Anytime I come across a Holocaust film, video, or article, my emotions range from shock to horror to anger and – finally – to sadness. But if I had to be honest about it, anger seems to be the emotion I harbor the most.
Even as a kid, my dad and I would secretly fantasize about what we might do if we had just a few moments with an Eichmann or Mengele, y’mach shmam. Years later, when my parents took our family to Birkenau and Auschwitz to see what the sub-humans had perpetrated, it reinforced my connection with my people but it also left me livid.
I remember years ago speaking to a good friend of mine who was in the camps. “Tell me, Sol,” I said, “how did you not kill those beasts after the war?” After some badgering, he looked me straight in the eye and said he killed an SS officer he recognized after the war. But after a while, he realized it wasn’t going to fix anything, so he got married and remained a frum Jew until his passing.
But what could I do? I knew I was no Simon Wiesenthal, and, other than watching Meir Kahane videos and going to an occasional rally, what options did I have? Burning a picture of Mengele?
And then I let my thoughts wander to a deeper, more profound question. What was the Holocaust really about? What was Hitler’s main motive in ridding the world of Jews? I think the answer lies in Kristallnacht, when countless Jews were murdered, 30,000 men were sent to concentrations camps, and 267 synagogues were destroyed. It officially marked the beginning of the horrors, and its purpose was to strike at the heart of the Jews – their sacred synagogues, their holy sacred books, their beloved Torah.
That’s what Bilaam, Lavan, Hitler, Sadaam, Ahmadinejad, Arafat, Farrakhan, and all the rest were, and are, really after: Jews armed with the Torah, representing the power of good. In fact, Hitler hated our Torah so much that he even provided extra food rations to concentration camp inmates on fast days in order to destroy their spirit. Like the evil prophet Bilaam, he knew the source of our strength lies in our strict adherence to God’s Torah.
This lesson became clearer to me two weeks ago. As Shabbos was ending and Tisha B’Av was commencing, I noticed a very old Holocaust survivor bending over his wheelchair attempting to retrieve a second pair of non-leather sneakers that he had brought to shul. He simultaneously kept checking his watch, trying to arrange the perfect time to make the switch so that he would not be wearing leather once the fast started.
I sat proud as I watched this 90-year-old man, the perfect embodiment of what those evil perpetrators tried to destroy: the quintessential Jew, a true eved Hashem. And in that instant I realized that mimicking him was the greatest revenge I could inflict on the Nazis. I could do the very thing that inspired their fanatical hatred. I could serve Hashem.
Their goal was to destroy our ability to observe the Torah, to weaken our spirit, to strike at God through His people. This survivor, who had every reason in the world to run from God, chose instead to embrace God and his Torah. I couldn’t help but sit in awe.
How many of us – who grew up, not in the horrors of the Holocaust, but in the lap of luxury – are lax in observing God’s commandments? We have the ability to walk around with a yarmulke, find a kosher meal without too much trouble, catch a myriad of daily minyanim, and carry ourselves with real Jewish pride. Yet, how many of us violate basic prohibitions without even giving them a second thought? And how many mitzvot don’t even make it on our radar screens because we’ve fallen so low?
This survivor taught me how to take revenge against the Nazis. By doing the very thing the anti-Semites can’t stand: mitzvot! I could learn Torah. I could spreading the light of God. That’s revenge!
Every time we make a kiddush Hashem, the anti-Semites can’t stand it because we bring God and light into the world. Every time we build another yeshiva, erect another shul, have another baby, donate more charity, spread more Torah – they boil with jealousy. Because we represent the power of good. And they know that our strength comes from our adherence to the Torah.
But the opposite is also true. Every time a Jew intermarries, he’s indirectly granting Hitler a posthumous victory. Every time we violate a law, or hurt or steal from another, we push God’s protective glory away from us.
So let us adhere to the one thing Hitler desperately tried to destroy: the Torah. With each mitzvah we perform, we act as a light unto the nations, who will one day proclaim, “Mi K’amcha Yisrael.”