For my column this week, I would like to share with you the comments I made at our synagogue’s annual Yom Hashoah program on Wednesday evening. They are, in every way, what I would want to say to all of you on this occasion…
If the Passover Haggadah, commemorating a historical event that took place thousands of years ago, drove our imaginations with four questions, a relatively meager text and some clever if enigmatic songs, then what might we possibly say about the Shoah that would be adequate to the task at hand?
The quick answer to that question is, of course, nothing– nothing at all. At the risk of descending quickly into cliché, there simply are no words that are adequate to the task of recounting the myriad horrors that were perpetrated by the Nazis and their sympathizers against our people, the Jewish people, simply because they were Jewish. That is the quickest answer to the question, and certainly the most accurate. The problem with it, however, is that saying “there’s nothing to say” says nothing, and the reason why we are here is because of the categorical imperative to say something– to remember what was done to us, and to pass those memories on. We may not be able to explain it, and certainly not understand it or even adequately describe it, but remembering the Shoah is not- cannot- be a silent activity. It demands words, poetry, music, prayer, and yes, silence – all of which we engage in this evening.
When I was a young child growing up in the Yeshiva world in the fifties and sixties, studying the Shoah was nowhere on the curriculum, and I know that my Jewish education was not unique. The closest I came to learning anything at all about it was having Jewish Studies teachers who were survivors, and they surely never spoke of what they had experienced. It wasn’t until the English translation of Elie Wiesel’s Night was published in 1960 and he taught us that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time” that the Jewish community was forced out of its silence and obliged to seek those words that don’t exist. We are here tonight because we are still struggling, still seeking, and the ever-dwindling number of survivors among us deserve more and better than our silence.
When the opportunity to visit Poland presented itself to me in 1986, I seized it, and along with more than sixty other rabbis, via the UJA Rabbinic Cabinet, I visited Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow, Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other sites that had previously been known to me only through ineffectual words, grainy pictures, and movies like “Night and Fog,” that were the staple of Holocaust education, such that it was. That trip was a full thirty years ago, and much in my life has changed since then. But without any hesitation I can say to you tonight that my life as a Jew, a Zionist, a parent, and a rabbi, changed on that trip. In fact, it changed the first minute that I walked through the front gate of Auschwitz infamously emblazoned with the words “Arbeit macht frei;” work will set you free.
The very first thing that I saw was a sign in multiple languages that said “Here died four million Poles and other nationalities.” “Poles and other nationalities,” I said to myself? Really? Just forty years after the greatest racially motivated genocide in recorded human history, the Polish government, which administers the Auschwitz site as a state museum, had written the Jewish experience out of Auschwitz’s history… something so outrageous that it stopped me in my tracks when I saw it. How could it be, I thought to myself, that the genocide that had befallen us was already being written out of history?
That was bad enough, to be sure, but the next thing I saw helped me begin to intuit the true dimensions of our tragedy. In 1986, my son Hillel was three years old; Leora, who was just here with her husband and daughter, was eighteen months old. Babies were a big part of my life, 24/7. The very first exhibit that we saw, in one of the barracks, was of children’s clothing from the camp. I remember, as if it were yesterday, staring at that display, filthy striped pajamas with numbers on them, and trying to assimilate what I always had known cognitively to be the case… that a million-and-a-half children were murdered there, usually taken straight to the gas chambers, other times ripped from their mothers’ and fathers’ arms and brutalized in ways that are too painful to consider even now. I was unhappy being separated from my children for ten days, leaving them in the loving arms of their mother, and there I was, for the first time having no choice but to consider that if I had completely filled what was then Shea Stadium with children twenty-seven times, I still wouldn’t reach 1.5 million. And that says nothing of the other 2.5 million victims, fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, teachers, rabbis, maskilim, Zionists, Haredim…
No. Silence is not an acceptable posture for us, even seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz. I am obliged to admit that when I returned to Auschwitz on our congregational mission in 2007, the site as a whole had been made much more respectful of the Jewish dimension of the tragedy. We even formed, as many of you will know, a lasting and true friendship with the remarkable Polish woman who guided us at the camp, whom I later, in one of the most remarkable chapters of my rabbinate, converted to Judaism, and at whose wedding I officiated.
But let me hasten to say this. Were the world as a whole to display a genuine, global sense of contrition and remorse for what it had either actively perpetrated or at least allowed to happen, silence would still not be an appropriate posture for us. As annoying as it is for the non-Jewish world when we “prickly Jews” invoke the Holocaust, well, that’s just too bad. It’s their problem, not ours. They created our communal prickliness with their utter depravity and indifference to our suffering, and I just can’t summon any pity for them having to deal with us.
But on Yom Hashoah, we are also obliged to take a good, hard, honest look at the world around us and assess what more often presents as a global absence of contrition and remorse. Resurgent anti-Semitism, overt but also often masquerading as anti-Zionism, BDS forces asserting themselves at universities and in the corporate world, and Israel increasingly isolated at the United Nations, the European Union, and around the world. Seventy-one years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Jews are leaving France en masse, Belgium is a dangerous place, as is Turkey, and for that matter, much of Europe, and Israel is under siege…
That, my friends, is why we’re here. We’re here to remember the destruction of European Jewry, and also the glory of the lives those people lived before they were taken from us. And we’re here, also, in recognition of George Santayana’s famously statement: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We must all acknowledge and be committed to the idea that never again really means, never again.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.