We have just finished the observance of Passover, in which we recount a historical narrative of slavery and liberation. Each year we read the story, and each year we find something new in it.
As we make our way from the sacred observance of Passover, we enter into a season of observances commemorating events that impacted the modern Jewish community. First, this Sunday night, we observe Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Commemoration of the Holocaust in our day is still an interesting endeavor. We observe this day of commemoration of Nazi atrocities and genocide during a time in which those who experienced, witnessed, survived those events are still around to tell their story. So while we commemorate the Holocaust as something that happened to us as a people, irrespective of our own personal histories, we are still reminded that the events happened to specific people. Our narrative as a people is made up of individual narratives of people.
With each passing year, as more survivors pass away, we are cognizant that there is going to be a shift in how we commemorate the Holocaust. As the events get more distant, the Holocaust will remain an important part of the Jewish narrative, yet how the story will be told when there are no longer individuals to provide eyewitness testimony is going to be an evolving process.
This year at my congregation, we will not be hearing from a survivor. Rather we will be watching video of what could be called “first responders”—filmed testimony from witnesses to the camps immediately following the liberation and the initial news reports that brought the evidence of the events of the Holocaust to the world. The images are stark and brutal, there was no attempt to cover up what was found in the camps. The witnesses and commentators struggle to find the right adjectives to describe what we saw.
Previewing these clips [and thanks to Danny Kadden for putting together the playlist] reminded me of my experience in Hebrew school being introduced to the Holocaust. The unit taught by Mr. Zucker in my (pre-bar mitzvah) class has stuck with me, primarily because of the harsh images we were exposed to. We were not shielded from even the most graphic images—I remember too sitting in the sanctuary and being shown “Night and Fog,” the 1955 French documentary which was one of the first films about the Holocaust. The director who made the film, Alain Resnais, recently passed away.
I reflect back now as a parent and a rabbi on the idea of showing such stark images to that age group. It definitely left an impression, and I wonder though about the reasoning. Looking back at those times in the early 1980s, there was still a sense of unease. The events of the Holocaust were only 40 years in the past, Israel was even younger than it is now and while I lived in an area that was heavily Jewish, there was still a sense of being on the outside. I think perhaps we were shown those pictures not only because it was what happened to Jews in the past, but because it is what could happen to Jews in the future.
Fast forward 30 years and we witnessed the events during the week leading up to Passover. Aside from the horrific shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Kansas City, we had the distribution of leaflets outside a synagogue in the Ukraine ordering Jews to register with the government. And while it turned out to be a hoax, we still must remember that those who perpetrated it were using anti-Semitism and European history to intimidate. It was a good hoax because it was so plausible.
So maybe there is still unease among Jews. As we arrive at the time designated to commemorate the Holocaust, we are reminded how far we have come, and yet how far we have to go. I’m several decades removed from my first exposure to the horrors of Nazi Germany, but the images and stories continue to cause shock and upset, as perhaps they should.
Part of our reaction to the Holocaust as Jews is that because of our experience we maintain a continued commitment to survival—we feel threatened, and we do what we can to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. And part of our reaction is that because of our experience we maintain a continued commitment to justice—we do what we can to ensure that no one suffers the way we suffered.
Sometimes these impulses are in tension with one another. But that is what it means to continue to come to terms with the Holocaust.
Sometimes we try for the easy answers: the Holocaust means X. Sometimes an answer is forced upon us: because of the Holocaust you should Y. But there is no easy answer to the Holocaust. It is first and foremost a trauma. One that we continue to try to come to terms with, to confront, to accept. One whose full impact shifts with the generations, continues to be revealed, may never fully be understood.
Passover marks mythic history—the story is a lens through which we observe our present condition and try to make meaning of. Perhaps someday the Holocaust will have the same function. But for now, it feels like although we will (and should) seek to derive lessons from the modern tragedy which befell us, we must also make sure we simply remember and mourn.