Monday, April 11, 2011

Thoughts on the Holocaust

I just finished reading an amazing book concerning the Shoah, specifically the spiritual resilience of those religious Jews in the the ghettos and camps. With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps, by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits is a compelling, gripping narrative of the battle of the Jew's eternal soul against the onslaught of the Nazi German death machine. Full of inspiring anecdotes about *regular* Jews and the lengths they went to in order to fulfill the slightest shadow of a mitzvah, Rabbi Berkovits shows us that Jewish pride was upheld not by singular moments of astonishing heroism by a few individuals, but rather on a constant basis by every single Jew who struggled to serve his Creator despite (or more appropriately, in spite of) the insufferable conditions. Throughout the book, Rabbi Berkovits (a survivor himself) pulls back from the wartime narrative to discuss the behavior and psyche of the religious Jew during these times, examining what drove the Jew to defy the horrors he faced on a daily, hourly, minute-to-minute basis.

A brief excerpt that jumped out at me:
To surrender one's life for the "sanctification of the Name" is the highest mitzvah of all, but the Jews in the ghettos an concentration camps had no previous experience in fulfilling this particular commandment.
Thus the question arose: what was the correct formula for the blessing prior to the mitzvah of Kiddush haShem? Of course, the question was not altogether a matter of ignorance. On the contrary, it was prompted by a discussion in the Talmud, dealing not specifically with Kiddush haShem but generally with all categories of divine commandments.
How is one to bless an to thank God before one dies in fulfillment of the commandment of sanctifying His great name?
Uncomprehendingly we stand before our people, the Jews.
Overwhelmed by awe, we stand before these human beings, flesh like our own flesh, bones like our bones, who in the midst of the miseries of the ghetto and the sufferings of the death camps, were preoccupied with the question of what was the correct formula for blessing and thanking God when their ultimate hour would arrive! Even in Auschwitz, Maidanek, Birkenau, and Buchenwald..."Blessed art Thou, Eternal, our God, who hast commanded us through His commandments and commanded us to sanctify His name in public."
Admittedly, I have a slight obsession with the Holocaust; as a grandchild of survivors who was partially raised by them (we lived around the corner from my mother's parents - they had nearly as much a hand in raising me as my own parents), I grew up with "the War" as a permanent fixture in my life. The War, which had so totally altered my grandparents' lives in an indelible way - shaping their world view and their approach to even the most seemingly trivial things in life - continued to influence my parents' and my own upbringing.

We were taught never to waste a morsel of food; this teaching extended to other areas of life, but became most prominent at mealtime. While I've heard disparaging talk about how this is an indicator of some sort of "unfortunate residual scarring" (not my own words, God forbid) as a result of the utter starvation experienced in the camps(which subsequently "burden" the children and grandchildren of those survivors...again, not my own words), I only see the benefit of having learned not to be a glutton or a spendthrift. Moreover, I had to acknowledge the consequences of my own greediness - no matter what, I had to finish what I took onto my plate, even if it took all night.

I learned to appreciate what I had, both in terms of material possessions as well as the religious freedoms I was lucky to experience. My parents never missed an opportunity to remind me of how lucky I was to have grandparents, as they in turn had been reminded of their fortune to grow up with parents - a "luxury" many survivors couldn't claim as their own. To live as a Jew without fear of persecution in this great country; to be able to cross borders with ease and expedience; to visit the Holy Land in comfort and health - so much to be thankful for, and more.

As I got older, I felt an urge to learn more about this cataclysmic event that my beloved grandparents had endured. I began to read volumes upon volumes of books about the subject. Personal testimonies, historic overviews from both Jewish and non-Jewish sources, and philosophical treatises written both during and after the war that attempted to put this enormous tragedy into some sort of perspective. The philosophies always had a certain draw; how can anyone deny the implications about God and His providence that the terrible accounts of the Nazi horrors seemed to make? As a microcosm, the Holocaust contains all the important existential questions that a thinking, feeling human (and certainly a Jew) must ask about his Creator. But these questions carried with them a certain danger, as well. In my teenage years, the Holocaust served as a convenient peg to hang all of my rebellious behavior upon. Unjustifiably, I would point my finger toward the past, as if to say that the experiences that my grandfather went through at the hands of cruel humans who God allowed to mercilessly slaughter millions of Jews (and others) gave me license to disobey His divine Word. The irony of such a stance gradually became clearer as I matured, and witnessed those who actually went through the war, suffered, and yet continued to be faithful God fearing Jews. Some (like my grandfather, who should live and be well) even attributed the Holocaust to being an event that buttressed their faith, spurring them to become more religious, to affirm and uphold their beliefs with untold sacrifice of their own well being, in order to ensure that they survive and rebuild.

Only the hubris of youthful pseudo-intellectualism can view this dichotomy of the survivor's fervor and steadfastness vis-a-vis the one or two-generation removed descendant's rebellion in the name of the Holocaust, and not be bothered by the contradiction. This is only brought into very clear perspective by the below mini-documentary, which follows three generations (father-son-grandson) and their approach to the Holocaust.

This film disheartened me so much when I first saw it. The elderly survivor clearly recognizes the unseen Hand that guided him throughout the war, protecting him at every turn. His son and grandson, on the other hand, get lost in a cloud of confusion as they try to come to terms with something they didn't even experience, let alone relate to.

Another thing that was taught to me at a very early age was not to judge any survivor's personal life choices. While various teachers of mine shunned writers like Elie Wiesel and denigrated Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal as mechalelei Shabbat (Sabbath desecrators), we were taught that what they lived through was beyond our comprehension; to lambaste them for who they became as a result was not only disrespectful, it was disgraceful. Each in their own way, these men (and women) are honoring their fellow victims to the best of their capabilities. Their religiosity is a matter between them and God, with few others possessing the right to intervene, certainly not us.

The generation of survivors is slowly dwindling; my grandfather is the last remaining grandparent that I have today. Now, as he begins to approach the end of his days (until 120, amen), he has become more forthcoming with his own experiences. I find myself listening intently when I visit him; sometimes he is lucid, and his accounts hold me at attention. Other times, he rambles, a symptom of his age. Either way, I listen, because that is what we must do - listen, and bear witness for them when they no longer can.

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