Embracing Auschwitz: Learning Not to ‘Get Over’ the Holocaust


In his new book, “Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously” (Ben Yehuda Press), Rabbi Joshua Hammerman — spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and a long-time contributor to The Jewish Week — argues that the Holocaust has become “core to our self-image as Jews,” and that while “we may not be comfortable with that fact…we cannot deny it.” In each chapter he explores how the “Torah” of Auschwitz can and should shape the Jewish understanding of love, remembrance, racism and Jewish unity. Below is an excerpt.

There are three ways in which we respond to sorrow. On the first level, we cry; on the second level, we are silent; on the highest level, we take sorrow and turn it into song. —Abraham Joshua Heschel

Let me get this out there right from the start, so that there will be absolutely no confusion: There was nothing good about the Holocaust. What happened during the period of Nazi hegemony over Germany and Europe, from 1933-1945, was the nadir of human history. No other historic event is remotely comparable, and it is hard to conceive of any future atrocity being so maliciously designed and meticulously carried out on so vast a scale.

So, if the title of this book tempted you to toss it—because you think it is somehow disrespectful to view the Holocaust in positive terms, but for some reason you still decided to glance at this page—you are now aware that I am in no way glorifying this catastrophic event. An “embrace” is not an endorsement, nor is it a directive to “get over it.”

But why not “get over it?” It has been over seventy years. Isn’t it time to move on?

No—it’s not.

In fact, it is time—to embrace it.

The Holocaust was bad, no question about it. But that doesn’t preclude it from leading to something good; many things, in fact. You’ll read about some of them in this book.

It is time to embrace Auschwitz. Not to get over it and not to become desensitized to what took place. On the contrary. It’s time to fully incorporate its lessons into our souls; to recognize that in fact the Holocaust is not only part of our story, it frames our story; it is our story—and our greatest responsibility and honor is to bear witness and to share that story.

For most of my life, I felt that the Holocaust took up far too much Jewish bandwidth, that it smothered joy and suffocated Jews with guilt and resentment. It posed questions that were unanswerable. It eclipsed centuries of Jewish achievement and it brought out the worst in people. It gave us an excuse to hate—and it gave our children the excuse to opt out of being Jewish altogether. Who would want to be part of such a hopeless, hapless people?

So here is the conundrum that has prevailed among Jews since at least the 1970s, when preoccupation with the Holocaust became pervasive, as survivors began to discover their collective voice and many people began to take notice. It was necessary to place the survivors’ experience front and center, especially as Jews fought anti-Semitism on so many fronts, particularly in the Soviet Union and at the UN. We craved to live lives of joy, love, acceptance, community, hope and faith. But as Jews looked out there at the cultural landscape, what did we see? Everywhere we turned, being Jewish and the Holocaust became virtually inseparable.

I’ve spent the better part of my career as a rabbi and writer trying to reframe Judaism in positive terms, which for me meant steering the conversation away from the Holocaust, lest my faith tradition wither on the vine. But recently I’ve discovered that the opposite is true. Judaism is now being interpreted anew through the prism of this epochal event, filtered through the experience of Auschwitz, with surprisingly positive results.


But the questions I address have less to do with the past than with the present and future: How does the Holocaust propel us forward today to addressing the big questions we all face, like climate change, racism and “fake news”? How does the legacy of the Holocaust help all of humanity come together as one family while at the same time helping Jews become a more unified people? How does the evil that we faced seven decades ago help us to confront our own dark sides: our anger, our fear, and our resentment? How does a new generation properly bear witness to this evil when the last of the actual witnesses are leaving the scene? And last but not least, how do we generate new visions of faith and hope in the face of what appears to have been God’s utter disappearance from the course of human events?

Seven-plus decades after Auschwitz, something is happening. Something new is emerging. This book contains the first peek into what that “something new” looks like.

The “Holocaustization” of Jewish life—and to only a slightly lesser degree, of American life in general—might sound ominous, but I contend that precisely the opposite is true. In fact, for a Jewish people currently being ripped apart along political, religious, demographic and geographic fault lines, a deepened connection to the Holocaust is just about the only thing that everyone shares. It is what Jews are most passionate about. Pilgrimages to Poland, such as the one I experienced with my congregants recently, are now taking their place alongside trips to Israel on the bucket list of world Jewry. In the pantheon of sacred places, the Western Wall is being joined in this “Wall of Fame” by the walls surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto and the gate at Auschwitz proclaiming “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Berlin, with its abundant Holocaust memorials and welcoming atmosphere, has now become a magnet for Jews—including many Israelis—seeking a locale promoting inclusiveness and accountability.

Embracing Auschwitz might be just what the doctor ordered. Embracing Auschwitz could save the Jewish people. It could save Judaism. It could save Israel. It could, by extension, save all of humanity and save our planet. And it could even save God.

Two things, really:

First, Jews need to embrace our obligation to be surrogate witnesses as the last of the actual witnesses, the survivors, depart.

Jews are living links to the greatest crime ever perpetrated on humanity, and this is the most important role Jews can possibly play in the world today. Humanity, hungry for moral leadership at a time when fascism and hate are on the rise, is turning its lonely eyes to us.

Which brings me to the second reason why Jews need to embrace Auschwitz at this time:

Because the Holocaust has taken its place at the very core of what it means to be Jewish.

As the decades have passed, the Holocaust has ceased to be simply a fundraising tool for federations and advocacy groups. It has become much more. It has also ceased to be solely secular. It has become rooted in the Jewish psyche. Any modern expression of Judaism to emerge out of this era must place the Holocaust experience directly at its core, or it will not be authentic; it will fail to speak to our need to confront the blackest black hole in history. But just as it cannot ignore or deny the abyss, to be authentic, any modern expression of Judaism must also speak to the need to affirm joy, beauty, renewed life and at least the possibility of a responsive divinity, or it will not survive.

. . . .

Each of the chapters of this book outlines an aspect of this work-in-progress, this Torah of Auschwitz, and we will see just how the ways of Sinai are being recast, the old wells re-dug.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps the greatest Jewish visionary of the post-Holocaust era, who escaped Europe and bridged the Torahs of Sinai and Auschwitz, said two things of particular significance to this book. The first was the call from his masterpiece of biblical exposition, The Prophets: “In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.” No statement better sums up the clash of civilizations between what the Nazis stood for and what Judaism demands. Contrast it to Hitler’s rant freeing humanity from the restraints of a “falsehood called conscience and morality,” and the battle lines are clearly drawn. The Torah of Auschwitz stands, like the Jewish people itself, as a living refutation of Hitler’s pathological nihilism. To remember the Holocaust without a social conscience is not to remember it at all. As Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”

The second Heschel quote, with which I opened this book, paraphrases the nineteenth Rebbe of Kotzk, whose life-embracing brand of Hasidism enabled shell-shocked Jews to take the already hostile Polish landscape and turn it into an incubator of spiritual growth and enchantment:

“There are three ways in which we respond to sorrow. On the first level, we cry; on the second level, we are silent; on the highest level, we take sorrow and turn it into song.” And Heschel adds, “The love of life despite its absurdity holds out the certainty of a meaning that transcends our understanding.”

Jewish survival will not be assured until the grandchildren of survivors and others of their generation can begin to take the darkness of the Shoah and turn it into a song, absorbing the absurdity of a silent God while loving life nonetheless. That would be the most fitting memorial to the martyrs and a guarantee that their precious memory will be preserved. It’s precisely what’s happening right now—and considering the state of our world, not a moment too soon.

This book takes the spirit of the March of the Living and applies it to the Holocaust as a whole. The Holocaust is no longer an unbearable burden but a source for instruction, inspiration and even exuberance. The words of Ecclesiastes have never been more apt: There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh: a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

The time to weep is ending; the time to dance has begun.

So now, let’s carefully open up the Torah of Auschwitz to see what wonders await us on its sacred pages.

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