The Holocaust was, by far, one of the worst times in history for the Jewish people. When learning about it, we tend to focus on the fact that Hitler and the Nazis wanted to physically annihilate us. Of course, this is very important, but there is also another critical aspect to the Holocaust which has been widely overlooked. It is the spiritual aspect. Why did the Nazis want to kill us? They wanted to kill us because we, the Jewish people, represent ethics and morality. In fact, our Torah is the foundation of ethics and morality. Hitler, himself, wrote in Mein Kampf that we are “a pestilence, a moral pestilence, with which the public was being infected. It was worse than the Black Plague of long ago.” The Nazis felt that we were a danger to the collective conscience of society and therefore, the elimination of every single Jew was necessary.
The way the Holocaust narrative has been presented to the world is almost dejudaizing because the spiritual aspect has largely been omitted. It has been presented as a physical atrocity against a people, without really focusing on who the people were. It’s almost as if you could substitute the word “Jews” with “insert name of nation here.” The fact that Jews were the number one target doesn’t seem to be portrayed in a way which shows its significance.
When studying the Holocaust it becomes quite clear that the Nazis intended to obliterate our religion, as well as our bodies. They burned synagogues, Torahs, and other Jewish books. They stole items used for Jewish practices such as menorahs and tallises. They purposely made aktionen (round ups) on significant Jewish holidays including Pesach and Yom Kippur. They even banned Jewish practices, on pain of death! All of this was done with utmost fervor.
Now, why is this important for us to acknowledge? What can we learn from it? By not losing sight of the fact that they wanted to kill us because we are Jews, we can see and learn about the value of our religion. Judaism is priceless. Thieves don’t want to steal items that aren’t valuable. The Nazis would not have deprived us of our heritage and spirituality if they had been worthless! Additionally, victims are more distressed and demoralized if you destroy something that is precious to them. Hitler understood this. Sometimes I wonder if we do.
With respect to vengeance, for obvious reasons, we can’t just kill anyone who was a Nazi or a collaborator without a proper trial. If we would just kill them, we would be stooping to their level. This would make us look immoral which would make them look successful. Furthermore, because their reason for killing us was to eradicate our spirituality, the optimal form of vengeance is spiritual. Continuing our Jewish legacy for eternity is the ultimate form of vengeance; and who could it be better to learn this lesson from than from the survivors themselves? They are our heroes who rebuilt their shattered lives and ensured that Judaism flourished once more. This is one of the many reasons why we need to read Holocaust books and listen to survivors speak about their experiences. Every Holocaust story is an inspiring one and we must listen to each one first-hand, before it’s too late!
In Parshat V’Etchanan (Deut. 4:9), God tells us “Only guard yourself and greatly guard your soul, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen and lest you remove them from your heart all the days of your life and you should make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” This teaches us a valuable lesson. We cannot forget what happened to us. We must remember why the Nazis wanted to murder us and understand that only through living as Jews can we prove that they didn’t succeed. When my grandmother was asked in her Shoah Foundation video what message she would like to impart to her grandchildren, she replied that “they should be proud to be Jewish.” We must internalize this message and live by it forever.
About the Author: Ricki Birnbaum is currently a second year student at York University in Toronto. Her passion is Holocaust Studies.
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