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Witnesses With a Message

September 25, 2008 By:
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People have been talking for years now about the importance of learning the lessons of the Holocaust, but I've always been confused about exactly what they mean. Of course, I do know in one, very elemental sense what they're driving at. They mean that we have to learn how not to hate others, learn to free ourselves of prejudice, and to keep a watchful eye out for signs of genocide and work to stop them with alacrity. And they also mean, I would imagine, that we should learn to help others in dire need whenever they come to us and ask for assistance, as so many Jews had turned to their neighbors, often in vain, before and during World War II.

These are, of course, all noble goals, and we should repeat them to ourselves and our young people, day after day. But is that truly learning the lessons of the Holocaust? Recitation, even comprehension, is not learning, in the way these people obviously mean.

For, if we were to be truthful, these are some of the hardest lessons to learn in all of human experience. If they weren't, events such as those in Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur would not only never have happened, but could have been easily brought under control. But that was not, and has not, been the case.

All of our natural inclinations work against such noble actions; except for the rarest of us, we are all survivors at heart, who would claw our way to the top in order to live; and, in reality, we care most for those closest to us, not the strangers in our midst, especially if these individuals are "not like us."

How then can we learn such things and manage effectively to teach them to others? These are questions that have perplexed me throughout my professional life, and I have searched through many, many works on the Shoah for answers. Of course, I've learned many things from my reading, especially about how human nature works and how badly people can behave in terrible times; but I have rarely, in all this reading, found books that instruct us -- as opposed to informing us -- about the opposite: how to be good.

The Nature of Altruism

The works of Nechama Tec, which have looked at the nature of rescuers and what motivated them to assist the helpless, along with The Altruistic Personality by Samuel P. and Pearl M. Oliner, have been the rare exceptions to this rule. These are scholarly works, meant to unearth new information about their subjects, but they also have their practical sides, a pragmatic strain, providing guidance and insights that give us some inkling of what it takes for human beings to be good.

Now, to this very abbreviated list, we must add Remember for Life: Holocaust Survivors' Stories of Faith and Hope, which has been edited by Brad Hirschfield, the president of CLAL, the Center for Learning and Leadership, and published by our own Jewish Publication Society. What we have here in this very brief book -- a little over 100 pages of text -- is another very useful, very pragmatic work that deals with the Holocaust, one that means to be put to use every week.

Remember for Life contains a series of readings, brief testimonies taken from survivors, that are keyed to each of the weekly Torah readings throughout the year. As editor Hirschfield puts it in his introductory remarks, "Remember for Life connects our most ancient teachings with the lives of those who saw those teachings tested probably more than any other. Now we have the opportunity to learn from them the lessons that have always been embedded within that tradition, lessons about life and living to the fullest in every sense of the word."

A Sacred Opportunity

But in Hirschfield's opinion, this small volume is not only about the Shoah. It's also "about the sacred opportunity to remember the past in ways that will help guarantee the future"; in this manner, it "continues an ancient tradition that dates back to the Hebrew Bible -- a tradition of remembering traumatic events, such as the Exodus from Egypt, in ways that enhanced the lives of those who went free and the lives of those around them. It is about choosing life -- even, or perhaps especially, as we make our choices about how to remember the deadliest of times."

How the project came about is a story worth retelling. Hirschfield was first approached by Sherman Jacobson, the initial supporter of the work, and CLAL Executive Vice Chairman Donna Rosenthal. Sherman explained that he wanted to find a way in which Holocaust remembrance could become a more regular part of the synagogue service. Hirschfield hesitated for a moment before responding, and Jacobson, picking up on that hesitancy, told him to speak his mind. That was when Hirschfield said he thought that one Yom Hashoah a year was enough.

He said that he thought the rabbis of 2,000 years ago had been brilliant in forcing the rest of Jewish tragic memory "into three weeks in the summer, leaving the other 48 weeks of the year to focus not on remembering Jewish death, but on celebrating Jewish life. A 16-to-1 life to death ratio seemed about right to me, and I did not really believe we needed to change that ratio by including a Yom Hashoah moment in each week's Shabbat morning service."

Jacobson asked Hirschfield for ideas about what might be done, and he suggested that they approach survivors and gather their words and try to bring this testimony into people's lives on a regular basis, but not as instruction about hatred and death. Survivors, Hirschfield argued, should be "teachers of life, ethics, decency and love." Perhaps, he continued, we Jews could remember more often -- but not remember "more horror."

"I hope that we, the first generation that will live without [the survivors], might begin to honor [them] as more than symbols of past horror and death -- that we could come to see them as rebbes, as masters of the value of life and as guides about how to live the life we are given more fully and more deeply."

That was the impetus behind these stories, which, we are told, were edited as little as possible, and have now been presented as commentaries on the weekly Torah portions. A single word generally is used as a heading -- creativity, survival, hospitality, for example -- along with the name of the parshah.

One example will have to suffice here. It is a commentary on parshah Va-Yera and is called "hospitality." The writer is identified only as Mark A. who came from Poland; this is the extent of the identifying material here and with each of the other sections.

"While I was in the Lublin ghetto, I wrote my father a letter because he didn't know where I was. After waiting two, three weeks without getting an answer, I chose to go back to Krakow.

"I was walking back to my father and brother maybe 10, 15, 20 miles a day. Every night I would stop at a farmer's house and knock on the door, and when I walked in, I used to say in Polish, May Jesus be blessed, and they would answer, Amen.

"Now, I would also like to mention that if any of them would point out where a Jew was located, alive or dead, they would get a reward. The reward was a kilo of sugar, two pounds of sugar, or a carton of cigarettes. That is how cheap our life was.

"It would be quite naive to assume that they didn't recognize that I didn't belong there -- I was a Jewish city boy, and I certainly didn't look like a Polish farmer boy. But every one of them, they slept me over, fed me, gave me some bread for the road, and they said, God be with you. These were Polish Christians.

"One time, one of the farmers disappeared, and I kid you not, if I say that I could taste my heart, that's how it started to beat. I thought, Oh, ho, he certainly went to get the police. But instead he came back with a jar of money and he said to me, Krakow is still far away, buy yourself a ticket, and get yourself home. Because of him, that's exactly what I was able to do."

This is only one of the astonishingly moving tales in this book. There isn't much in the way of documentation -- dates or times or fuller explanations of events within specific contexts -- but, in the end, it doesn't matter at all. As Hirschfield points out, "With their stories, each of the people in this book teaches us about life and how it can be lived more meaningfully, more ethically and more joyfully. That has always been the purpose of our Torah, and there are no better people to remind us of that than the story tellers [sic] in this book. They know that ours is a Torah of life, an eternal story that is assured by our willingness to link our own life stories to it, and to learn from them both."

 

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