The Blood of Your Neighbor

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
May 6, 2005

Some words by Yehuda Amichai , Israel ’s greatest modern poet. The title is “Almost a Love Poem”:

            If my parents and your parents
hadn’t migrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1936,
we would have met in 1944
there, on the platform at Auschwitz .
I at twenty,
and you, at five.
Where’s Mammeleh?
Where’s Tatteleh?
What’s your name?
Hannaleh.

We read that poem last night in this sanctuary, at our community gathering in commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, before a crowd of more than 500 people.

Amichai’s words evoke the horror of the hypothetical. “If my parents and your parents hadn’t migrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1936 / we would have met in 1944 / there, on the platform at Auschwitz . / I at twenty, / and you, at five.”

The horror of the hypothetical. What if our parents hadn’t gotten out in time? What if they’d stayed behind in Europe, too naïve to have realized the need to escape; too loyal, perhaps, to their own aging parents; too trusting of authority; too poor to offer bribes; not quick or clever or bold enough to find a way out, or maybe just unlucky? What if they hadn’t gotten out?

Then, says Amichai to the woman he is addressing, then we would have met in Auschwitz, where all Jews met – the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the devoutly pious and the militantly secular. There you would have been, a five year old girl, just another dazed and orphaned child, frightened and all alone in the world: where’s Mammaleh? Where’s Tatteleh?

The poem captures the fragility of all the “what if’s” – the contingencies and quirks of fate that meant the difference between life and death back in those terrible years. The number 6 million – an enormous, almost meaningless statistic – falls away in this poem. Instead we see two people on a railroad platform; we see ourselves on the platform, for indeed, it could have been any of us standing there, marked for death.

“I’ve passed my fortieth year,” writes Amichai in another poem, called “All the Generations before Me.”  “I’ve passed my fortieth year. There are jobs / I cannot get. If I were in Auschwitz / They wouldn’t have sent me to work, / They would have burned me right away. / That compels.”

“If I were in Auschwitz …” Sooner or later, if you’re Jewish, that thought crosses your mind. You can’t help picturing yourself in the middle of the dreadful pictures you’ve seen. You dwell in the hypothetical. You know there’s no good reason why some of us died in the camps and some of us live out our lives in the comfort of Chicago or Boston or San Francisco .

In a memoir called “Night of the Mist,” a young Hungarian Jew named Eugene Heimler writes about a night when he and a crowd of other camp inmates were herded into trucks on the platform at Auschwitz . As he sits down in the truck his hand hits something small and hard. “It was a small album of photographs, left there probably by some other deportee, someone who might have arrived that day, or the day before, on the same train, from anywhere in Europe . A special squad was usually assigned to the task of emptying the trucks. Probably in their haste they had not noticed the small album.

“I opened it. A woman in an out-moded dress stared at me from the first page. It was one of those typical photographs taken about the beginning of this century. The legend underneath the picture said merely: ‘Mother, 1906.’ On the next page a young girl was laughing into my eyes. She was sitting on the concrete edge of a swimming pool, her hair streaming with water. I could almost visualize her in front of me: how they threw her into the water, how she fell in with a little scream, how she climbed gaily out…And now she was sitting there at the side of the pool, unaware that someone to whom she must have been dear had clicked the camera.

Another picture: a young boy’s eyes smiled into the dimness of the truck. Underneath was written: ‘To Mommy, from her loving Buksi.’ There on the next page was the girl again, standing serenely in her bridal dress, a middle-aged man next to her. Another photograph – a big party in a garden. There they all are: mother, aunts, husband and wife….A small bungalow. An elderly lady is leaning out of a window, and the outlines of a cat are visible through the curtain….Then two snapshots: Quarnero , Italy , 1934. A young woman and a sun-tanned man are looking towards the lens. Hey, that one is Buksi again – [all grown up] -- how on earth did they get to Italy ? Then Buksi in various poses: in the garden, picking some fruit off a tree….Buksi in his study: judging by the instruments scattered on the drawing board, Buksi must be an engineer….A woman lying in a clean, white bed, holding a small baby in her arms, beside her the husband, his face radiant…underneath the words ‘Csopi born on 7th September 1942.’ More pictures, pictures, pictures…the past coming to life, a family coming to life. People who had been strangers to me suddenly became acquaintances. An old lady, a young girl, Buksi, the husband…where are you now, all of you? Where is that small baby, where the unknown woman leaning out of the window? Where is the sun that shone through the cracks of the shutters – where did the past vanish?

“The truck was very quiet. People were lying about in a stupor as the train raced along…’And then I told my wife,’ somebody was saying, ‘look, dear, those shoes will be far too big for you. But she insisted on buying them. And then she complained that the shoes were too big’.” [Excerpted fromOut of the Whirlwind: A Reader of Holocaust Literature, ed. Albert H. Friedlander].

Did you see yourself in that truck, in the darkness of that night, thumbing through that little photo album looking at pictures of a family that had probably, by that time, been turned into smoke? Can you picture the young girl sitting by the swimming pool, and the affectionate little boy who grew up to be an engineer, and the older lady who lived with her cat? Ordinary people, just like the ones who appear in our own family photos. Can you imagine the conversation of ordinary people lying in a truck on their way to an unknown destination? “So I told my wife: look, dear, those shoes will be far too big for you…”

Holocaust Remembrance Day is all about the horror of the hypothetical. It’s about realizing how arbitrary are the coincidences that define our lives; it’s about recognizing how close all of us came to going up in smoke, for there was no difference, none at all, between those who died and those who lived to tell the story.

In every generation, says theHagadah, all Jews must see themselves as if we personally had come out of Egypt . It’s about removing the comfortable distancing mechanisms that help us keep tragedy at arm’s length. It’s about realizing that a hair’s breadth separated us from the nightmare of history; it’s about taking the Holocaust to heart.

And what do we do with the knowledge that it could have happened to us, personally, and it very nearly did? What do we do with the knowledge that we ourselves once dwelt in the darkness of Egypt ?

About that the Torah is very clear. What some have done to you, you must not do to another. Because you were oppressed, you must never be an oppressor. Because you were hated, you must love the stranger as yourself. And because you were victims of others’ callousness and apathy, you must never look on bloodshed with indifference. “Lo tuchall’hitalem,” says Deuteronomy [Dt.22:3]. “You may not turn away.” You may not turn away and pretend you do not see what is happening. And in Leviticus it says “lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa. You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds” [Lev.19:16].

Tonight, as Yom HaShoah comes to an end and we observe another year of mourning for the victims, our neighbors are being slaughtered – hundreds of thousands of innocents are dying in Darfur . It is all too easy to turn off as soon as we hear that word. It is all too easy to keep the tragedy at arms’ length. It is painfully hard to remember that there is no difference, no difference at all, between those who are lucky enough to be born into safe and comfortable havens and those who are born in the midst of a nightmare.

There are no easy solutions to the war now raging in Darfur , but complexity does not justify paralysis and the failure to respond. We have an opportunity to take action now, and to make our voices heard, and to prove that we have learned something from our own nightmarish history.

The Darfur Accountability Act is now before Congress. The bill calls for steps to stop the massacre, including freezing assets of those who are leading the genocide and imposing an internationally-backed no-fly zone to stop the Sudanese army from bombing villages.

Stopping genocide is not an issue of partisan politics. Republicans and leaders of the Christian right were among the first to speak out courageously against the slaughter in Darfur ; Republicans and Democrats in the Senate joined together to pass the Darfur Accountability Act. Members of the House of Representatives need to hear from us now; they need to know that we care about those who are dying in a remote corner of the globe; they need to know that we are not indifferent.

“This Thursday marks Holocaust Remembrance Day,” wrote Nicholas Kristof earlier this week in theNew York Times. “The best memorial would be for more Americans to protest about this administration's showing the same lack of interest in Darfur that F.D.R. showed toward the genocide of Jews.”

           Lo tuchal l’hitalem. You may not turn your head; you may not remain detached and unconcerned.Lo ta’amod al dam rei-echa. You must not stand by the blood of your neighbor.