fire. How could the bridge be captured intact? The plan was for a fleet of gliders to drop parachutists during the night beside the bridge to take the defending troops by surprise. The planes depended on moonlight. The cloudy conditions made finding the precise location very difficult. But at two hundred feet the clouds cleared and revealed the bridge at the perfect moment. Twenty-four parachutists landed safely, surprising the defending garrison and overwhelmed it. They took the bridge taken intact. Another miracle.
Two large Panzer divisions stood ready to confront any invading force, but they weren’t sure if this was the real invasion or a decoy. Only the commander–in-chief could give them the green light to move towards the invaders, but he was asleep! No-one dared to wake him and, having had a very late night the night before, he slept till noon. By then, nearly 150,000 invading soldiers had landed safely and taken control of a large swath of the coastline. Miraculously, there was a low tide, little cloud cover, a light wind and low seas, exactly what the invading troops needed. The liberation of Europe from the evils of Nazism had begun.
As General Dwight Eisenhower, the commander of the Allied troops, (later President Eisenhower) said, “If there were nothing else in my life to prove the existence of an almighty and merciful G-d, those events of that miraculous day did.”
In another trenchant essay, Fletcher reflects upon what might have been had Edward VIII not abdicated the British throne late in 1936 in favor of his brother George VI.
On 20th January 1936 King George V of England died and his eldest son, became the new king, Edward VIII. However, on 10th of December of that year he abdicated the throne to be replaced by his younger brother George VI, the father of the present queen, Queen Elizabeth II. The reign of Edward was the shortest of any English monarch and it was the first and only time an English monarch had voluntarily abdicated the throne. … What caused this unique abdication?
Although Edward was 42 years old in 1936, he was not married. After he became king, he expressed a desire to marry an American woman, Mrs. Wallis Simpson who had been divorced once and was getting divorced from her second husband. This was not only very unpopular amongst the British public, it was also against the laws of the Church of England of which Edward was nominally its head. A huge argument ensued …. By December, the Prime Minister of the time, Stanley Baldwin told King Edward that he could not continue to be king if he married Mrs. Simpson, and so Edward announced his abdication. Edward and the former Mrs. Simpson became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
A few years later on the morning of Tuesday 28th May 1940, Britain was facing her greatest threat since the time of Napoleon. Now it was Hitler who had Western Europe at his mercy. Holland and Luxembourg had been crushed in the previous fortnight; at dawn that Tuesday morning came the news that the Belgium army had surrendered, trapping 338,000 British troops and a huge number of armaments. France was also on the verge of defeat. Winston Churchill, who had been Prime Minister for just eighteen days, was facing not only a military disaster but a fierce political battle. He had many opponents in his War Cabinet and in Parliament who wanted to negotiate with Hitler, a euphemism for surrender. Churchill, a staunch defender of British independence, argued against surrender but which position would achieve the majority? Surrender included, of course, the handing over of all British Jews to Hitler. Tense discussions continued with various politicians throughout the day until at twenty minutes before midnight, the decision had been made. A majority had sided with Churchill and Britain would fight on.
Churchill, in dramatic oratory, had said, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it only end when each of us is choking in his own blood upon the ground.” A few days later, on 4th June, after what Churchill himself described as the miraculous escape of nearly all the British troops from Dunkirk, in, arguably, his most famous speech, he proclaimed, “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing ground, we shall fight in the fields and in the street, we shall fight them in the hills, we shall never surrender.”
What is the connection between these two historical series of events, the determination of King Edward to marry a morally suspect American woman which led to the one time in history that an English king had voluntarily abdicated and the refusal of Churchill to surrender to Hitler which saved all of British Jews from Hitler’s concentration camps?
To answer, we must go back to 1937 and a visit by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Berchtesgaden, Germany, where Hitler himself was holidaying. After giving Hitler the full Nazi salute, the Duke and Duchess had a long conversation with him, after which the Duke admitted to having sympathies to Hitler’s objectives. Churchill was aware of the Duke’s Nazi sympathies and, after the war began, appointed him to be the Governor of the Bahamas, away from the war zone. After the war, a top secret file, called the Windsor File, was discovered in Germany. In it were letters between the Duke and the Nazi High Command. The letters revealed that the Nazis planned to conquer Britain, overthrow King George and restore the Duke to the throne. The Duke, for his part, encouraged the Nazis to bomb Britain relentlessly to force the Government to begin peace (surrender) negotiations.
Now we know how important it was that Edward decided to abdicate. He was clearly a strong Nazi sympathizer and had he still been king in 1940, he could well have influenced many people to pursue “peace” with Germany, especially bearing in mind Churchill’s slim majority to continue fighting. Edward’s early, incomprehensible devotion to Mrs. Simpson is now explained. It was all orchestrated from Above.
Like in the Purim story, G-D’s face was concealed just prior to and during the years of Nazi dominance and tyranny. Yet, also like in the Purim story, a confluence of seemingly natural events and coincidences combined to ensure our survival as a nation, the ultimate triumph of right over evil might and the victory of freedom over despotism. The Divine Hand was assuredly tinkering behind the scenes.
Some Holocaust survivors sadly lost their faith in the camps of death. Others had their faith strengthened amid the same conditions. They felt imo anochi be-tsara, that G-D was embracing them, weeping with them in their sorrow. They were inspired by the nobility of those tsadikim and tsidkaniyot who readily shared their meagre rations of stale bread with those who needed them even more, who heroically failed to surrender to despair, who went to their deaths proclaiming Ani Ma’amin – “I Believe!”
I am confident that neither these survivors nor their children will accuse me of wanting, G-D forbid, to dance upon the blood of the butchered and the slain. The deaths of the six million kedoshim “to every one of whom there is a name” must continue to be mourned, their fates commemorated, their souls davened for, until Mashiach comes. But that must not be all. Ultimately out of the ashes of the Sho’a came the biggest miracle – Jewish survival, renaissance and resurgence. Let us dance upon the metaphorical graves of our evil tormentors who are no more! Let us thank G-D for the extraordinary miracle of where we are and who we are now!
Yom HaSho’a and the Month of Nisan
The first Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel took place not in Nisan but on the Tenth of Tevet (December 28th 1949) upon the initiative of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. This date is chronologically the first of four fasts commemorating the events leading up to and including the Destruction of the First and Second Temples. Tevet 10 is when the siege of Jerusalem began in 424BCE. (It also happens to be the anniversary of the day the Decree for the Elimination of Jews from German Economic Life took effect on the first day of 1939.) This commemoration was repeated the following year on the same date. Then in 1951, the Knesset muscled in and, after some deliberations, plucked 27th Nisan virtually out of the air and called it Yom haSho’a uGevura. Their initial choice of date had been 14th Nisan, anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but ultimately the Knesset came to the realization that Erev Pesach would not be a suitable date to commemorate the Sho’a. 27th Nisan was chosen simply because it was the midway point between the end of Pesach and Yom Atsmaut.
This date became problematic for the religious community and was not supported by the Rabanut haRashit. Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year, the month of our birth as a nation, is a month of celebration when the supplicatory prayers of Tachanun are not said, and – with the exception of Yizkor on the last day of Pesach – memorial prayers are not recited.
I would like very much to see Holocaust Memorial Day transferred back to the Chief Rabbinate’s selected date of 10th Tevet which is an eminently suitable commemoration date for mourning our losses and one which would give this ancient and somewhat neglected fast day deep contemporary relevance.
Meanwhile, 27 Nisan, a date to which much of world Jewry has grown accustomed, could be renamed and rebranded as Yom haMetsiut, a day when we not only reflect on the greatest tragedy of our times but but also celebrate and express thankfulness to G-D for the fact that we are. That, despite the best efforts of the most monstrous regime ever to disgrace the globe, we continue to exist as Jews. Not only to exist but to flourish!
In so doing we pay fitting tribute to our eternal destiny and our eternal Deity.