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Survivors, Memory, and Moral Responsibility

Alzheimers is a cruel disease and watching a loved one afflicted with the condition takes a terrible toll. As they slowly lose bits and pieces of their memory, they also lose a large part of what makes them who they are. Alzheimers, unfortunately, has earned its well-deserved nickname, “The Long Goodbye.” In recent days, I feel a similar phenomenon taking place in the Jewish community. As the years march on, more Survivors pass away. And as they do, there is a sense that we are losing a critical part of Jewish collective memory and Jewish identity. Within a decade or two, there will no longer be among us those who remember the atrocities of the Holocaust first hand.

This point was driven home to me with the passing of Elie Wiesel six years ago. Wiesel dedicated his life giving voice to the voiceless, and in doing so, he taught us the importance of memory. Wiesel understood that memory is never guaranteed. In the early days after the Holocaust there were few other than Wiesel who were willing to speak out about the horrors that took place. The rabbis explain (Sanhedrin 29b), “ein adam zocher davar shelo natan daato alav” A person only remembers that which he has put his focus on. Memory is hard. It requires action, and all too often it is much easier to forget.

In his Nobel Lecture given after receiving the award, Wiesel notes:

it is surely human to forget, even to want to forget. The Ancients saw it as a divine gift. Indeed if memory helps us to survive, forgetting allows us to go on living. How could we go on with our daily lives, if we remained constantly aware of the dangers and ghosts surrounding us?

In Wiesel’s words one can hear the echoes of similar arguments offered today about the Jewish memory of the Holocaust. How can the Jewish people flourish in the 21st century and beyond if it is held captive by the ghosts of the past?

However, it is exactly here, in the tension between remembering and forgetting that Wiesel recognized the unique responsibility of Holocaust Survivors. The need to forget may have weighed heavily upon them, but in the end the answer was quite simple. “We could not bury our dead, he says. We, the Survivors, bear their graves within ourselves. For us, forgetting was never an option”

Wiesel understood that Survivors must remember. The Jewish people must remember. The whole world must remember what happened during those dark days seventy years ago. Why is this? Because without memory, there cannot be moral responsibility. This was Wiesel’s ultimate teaching and why he was referred to as the conscience of humanity. It is an idea deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. The Jewish response to pain and suffering is always to remember. Twice a day, we are commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt. And in doing so, we also remember the pain and suffering of slavery. We do this not because the Torah demands that we be fearful of future tyrants. Rather, we remember our pain in order to have compassion for those who are similarly vulnerable. The Torah commands us

וְגֵר, לֹא תִלְחָץ; וְאַתֶּם, יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת-נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר–כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

Do not oppress the stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in a strange land.

(Exodus 23:9)

What the Torah demands of us is quite radical, and is far from a forgone conclusion. Too often in human history, the victim turns into the victimizer. As soon as they are in a position of power, the victim takes out their pain on others. The victim sees enemies everywhere distorting their self-image and blinding them to their own moral failings. The Torah, however commands us not to use our suffering as a weapon. We remember our suffering to ensure that our hearts remain open and not closed.

In his Nobel Acceptance speech in 1986, Wiesel reflected back on his experiences and explained how the memory of the Holocaust has forever changed him.

I remember, it happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.

I remember: he asked his father: “Can this be true?” This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?

And now the boy is turning to me: “Tell me,” he asks. “What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?”

And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

These powerful words from Elie Wiesel I have experienced my own life. In its own way, the Holocaust has deeply shaped my moral compass. My grandmother came to the US from Hungary by herself as an infant only to have her entire family perish in the Holocaust. Her husband, my grandfather, fought in World War Two, was sent to Europe in 1944, and was part of the forces that liberated the concentration camp Mathausen. More than once my grandfather would tell me the story of his first encounter with the Survivors at Mathausen. They were emaciated and gaunt. They wore the black and white striped uniforms intended to demean them and take aware their humanity. My grandfather would say that even fifty years later he could still close his eyes and see them. Seeing their pain, speaking with them in Yiddush, and hearing their suffering made him profoundly aware of the evil and injustice that exists in the world. This memory would go on to motivate many of the choices he would later make in life. It gave him a profound sense of social responsibility that he would later pass on to his children and grandchildren.

In many ways, my grandfather’s memory has become my own. Even though I was not there when Mathausen was liberated, I can’t help but close my eyes and see those Holocaust survivors as well. Like my grandfather, that image has been seared into my memory and has served as a constant reminder of the humanity nearly limitless human capacity for wrongdoing.

This is the moral responsibility of memory that Wiesel fought for all his life. It teaches us that despite our pain, we are able to act. We can make next time different than the last. Elie Wiesel also showed us that memory doesn’t just teach, it also commands. Because of our pain, we have to act. As the Baal Shem Tov said, “forgetfulness brings exile and memory brings redemption.”

For this, the Jewish community owes a debt to Holocaust Survivors that can never fully be repaid. Through the extraordinarily difficult work of remembering, you have been our moral conscience. We must pledge here and now to you, that we will continue to remember. The Jewish tradition teaches us that memory can be passed down from one generation to the next. On Pesach, our parents teach us the story of the Exodus from Egypt not because they were there, but because they heard it from their parents. We, the next generation, must now do the same for the Holocaust. We must remember not only to honor the dead or protect the Jewish future, but because forgetting leads to silence.

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff is the coordinator of the International Beit Din Institute, which seeks to educate rabbis about halakhic solutions to difficult cases of gett abuse. His writings on contemporary Jewish thought and Zionism have appeared in the Lehrhaus, Arutz Sheva, and Akdamot. His forthcoming book, Torah Goes Forth From Zion: Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar, will be published in the fall. Before making aliyah, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio. He has taught in a variety of adult education settings such as the Wexner Heritage Program and the Hartman Institute. He received semikha from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
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