NEW YORK (Apr. 20)
How shall we focus the commemoration of Yom HaShoah? In the light of the Albright affair and the Swiss banking revelations, it is time to focus on the heroism of the survivors and the courage that their fellow Jews showed with them in deciding to continue living as Jews.
There has been a remarkable turnaround in Jewish fate in the past 50 years. Being Jewish has become a ticket to asylum from persecution.
In America, being Jewish is perceived as honorific — a marker of elite creativity and brains and most-likely-to-succeed. It is hard, therefore, to recapture the tragic reality of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Then, Jewish status — or even association with it — was a badge of vulnerability. Wherever Nazism came to power — and often, where other dictatorships reigned — Jewish identity targeted a person for death or destruction.
To none was this fate more cruel, more arbitrary, more inexplicable than to assimilated Jews or gentiles who were, often unwittingly, descended from Jews.
The Talmud says: do not judge your fellow human being until you come to his/her place.
Try to suspend judgement for a moment and imagine what it felt like to someone who had never lived as a Jew. Imagine having never studied or understood a word of classic Jewish culture. Imagine having never experienced a moment of joy of Exodus or of celebration of Shabbat or of being cared for by a community of solidarity.
And imagine suddenly being exposed to a murderous fury or having your life and career torn up for the crime of being Jewish.
In Jakob Presser’s classic novel of the destruction of Dutch Jewry, Breaking Point, a young man has been befriended and kept alive by Jeremiah Hirsch, his neighbor in Westerbork camp.
Hirsch was a Hebrew studies teacher back home. The young man’s name is called for the weekly transport to Auschwitz. He lashes out hatefully at Jeremiah. Hirsch, bewildered, asks him “why explode at me.”
The lad responds: “When they call out your name, you will have had a lifetime of community, of joy, and learning, of meaningful reward for being Jewish. For me, there was nothing. You know why you suffer. For me, it came for no reason. I rage that my life will be destroyed meaninglessly.”
Small wonder, then, that after the war tens of thousands of assimilated Jews, who had barely survived, were furious at their meaningless suffering and determined to escape this fate once and for all, hid their identities and passed as Gentiles.
Every survivor — even those who had lived rich Jewish lives before the war – – had to answer questions to themselves. Shall I continue? Is it worth it? Shall I inflict this possible fate on my future children and grandchildren?
Those who lost families, those who had seen loved ones, their own flesh and blood, and countless others killed, tormented, abandoned, had to decide where to go and what to be.
The survivors found a world that was unrepentant, a world in which most Nazis escaped punishment, in which Britain kept the doors of Palestine locked and set up camps in Cyprus where displaced persons who tried to make aliyah were interned.
They found banks which seized their families accounts and stonewalled their requests for reimbursement.
They found Jewish communities that did not want to hear atrocity stories or expressed shame at the victims `passivity’ rather than at their own colossal wartime indifference.
Even survivors who were deeply committed and well received were uprooted and needed to move to new countries to start new lives. It was a chance to escape Jewish fate, a temptation to make a clean break with Jewish faith.
In 1968, an extraordinary French Catholic young woman served as an au pair in our home. She told us that she was driven from France by her mother’s unrelenting opposition to her proposed marriage to a Jew.
Her mother had passed by the infamous Drancy railroad station and heard thousands of rounded up Jewish children — some with family, some torn from their parents — crying and screaming as they awaited transfer to trains to Auschwitz. Her mother swore that no grandchild of hers would ever be exposed to such a fate.
Try to understand the decision of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s parents. The Korbels escaped the worst by being abroad during the Holocaust but their family did not.
Think of Madeleine Albright rushing through life as her cousin, Magda, and others called out to her.
Another heart-stopping Holocaust scene comes to mind.
A Jewess, passing as a gentile, is walking hastily toward her destination when a “schmalzownik” — a gentile who preyed on hidden Jews by threatening to expose them — calls out to her.
Her heart is beating wildly but she keeps a straight face. She must not let on or all is lost. If she stops, she is trapped in Jewish fate. If she turns around, all her incredible hiding effort is for nothing. She presses forward as if she does not hear.
On Yom HaShoah, judgement should not be passed on the Korbels. The incredible heroism of every survivor who decided to go on living as a Jew should be appreciated.
What a willingness to undergo Kiddush Hasham (martyrdom), what unquenchable faith in the possibility of tikkun olam (repairing the world), these survivors expressed.
Yom HaShoah is the day to unconditionally sing the praises of every Jew who did not — and of all Jews who do not — flee their identity. A second moment of silent homage, honoring the bravery of survivors, should be added to this day.
On Yom HaShoah, God should put on two pairs of tefillin in which is written “who is like you people, Israel? A unique nation in the whole world!”
For one day, let’s stop underestimating the daily courage of survivors and all Jews alike. If it happened once, it can happen again — however unlikely that fate seems all year long in America.
On Yom HaShoah, let’s take one more pledge: I will learn, I will live, I will celebrate — myself, with my family, my friends.
Never again should any Jewish child or adult be so deprived of their birthright of Jewish joy, distinction and meaning that they would question whether it was worth the risk.