Holocaust Day 2011.

1943 photo of Alexander Angel, a Jewish boy from Rhodes, Greece. For his story, see below. I can't get over how much he resembles two little boys I know from our synagogue.

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.

*************

Information regarding the above photo from the Rhodes Jewish Museum:

1943 photo of a young Rhodian Jewish boy, Alexander Angel, wearing the Star of David on the lapel of his coat. The Jews of Rhodes were not required to wear the Star. For the photo he is wearing the star as an innocent gesture of pride, instead of its actual use as a symbol for persecution. Tragically, the boy was deported the following year to Auschwitz, where he was murdered along with about 1,500 Jews of Rhodes.

This post (minus the photo & story of Alexander Angel) first appeared last year, but nothing has changed — not in Israel’s behavior, not in my heart, and not in the need to stand in witness — so I decided to post it again, as is.

Advertisements

4 Comments

  1. dmf

     /  May 1, 2011

    may next year be better, may we all do better

  2. Thank you for this.

  3. It is often impossible to separate an event from how the event is perceived long after. The Holocaust, when studied clinically or visited vicariously, is a horror show unlike any humanity has ever seen. With luck, we will never see its like again. The Civil War was a slow, laborious, meat grinder of a war, a melding of the fight for State’s rights with abolishing the abhorrent practice of slavery. The Spanish Inquisition was a horrid period of orgiastic religious extremes, leading to the torture and death of countless people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The atomic bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were so devastating, in that they wrought a final catastrophic end to a Pacific war that saw the fanatical destruction of life.

    No matter what these events were, as time passes, we paint them with broader and broader brushes, far beyond the boundaries they occupy in time and space. We move beyond the physical note of their existence, to overlay them with some overarching spiritual and intellectual fog, obscuring the true event or events, replacing them with our perceived picture of them. We alter those who participated in them, garishly demonizing the villains and beatifying the heroes. With each moment further from the event, the actuality recedes, and only our altered cultural versions of it remain.

    No one of this era, can understand or qualify the abject terror that must have been felt by normal families, in normal homes, in seemingly normal countries, one day finding themselves torn from their lives, treated like cattle, and either worked to death or killed a thousand cruel and vicious ways. What right have we, to say we know what it was like for an 8-year-old girl to be torn from her mother’s side, crying amidst the chaos of the camp, standing behind barbed wire, with men in black uniforms shouting and herding people at gunpoint? Can we grasp the disconnect between such a girl’s mental schema and the horror she is surrounded with, watching her mother be marched off to death, unaware that it is the last time her mother’s image will appear to her?

    The Holocaust was awful. It was atrocious. It was butchery. One can expend their vocabulary looking for adjectives. Yet, those adjectives convey none of the true pain, suffering, confusion, and terror of the moment. Only those who stood there in the dust and mud, shuttled around in cattle cars, stripped of their dignity and their possessions by what must have seemed the personification of the demons of some unknown Hell, can truly understand it for what it was. We must remember the event, the moment, the period, but we must not make it more than it was, for why does one need to take a charnel house of human mass extinction at the hands of evil minions, and try to imbue it with further significance? There is no need, for the event should be shocking enough that it stands on its own. The Holocaust is such an event.

  4. BJonthegrid

     /  May 2, 2011

    Emily,

    This summer my oldest turns twelve and we’re going to the holocaust museum. I was hoping the National Slavery Museum would have been up and running so we could do both in the same week, but they seem to be having problems getting it up.

    It’s so important that everyone remember what happened. Forgetting is how it occurs again, under a different nation, with different victims (Rwanda). My son is pretty sheltered, I will do my job to prepare him. I hate the fact that I have to be the one to introduce him to the horrors of humanity but I know it will be easier for him if he has my hand to hold.

    Today was the perfect day for this reminder, seeing as another Mass Murderer (Bin Laden) has been brought to justice. We should remember everyday.