Holocaust Day.

I always hesitate to write about, or, indeed, engage in any public way with, the Holocaust.

When I first got to Israel, in 1982, it was not all that unusual to run across an aging forearm with a number tattooed on it lengthwise. There you are on the bus, or in the shuk, and an older woman shifts her weight, or an older man reaches across you for tomatoes, and there it is. Embodied evidence, evident to all, of the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jewish people. Embodied evidence, walking away, a bag of tomatoes in hand.

Holocaust Days came and went and I stood at attention wherever I might be, as most Israelis do, when the annual siren would sound, almost literally dropping whatever we were doing — stopping cars, stopping meetings, stopping yard work — to stand at attention with the rest of the nation. It’s a deeply powerful thing, and an altogether appropriate thing, to stand witness together, yet leave each to his or her own thoughts. Prayers. Tears.

I went to Auschwitz once, walked in a daze, from place to place, sign to sign, reading, crying, trying to hold in my mind the fact of where I was. I carried in my heart a man who, at eight, was supposed to be here, but at the last minute, was pulled from a train with his mother and sent elsewhere, to a slave labor camp, a camp from which they were later able to emerge. I carried within me the man’s children, my beloved friends, and the knowledge that they would not exist, had he come to this place. As afternoon drew to a close, I missed the train I had meant to take back to Warsaw and was suddenly seized with anxiety that I would still be in Auschwitz after dark. I ran hard and sweaty to catch the next train, desperate to leave the shadows of evil before nightfall.

Over the years of my life in Israel, I came to both internalize and reject — at times simultaneously — the Jewish State’s official co-option of the horrors of the Holocaust. There is, of course, a level on which it is entirely legitimate — of course the Jewish state must remember and honor the six million.

But there is also a level at which, over the years, the Holocaust and the six million inched (galloped) closer and closer to the center of the Israeli national narrative and the Israeli government is now engaged (to my mind) in a kind of abuse of the memory it claims to be protecting.

Israel abuses and debases the six million, using the horrors for political gain and international jockeying, creating and perpetuating a false equivalency between a starved, terrorized population without access to hope or help, forcibly herded onto cattle cars to be gassed en masse, with the Middle East’s most successful country, its borders protected by the Middle East’s most powerful army, its people fed, clothed and housed in the Middle East’s most successful economy. The children who watched their parents shot, the parents who watched their children starve, the wives and lovers and friends and grandfathers and students and bakers and all the humans, all the endless, endless, endless parade of human beings who lost and lost and lost and lost and were then lost — they deserve more. They deserve better.

But so much of Israeli society, politics and security culture is predicated on this false equivalency (“No to the PLO! No to Auschwitz borders!”) and so much of Diaspora Jewish communal life is predicated on following the official Israeli lead on all things, delimited by the twin pillars of Israeli Infallibility and Never Forget, that I find myself walking away. Shutting my ears. Rolling my eyes — as I did this very Shabbat when my synagogue’s rabbi reminded us that the Holocaust reminds us that we must never remain silent and so we must speak up against those who say that Jewish building in Jerusalem is settlement building. Rolled my eyes. Shut my ears. Walked away.

But this is wrong. The Holocaust is my history, too, my children’s history, my husband’s history. My husband, who, had his grandparents not read the writing on the wall and left Germany in 1933, would very likely not exist.

But more to the point, the Holocaust is the six million, killed for being who I chose to be, killed for being who my children were born being, killed for their noses and their language and their God. Ground up in a malevolent machine engineered precisely for their destruction, killed and killed and killed, their blood nourishing the European earth even today, their ashes caught and held in the corners of buildings and roots of trees even today.

I owe them at least this. At least a moment in which I stand still and hold them in my heart and promise that my children, my husband and I will stand here. We are and will be testament to the fact that while he tried — he failed. We are Jews, and we are alive. We will carry their blood and their names forward.

I owe them at least that.

יהי זכרם ברוך

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12 Comments

  1. Emily, dear Emily, from an old Jezebel.com “friend” of yours, once again your post has left me speechless. And I don’t want to get into why, because I don’t think my views are remotely close enough to formed to be published even as a comment, except to say that I have this frustration, this fervent belief, that we as a larger society are being manipulated and shaped and sculpted by co-opted half-truths. The journalistic world needs people like you, with balanced and informed viewpoints and the courage to speak up, if ever we are to rise above the mess we perpetually find ourselves in. Thank you for making me think, for making me feel, for empowering me to speak up in turn.

  2. amichel

     /  April 12, 2010

    From Bibi
    “The historic failure of the free societies when faced with the Nazi animal was that they did not stand up against it in time, while there was still a chance to stop it.

    And here we are today again witnesses to the fire of the new-old hatred, the hatred of the Jews, that is expressed by organizations and regimes associated with radical Islam, headed by Iran and its proxies.

    Iran’s leaders race to develop nuclear weapons and they openly state their desire to destroy Israel. But in the face of these repeated statements to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the Earth, in the best case we hear a weak protest which is also fading away.

    The required firm protest is not heard – not a sharp condemnation, not a cry of warning.

    The world continues on as usual and there are even those who direct their criticism at us, against Israel.

    Today, 65 years after the Holocaust, we must say in all honesty that what is so upsetting is the lack of any kind of opposition. The world gradually accepts Iran’s statements of destruction against Israel and we still do not see the necessary international determination to stop Iran from arming itself.

    But if we learned anything from the lessons of the Holocaust it is that we must not remain silent and be deterred in the face of evil.

    I call on all enlightened countries to rise up and forcefully and firmly condemn Iran’s destructive intentions and to act with genuine determination to stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

  3. dmf

     /  April 12, 2010

    thank you for bearing witness. there was a time when our teachers called for silence in response to this horror beyond understanding, but we cannot abandon our duty to the living out of fear of dishonoring the memory of the the dead. may we come to realize that peace is not found in forces of security but in the terrible risk of offering hospitality, not in annihilation but in life giving love.

  4. Persia

     /  April 12, 2010

    This is beautiful, Emily.

  5. carlos the dwarf

     /  April 12, 2010

    I think Israel’s usurpation of the Holocaust as its own history is troubling. Imagine if the late 19th-century American government started justifying all its actions by the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine? At some point, the State of Israel decided that it represented all the Jews of the world, and began to act accordingly–this is only one piece of that pie. As a Jew, I want to support the government of the state that holds my religion’s holiest places–but it’s a government that doesn’t represent me and has no possible claim to. The fact that the state of Israel thinks it represents me is a serious problem.

  6. Josh

     /  April 12, 2010

    I’ve never lived in Israel, but I work in the Jewish community (“I’m a professional Jew,” I tell my friends) and I’ve been so inundated with the victimization aspect of the Holocaust that I’ve lashed out against any movies or stories. I can get “Holocaust fatigue,” but it’s true, as you say, that beyond this fatigue, they deserve our memory. I cut myself off from Yom HaShoah, but I need to reconsider that.

  7. Susan

     /  April 12, 2010

    If the Israeli government’s co-option of the Holocaust is part of the brew in the Middle East that in the end destroys both Israel and the Arab Palestinians, or even just destroys Israel (neither outcome is impossible); if this business hardens the battle lines so that the two sides refuse to negotiate; if in the end the hope Israel represents is thus destroyed…how bitterly ironic.

    May such a horrible result be averted; pray for the peace of Jerusalem, real peace, not armed stalemate.

  8. Lisa J

     /  April 12, 2010

    I came over here from TNC’s blog. I am not Jewish, but for whatever reason, I’ve always been somewhat interested in Judaism and all of the difficulties Jews have faced over the millennia. I think this is partially due to my feeling that despite all of the much ballyhooed polarization that gets played up in the media between blacks and Jews, we have had much in common in America and are kindred in many ways.

    I think that what goes on today in Israel is both a beautiful blessing for your people, especially after the horrors of the Holocaust and a sad tragedy for the Palestinians and it is very difficult to reconcile it all. You wrote very movingly of your experiences and your feelings. I think you have captured very eloquently a difficult situation and your own ambivalence and deep feelings on this fraught subject.

    Thank you for sharing this. Peace and blessings to you, your family, and to all who were lost in that horrible stain upon humanity that was the Holocaust

  9. Mafalda

     /  April 12, 2010

    Beautiful. No words.

  10. Susan

     /  April 12, 2010

    I am not a Jew.

    What is being a Jew all about? We are told, and I believe it, that the Jews are the
    Chosen People, which leads to another question, to wit, chosen for what?

    We who are not Jews hear about Palestinian Arab houses destroyed, about Palestinian Arabs removed from the land they have owned for generations. I hear from Palestinian Arabs about being expelled from the only homes they have known. We see homes destroyed for no better reason than that the occupants are supposed to have been opposed to Israeli occupation.

    How are we, who are not Jews, supposed to react to all this? We hear the Jewish calls on the Holocaust, but, after all, I was born after World War II was over, so I’m not sure what to make of all this. Do the crimes of the Nazis sort of make any sort of behavior in now, 2010, OK, no matter who gets hurt? Are not the lives of the Palestinian Arabs of equal value with the lives of the Jews destroyed in the 1940’s?

    And if not, why not?

  11. The Holocaust is so large it is difficult to encompass it for any human, much less one, such as yourself, with such close ties to it.

    It makes this post all the more beautiful and heartfelt that you have limned the dimensions of how it makes you feel, and let me feel that too.

    Thank you.

  12. Yes, the history matters—the actual history, the actual lives and deaths of millions of human beings. Not the mythification and weaponization of history, but the actuality of it. The actual horror of it.

    It is those human beings who matter, who must be remembered.

    Thank you, Emily.