Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Some Personal Reflections on Teaching about the Shoah

I recently had the opportunity to be present at a class organized by the Holocaust Museum in our city for a group of about 40 public high school students.

The guide described the history and magnitude of the Shoah, making very clear how horrible that period in the history was for mankind in general and for the Jewish people in particular.

She concluded by emphasizing that there were three types of people at that time: perpetrators, victims and indifferent observers. [1]

The practical takeaway from the whole presentation was that we should not repeat the mistake of being indifferent bystanders when witnessing injustices perpetrated against others. It is indifference that allows atrocities to take place and therefore makes one who is indifferent complicit.

I was impressed with the efforts of those responsible for building and maintaining the Shoah Museum as well as with the guide’s communication skills.

I left thinking…

Is the goal of such an enormous effort to teach about the Shoah simply to prevent bullying and discrimination against those who one may consider “different”?

Was Hitler —may his bones rot in hell— nothing more than an outstanding sample of all the “bullies” throughout history who used their power to kill whomever they so desired?

Was the Shoah any different from the other genocides, and how was it different from the massacre committed against the indigenous tribes who inhabited the New World?

The teacher had addressed this question in her presentation by explaining that the Shoah —Jewish Genocide— was different, even when compared with the other populations exterminated in the very same camps by the Germans, for three reasons: 1) the magnitude; 2) the planning and industrialization; 3) the hatred for Jews on a global level, extending far beyond those in the territories under their rule.

Hmmmm. Is that it?

One of the most sadistic and crucial elements in the process known as the Final Solution was —the teacher explained— the gradual and systematic depersonalization of the Jews. Ghettos. Transportation in cattle cars. Separation from family members. Dispossession of personal property. Shaving of the hair. Prisoners’ uniforms ignoring their sizes. Numbers tattooed onto their arms, displacing their personal names with numbers. People were transformed into mere machines used to produce weapons for the German war machine.

But the diabolical minds of the Germans did not conceive of what would have been the greatest cruelty: stripping them of their Jewish identity.

The worst conditions of depersonalization perpetrated by the Germans could not break the spirit of the Jew, because every Jewish prisoner felt in the deepest recesses of his or her being that every blow and every slap received reaffirmed his or her deepest and most important identity: he or she was a Jew. They were being beaten for who they were, not for who they were not or for being nobody. It did not occur to the Germans that there was a torture even more cruel than their diabolical minds could have imagined, namely: suffering in vain.

To speak of the Shoah merely as an example of the evils of bullying and indifference to discrimination would be an unfair trivialization —falsification, even— of history. Jews were not killed simply because they were different; they were persecuted, hunted and burned because they were Jews.

Hitler wanted to kill us, not merely because we are “different”, but because we are different in a different way.

The existence of the Chosen People put their Super Race in check. All other victims were eliminated by the Germans because they were “different”, a nuisance; the Jews were targeted because —thanks to the millennial legacy they received at the foot of Mount Sinai, synthesized in the Ten Commandments— we were perceived to be an existential threat to the moral codes, weltanschauung and ambitions of Hitler, iemaj shemó vezijró, and his ilk.

Why is the Jew a threat?

The Jew is a threat not because of his numbers, his earthly power or ambitions; he is a threat because of the indisputable and indestructible nature of what he represents.

The Jew was and remains the conscience of humanity, the historical messenger who stubbornly continues to insist that man is not the supreme being, but must be subjugated to the authority of the real Supreme Being, namely: G-d. The ethical systems of more than half the world’s population are —to this very day— based on and inspired by the Jews’ moral code.

The Jew, the bearer of that code, continues to manifest the fact that it is not man who defines good and evil, but his Creator.

Man is not to worship gods created by him in his image, but G-d who created us in His image.

It is the Jew who keeps insisting that the world is not a cosmic accident and that man is not a biological accident, that nothing matters beyond the value that each individual chooses to attribute to things. According to the Jew, both the world and man —macrocosm and microcosm— are divine creations, and have a purpose that transcends their limited personal needs and preferences.

Jewish life is based on and promotes the idea that the priority must be to fulfill one’s responsibilities to others, and not just to defend one’s personal rights.

It is Judaism that introduced the notion, which it continues to insist on and defend, that the life of every human being, without exception —created in the image and likeness of G-d— is sacred.

It is the Jew who insists that it is not right to tolerate one in spite of being different; one must respect and value one who is different precisely because of their uniqueness and difference.

Now it is clear why Hitler wanted to eliminate us.

To witness someone reduce Hitler to nothing more than an example of an extreme bully, is to witness an extreme injustice being done to the victims.

Indifference implies complicity. So, I decided to speak out and offer a suggestion.

Proposal

In my humble opinion, there are two messages to be conveyed in relation to the Shoah, one for Jews and one for non-Jews.

A message for young Jews:

Young Jews should be made aware of the vitality of Jewish family and community life that was decimated in Europe, in addition to the atrocity of snuffing out 6,000,000 Jewish lives.

The 6,000,000 brothers and sisters that were cruelly ripped away from us cannot be brought back. All we can do in this regard is to not forget them and to honour their memory. Jewish life and commitment based on Jewish learning, lifestyle and values, however, that were destroyed along with them can be brought back and that depends on us.

Fighting anti-Semitism —”Never again!”— is a need, not a goal. Our goal should be to fortify Semitism, for if the new Jewish generations are not given the basic tools necessary to be able to understand and appreciate what it means to be Jewish and why it even matters to fight to defend and perpetuate our legacy and identity, there will be no need for anti-Semitic persecution for us to disappear.

Remembering and mourning the loss of the 6,000,000 Jewish lives that were massacred 75 years ago —Yizcor!— is our holy duty. Remembering the past must, however, also —primarily— serve as a catalyst for strengthening our commitment to our Jewish life and vitality at the community, family and personal levels in the present and future.

A message for Jewish and non-Jewish youth:

Can there be a Holocaust in this country today, against Jews or any other segment of the population?

In order to be able to answer, we need to understand where German society failed. How could such barbarism occur in one of the most scientifically advanced and educated societies of its time? What was missing from its sophisticated and “enlightened” value system? What can we learn from their mistakes so as not to repeat them?

According to the Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson -—may his merit shield us—, what was missing in the German value system was the fact that they based their system on the idea that Homo Sapiens is the supreme being who defines good and evil “in his image and likeness”, and that he is not accountable to anyone. The logical conclusion of that way of thinking is that man can decide at his discretion who is entitled to live and who is not.

The Nazis and their cohorts showed us what can result from an education that provides a lot of objective, empirical science but neglects the ethical component: monsters that have no limits to their destructive capacity and creativity.

We must learn from their example and do what is within our power to ensure that the education we provide the new generations with has a clear and solid ethical basis: that human life is sacred because every human being was created in the image and likeness of G-d, and therefore has a unique, irreplaceable value. Without that basis, even the most intelligent and rational man can come to the conclusion that he is superior to another and has the right —and perhaps even the darwinian obligation— to eliminate him.

If we achieve this, we will be giving new life to the martyrs. We will succeed in transforming one of the greatest atrocities in human history into a catalyst for achieving what may be the most blessed time in human history. And so their death will not have been in vain.

The victims —both Jewish and non-Jewish— deserve this. We deserve it. Our children deserve it.

—-

1. Someone in the audience pointed out that there were also a fourth group: those who risked their lives to save Jewish individuals and families. The guide acknowledged this fact and elaborated on it, pointing out the concept of “Righteous Among the Nations” and the recognition that people honored by this distinction receive in Israel today.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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