The following are some thoughts on the Pesach holiday just past and its connection to the Day of Strength and Remembrance for the Holocaust.
Passover is not only the holiday which recalls our slavery and subsequent release from Egypt, but is the general time of year when freedom is celebrated. No wonder, then, that closely following this holiday we remember another awful period of time in our (much more recent) history, the Shoah, or the Holocaust, from which we were also liberated in the spring of 1945.
Another strong connection between the slavery in Egypt and the atrocities of the Holocaust is the way we were viewed by those who had power over us. In Egypt, they saw us as bugs, a plague that was overtaking the land. In Germany, they reduced us to the status of non-humans in the eyes of our fellow countrymen through posters and leaflets, and even simple signs on stores that said, “Dogs and Jews are not allowed in here”. When you change a person’s status to that of animals, or worse, insects, you enable them to be treated in the same way, and extermination becomes preferable (for the other citizens) to living with a ‘plague’. One of the sentences that I find most bone-chilling in the Torah is in Shemot, when Pharaoh and his advisers say, “Let us deal wisely with them (the Jews)”. How eerily similar to those at the Wannsee Conference, who also looked for and found a “Final Solution” to their “Jewish Problem”.
It seems we spend pre-pesach time recreating that feeling of slavery and hard work, the better to have a genuine appreciation of the feeling the generation that was freed had. In seriousness, I think there is no way that we could truly understand what they went through. The closest approximation might be to talk with or read accounts from the few remaining survivors of the Holocaust.
I had the honour of watching the tekes (ceremony) where survivors (there are some still left) lit the huge flames at Yad Vashem. In watching their pre-recorded personal accounts, I was struck by the amazing power and strength of Am Yisrael. (See these amazing uplifting photos of survivors.) Even as there were those of us who gave in, whether to their own helplessness in being shoved around by people with guns, or to despair, and their overwhelming survivors’ guilt—there were those that did not give up, and continued living even without basic necessities like food, shelter, and love. One woman spoke of how she lost all her family, and was so alone, having no one left who knew her and loved her, yet she managed to live on, and to eventually build her own family. She ended her video saying that she couldn’t believe it but she looked at her family with amazement and still was emotionally affected that she could say “These are mine.”
Many people ask, “What makes a survivor?”What causes one person in the same situation to give in and die, while another refuses to give up, and lives? In the case where their health is similar and not a factor, why would one person live and another not? The only answer I have is a story I heard, and I would be happy if someone could tell me the origin so I may give credit, about the following foods: carrots, coffee, and eggs. Are these the foods of freedom? Well, we do have the egg on the seder plate, carrots may be a tasty side dish, and we all probably need coffee to get us going the morning after the seder, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
The story is that you can best tell what a person is made of when they have been subjected to boiling water. When a person has, not just everyday inconveniences and troubles, but deep difficulties and sorrow, they are essentially subjected to boiling water. What then happens to each food? A carrot will wilt, becoming soft and pliable, possibly even disintegrating. This is the person who gives in to their troubles, and gives up. An egg will, if left long enough, become hard and unyielding. This is the person who hardens from their troubles, creates a shell around themselves, and often cannot see past their own problems to realize there is a whole world out there that they are missing while wrapped in their protective shell. Coffee has the most wonderful response. It does not wilt, or become hardened and inured to the world, but changes. It becomes more than it was before, better. It grows from the boiling water, the difficult experience, and has even more to offer to the world than before.
We, as a people, are coffee. (Yes, I like coffee.) Look at us! We were just starting out, an extended family of 70, we had to leave our country and go to another land. We made the best of it, tried to settle in. Perhaps too much, and that is another message we can take from these holidays: be true to ourselves, remember who we are. We became slaves, lived lives of hardship, but we continue to live. They took away our babies, used them as mortar, but we kept going. Even our children taught us lessons about not letting ‘them’ win (see Miriam’s advice to her parents), and we kept going, until we were saved. The biggest lesson that can be learned from our generation of survivors is the importance of continuing, even when it looks like there is nowhere to go. We don’t know what light can be just around the corner. In fact, I think that ALL our holidays, Purim, Chanukah, Tisha Báv, are about our resilience as a people. Others have said it about the Jews, from Napoleon marvelling that we were crying for our lost temple 2,000 years later, and saying that a people who does that will never be lost, to Mark Twain who has an amazing quote about our continuity. “…All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality? ”
The worst thing about visiting Yad Vashem is, well, visiting Yad Vashem. It is horrible, awful, terrible, and soul rending to see the things done to us, and to others who did not fit in to the Nazis ideal of perfection. Let us remember here that there were many other lives taken and destroyed at the same time, and let us not forget that there are still horrible, awful, terrible, and soul rending atrocities being committed in the world today. (See VirtualJerusalem .com for some beautiful photos, including one that reminds us in Simon Wiesenthal’s words: “The Holocaust was not only a Jewish tragedy, but also a human tragedy.” See also: ISIS.)
The best thing about visiting Yad Vashem is being here. When I read the awful timeline (starting way before gas chambers and even before concentration camps) of the Holocaust and World War II (try historyplace.com), I felt torn up, angry, frustrated and sad. But when I realized that Eichmann, Yemach Shemo, had to live to see this, our Jewish State, I felt some sense of satisfaction. It was not for nothing.
Walk out of Yad Vashem and look over the Jerusalem Forest, and our growing city, and breathe in the air that says, “We made it. We have come home.” That, for me, is the taste of freedom.