I share the following facts every year around Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) since feelings are not enough. We are saturated with stories, memories, and tears that evoke deep feelings and yet, in my opinion, we must not neglect cold, hard, dry facts. Here is a list of them courtesy of Professor Yosef Ben-Shlomo; six historical facts that we need to internalize in order to understand why the Holocaust was such an extraordinarily unique event:
- Judenrein. For the first time in history (other than Haman’s plot against the Jews in ancient Persia), one nation sought the complete elimination of another, despite the fact that the vast majority of the nation targeted for extermination lived outside the territory of the aggressor nation. The goal was not to just put the other nation into exile but to erase it from the face of the earth. In Nazi documents on the number of Jews destined for death, even the tiny Albanian Jewish community of 200 souls was noted.
- Absence of opposition. In the Wannsee Conference of January, 1942, the “final solution” was unanimously approved by the fifteen attendees, all of whom held high-ranking ministerial positions in the German government, and eight of whom held doctorate degrees.
- The Germans worked against their own interests in World War II. Even as Germany was losing the war, they behaved irrationally. Instead of investing in just fighting enemy forces, the Germans continued “to waste” energy on their Jewish extermination project.
- They were not crazy. Among the murderers were family men and women, professionals, and intellectuals. They were perfectly sane. Millions of ordinary, regular folks did not see any problem with taking part in this giant extermination project.
- The concentration camps were not bombed. The death factories continued to operate without interference by the Western allied nations or their armies, even while the allies regularly bombed Nazi munitions factories.
- There was no way out. Unlike their ability to cope with other horrendous decrees and persecutions throughout history, the Jews of Europe had no way out. There was no possibility of saving themselves through cooperation with the enemy, or by being exiled or by conversion to another faith. Death was their only option.
We face Holocaust denial, ignorance, and forgetfulness, as well as claims that the Holocaust was not a unique or particularly anti-Jewish event. It is therefore more important than ever not only to remember what happened, but to make a commitment never to forget.
Light Within The Darkness
Rabbi Aryeh Handler has led more than 15,000 teenagers on trips to Poland in order to enhance their understanding of the Holocaust. Recently, he participated in a Zoom meeting of the Mitchadshot (Women’s Renewal) community, as we prepared for Yom HaShoah. Rabbi Handler described how the focus of these trips to Poland has evolved and broadened over the years.
“For a long time, we would simply travel to the concentration camps and return home,” he said. “Eventually we understood that we needed to speak not only of Jews who died in the gas chambers. Our approach changed and today we understand that the purpose of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) is not to make us despair. While we need to be made aware of the unimaginable evil of the Holocaust, we are also obligated to recall the unimaginable good that was witnessed alongside it.”
Rabbi Handler spoke about special individuals who radiated light within the darkness. For example, there was “Avraham the Great.” This was the nickname given to a Jew who saved the lives of others who would have died during a death march in which Avraham was a participant. There were many such marches from one camp to another as the Nazi war effort collapsed. Those who lingered or diverged from the line of marchers due to weakness were shot. During this particular death march, each time someone slipped or fell down, Avraham picked them up and pushed them back in line. He also gave them words of encouragement so that they would keep moving forward. Singer-songwriter Idan Amedi once met Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau who told him about Avraham the Great. This inspired Amedi to write the following song:
Avraham the Great
is someone who runs to your side
if you slip
and makes you stand up again.
He is a mighty river
Who sweeps souls to safety.
When everyone else is falling down,
How are you still able to march?
Rabbi Handler concluded as follows: “This was someone whose story gave me enormous strength. We must learn from radiant figures like him. Yom HaShoah is the day that shows us not only the depths to which human beings can sink, but also the heights to which they can soar.”
Our Return To Pirkei Avot
Now is the appropriate time to return to the study of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). During the period between Pesach and Shavuot, it is customary to study this tractate of the Talmud. This text is ancient but always relevant as it focuses on self-refinement, ethical behavior, and living in accordance with the highest values. We can benefit much from its study, whether we are learning it at the age of 3 or 120, and we can only imagine what our lives would be like if we were guided by the light of Pirkei Avot, from which the following statements are taken:
“May your friend’s honor be as dear to you as your own.
Be among the disciples of Aharon: Love peace, pursue peace, love others and draw them close to the Torah.
Greet everyone with a pleasant countenance.
The shy person cannot learn; the impatient person cannot teach.
Envy and lust and honor-seeking drive a person from this world.
Say little and do much.”
This is just a small taste of Pirkei Avot. May we merit to internalize all of its words.
Translation by Yehoshua Siskin.