Joanne Palmer
Joanne Palmer

Some thoughts on Yom Hashoah

Once again, it is almost Yom Hashoah. Once again, we go from the physicality of Pesach, with its odd and often grotesquely overabundant food, its demand that we lug around crates of dishes, and its emphasis on rising above such physical concerns to yearn for liberation, to the sheer horror of Yom Hashoah.

Jewish history is full of horrors; it you’re not sure, listen to the book of Lamentations as it is sung, the harshly detailed text softened by the haunting melody, on Tisha B’Av. Or read the traditional Eleh Ezkereh, the martyrology we read on Yom Kippur. But Yom Hashoah is different because it is within historic memory. We still live among people who endured that nightmare and survived it; their children and grandchildren still are marked deeply by it.

There is no silver lining to it. There is nothing good about it. There is nothing redemptive.

But still there are examples of love, of hope, of goodness, and of extraordinary death-defying courage that come out of it; they are not worth the cost, but they must be noted nevertheless.

Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, who spent decades at Yad Vashem uncovering righteous gentiles and honoring them, has written a book about Jews who saved other Jews. For a number of reasons, much of their heroism has been ignored; he’s working to change that.

His work brings to mind a story that the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s eastern director, Michael Cohen of Englewood, told recently. Michael grew up in Brooklyn, where his landlord was Zus Bielski, one of the fabled Bielski brothers, who are among the few Jewish saviors of Jews we’ve heard of. Michael describes Mr. Bielski as looking like one of those prototypical Brooklyn guys — a trucker or longshoreman or someone who worked in any of the industries that flourished in Brooklyn then — maybe Jewish, maybe Italian, maybe Polish, maybe some other Eastern European. Mr. Bielski would sit on the porch, Michael said, with his cigar — he didn’t specify if it was lit and puffed on, or unlit and chewed — with a half-open shirt and chest hair and a huge Magen David hanging out of it.

If only he’d know more of who his landlord was, Michael said. If only he could have asked him more. He knew Mr. Bielski as someone to be honored, but he did not know him as someone to be treated as a hero. And in fact, Dr. Paldiel said, his brother Tuvia, the group’s founder, came to the United States, owned and ran a tracking company, and died unknown and nearly broke. He wasn’t honored for what he was done until after his death — a time when he could not benefit much from any of it.

Many other speakers across the county will talk about the Holocaust, honor its survivors, and talk about how to stop the next one from happening.

Meanwhile, outside the Jewish community, there seems to be a effort to forget the Holocaust. President Donald J. Trump’s official spokesman, Sean Spicer, seems not to be anti-Semitic but simply uninformed and slow-thinking (both disadvantages in his position) on many topics, but his dismissal of Hitler as someone who never gassed “his own people,” despite German Jews being Hitler’s own people and despite Zyklon B, the substance used to kill people in the death camps, being a gas. (And they were death and concentration and labor camps, not a “Holocaust center.”)

We know he apologized straightforwardly, and of course we honor that apology, but we continue to be unnerved by the ignorance the error uncovered.

It matters because we keep telling ourselves and each other that we must never forget what happened, but forgetting seems to be happening apace.

According to JTA, citing a former State Department official, the White House has decided not to appoint a new U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. That title’s a mouthful, certainly, but the decision not to name someone to memorize and answer to it seems odd, and oddly of a piece with the White House decision to keep any mention of Jews from its International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement back in January.

What exactly is going on?

For our part, we will continue to honor and cherish the Holocaust survivors and refugees among us, as well as their descendants, who have their own demons to fight as Dr. Irit Felsen will explore in Teaneck this week. We thank them for their refusal to give up, their insistence to keep living, their example that despite everything, there also is beauty and light and joy in the world.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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