The Tower | Congregation Beth Am

The Tower

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
April 13, 2018

"I've turned thirteen, I was born on Friday the thirteenth... From Grandma Racz, I got a light tan spring coat and a navy blue knit dress. From my father, a pair of high-heeled shoes... Until now I have always worn only flat-heeled shoes... From Grandma Lujza, three pairs of pajamas, a dozen colored handkerchiefs and candy... From Grandpa, phonograph records of the kind I like... My grandfather bought them so that I should learn the French lyrics... I know Hungarian and German well, I've forgotten Rumanian, and I'm beginning to be good in French... I do a lot of athletics, swimming, skating, bicycle riding, and exercise. I also do rhythmics with Klari Weisz, but I don't care for that... I've written enough today. You're probably tired, too, dear diary." [1] Thus wrote Eva Heyman on February 13, 1944. Eva was born in Oradea, Hungary, in 1931. When she wrote those words, a month before German troops invaded her country, she was living with her grandparents; her divorced mother had remarried and moved elsewhere. Eva called her diary her best friend; she poured her heart and soul into it.

On this Shabbat, Friday the 13th, I’m thinking about Eva. Yesterday Jews throughout the world marked Holocaust Remembrance Day. Here at Beth Am more than 500 people filled our sanctuary to share music, candle lighting, stories and prayers.

How can you envision six million? Here’s one way. Start with the number 3000. About 3000 people -- 2,996 to be exact -- were killed by terrorists on September 11, 2001. Now imagine 3000 people killed every week for 38 years. That will bring you close. Or maybe not so close. How can any of us who did not live through the Holocaust possibly grasp its dimensions – the depth of collective pain, the magnitude of loss?

A troubling survey, released on Yom HaShoah, revealed that many Americans today lack the most basic knowledge about the Holocaust. 41% -- and two-thirds of millenials (those age 18 to 34) -- couldn’t say what Auschwitz was. 31% of Americans, and 41% of millennials, believe that 2 million or fewer Jews were killed; 52% do not know that Hitler was democratically elected. And 70% of Americans believe that today fewer people care about the Holocaust.  [2]  We, of course, continue to care. But even we don’t often take the time to study the Holocaust. Many of us avoid books and films that probe too deeply into the heart of darkness, and I understand why. It’s frightening, and it can leave us heartsick, overwhelmed by grief. So it was with some trepidation earlier this year that I began to read a new book with the simplest of titles: Why? Explaining the Holocaust.[3]

It’s by Peter Hayes, a world-renowned historian and scholar, professor at Northwestern University, who for more than 30 years has taught and lectured on the Holocaust. He writes: “Despite (or maybe because of) the outpouring of some sixteen thousand books…, despite the proliferation of museums and memorials, despite the annual appearance of new cinematic treatments, and despite the spread of educational programs and courses devoted to the subject, a coherent explanation of why such ghastly carnage erupted from the heart of civilized Europe still seems to elude people. Indeed, perhaps the adjectives most frequently invoked in connection with the Holocaust are ‘unfathomable,’ ‘incomprehensible,’ and ‘inexplicable.’ …..Yes, the subject challenges our sense of the comprehensible, but that is because of our revulsion. We reflexively call the Holocaust unfathomable or unbelievable as a way of distancing ourselves from it and expressing our disgust. Nevertheless, the Shoah is comprehensible in the same way that any other catastrophic human or life experience is: with difficulty, patience, and application to the task. To say that the subject is incomprehensible is to despair, to give up, to admit to being too lazy to make the long effort, and, worst of all, to duck the challenge to our most cherished illusions about ourselves and each other that looking into the abyss of this subject entails” [pp.III, 326].

Taking refuge in incomprehension, says Hayes, “blocks the possibility of learning” from the Holocaust. In language that is clear and blessedly free of jargon he helps us understand how and why the carnage came about. He answers four fundamental questions: “Why the Jews? Why the Germans? Why murder and with this means?” and “Why was the eradication of the Jews so nearly successful, resulting in the deaths of two-thirds of those in Europe and at least three-quarters of those within reach of the Nazis?”  Hayes dispels ten popular myths and misconceptions about the Holocaust, including the most pernicious – the idea that it never happened, or took place on a much smaller scale than six million.

After reading his book I’m more convinced than ever that all Americans – all responsible human beings – should study and try to understand the Holocaust. Not because the suffering of Jews matters more than the sufferings of other peoples who have suffered grievous assaults. But because the Holocaust happened in a modern, “advanced and ostensibly civilized country,” and was propelled by racism – which Hayes calls “the most pressing issue of our time, not just in a polyglot country like the United States but also in a globalizing world. One should study the Holocaust, in other words, because its setting and impetus are highly relevant to the modern world.”

There’s a second, oft-cited reason why we should learn about the Holocaust: to ensure that it never happens again. Is it true that studying the lessons of the Holocaust can prevent recurrence of genocide? Here, Dr. Hayes suggests, the evidence is mixed. “The memory of the Holocaust helped impel Americans and Europeans to intervene, however belatedly, to stop the killing in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. But examples from outside Europe suggest that learning goes, literally, only so far. It clearly made no difference to the course of events in Rwanda in the 1990s, only slightly more to that in Darfur in the 2000s, and, thus far, very little to what has happened in Syria in the 2010s” [p.324-5]. Hayes’ words are especially chilling this week, as we view photographs of Syrian civilians cruelly attacked, once again, with chemical weapons by their own government.

Clearly, memory alone will not help us prevent the slaughter of innocents, especially when it’s happening to people of color who live far away from us. More is required of us: commitment to norms of human decency, the courage to speak out, persistence, and above all, unwavering care and concern for the vulnerable. Hayes asks: Why did the victims of the Holocaust receive so little help from other countries, including the United States? After careful and thoughtful analysis, he concludes that they simply did not care enough. “A combination of anti-Semitism and economic and political interests worked to restrict the admission of Jews to other countries throughout the Holocaust and to inhibit other action on their behalf. Sooner or later, every nation that might have helped decided that it had higher priorities than aiding or defending Jews” [4]

In this week of Holocaust remembrance I want to remember that those who were murdered were not distant strangers frozen in a black and white world remote from our own. They were people just like us. Sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas. Binem Heller’s little sister, Chaya, with the green eyes and the long black braids. Feisty 13 year old Eva Heyman, who had just gotten her first pair of high heel shoes, and recorded in her diary on April 7, 1944, that when German policemen came to take away her bicycle she threw herself on the ground, clung to the back wheel and screamed  “Shame on you for taking a bicycle away from a girl! That’s robbery!’ We had saved up for a year and a half to buy that bicycle.” The policemen, unmoved, took it anyway.

So, too, the few who dared to defy the Nazis and rescue Jews were not superhuman figures impossible to emulate, but people just like us. Ida Brunelli, a teenage babysitter for a Jewish family in Italy who, when their parents died, cared for and protected three young children at great peril until the war’s end. Mohammed Helmy, an Egyptian-born physician practicing in Berlin, who was himself discriminated against as a non-Aryan, fired from his job at a hospital and barred from marrying his German fiancée. Despite being targeted by the regime, Dr. Helmy spoke out against Nazi policies and risked his life to save several Jewish friends, hiding them for years, providing them with food and medical care.

Most important, I want to remember that those who are being targeted and demonized today are also people just like us. There have always been racists in this land of the free and home of the brave. But once we lived in a country where it was considered ignorant and ugly to attack racial and religious minorities. It was “un-American” to condemn immigrants and refugees, desperate people fleeing poverty and violence in their homeland, because we understood ourselves to be a nation formed of immigrants and refugees. Today the social taboo against bigotry is eroding. Fundamental principles of decency, civility and respect for others are derided as “political correctness”; strength is equated with bullying and name-calling, selfishness and brutality.

Dr. Hayes reminds us that “the security of Jews, like that of most minorities, is least wherever the liberal values of toleration, coexistence and openness to change are weak. To prevent other Holocausts, it is not enough to combat anti-Semitism; one has also to fight for these broader values, and not only at home” [p.333]. So in this dispiriting political climate, we can’t let ourselves give in to fatigue or despair. We have to keep articulating what we stand for, and what America stands for – in conversations, letters to the editor, academic settings and public forums of all kinds.

Peter Hayes reminds us, as well, that political instability, including the persecution of minority groups, thrives in economically difficult times.  “Antisemitism,” he writes, “rises and falls in inverse relationship to the stock market.” As inequality grows in America and Europe, so does prejudice and social unrest. In Europe nationalist and neo-fascist parties trumpeting hostility to foreigners capture the energy of the young and the unemployed, just as anti-Semitism is rife in underserved immigrant communities.   So it is not only Jewish and humanitarian principles that should inspire us to work for a society that is just, fair and inclusive of all its members, but the most pragmatic calculus of self-interest.

Based on his decades of studying the Holocaust, Peter Hayes has two specific messages for Jews and other minorities. First: be alert but not afraid. And second: be self-reliant but not isolationist. He writes: “The history of the Holocaust suggests that minorities run risks when they depend too much on others, since the others generally will be guided by self-interest, but also that cutting oneself off from others poses its own, perhaps equal, dangers. Groups, like individuals, cannot make their ways alone; they need friends” [5]

This Shabbat I want to remember those who were friends to our people when we were weak and despised, when it was dangerous to care for us and extend a hand to help. I want to cherish those who are friends today, who understand that Jews are people like anyone else, refusing to diminish us to a stereotype or deny us our rights. And I want us to be friends to others – groups in our own day who are vulnerable and marginalized, targets of misunderstanding, contempt and hatred.

Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli-American writer and one of the few voices emanating today from the balanced center, reminds us that the threat we all face is “radical Islamism, not Islam.” He writes: “We need to challenge those loud voices within the Jewish community that seek to reduce one of the essential faiths of humanity into a caricature based on selective scriptural quotes, that seek to turn 1.7 billion believers into enemies of the Jewish people and the West, and all Muslim Americans into a fifth column. Those voices are a danger to the Jewish people; they are false defenders that need to be rejected and refuted. The American Jewish community needs to be at the forefront of efforts to protect the physical and emotional safety of American Muslims” [6]

So I want us to take risks and speak out and act on behalf of those who need our help now, because we, of all people, should feel the urgency of standing up for what’s right.

Eva Heyman had no one to stand up for her. On May 30, 1944, she wrote what would be the last entry in her diary: “My little Diary, I don’t want to die; I still want to live….I would wait for the end of the war in a cellar, or in the attic, or any hole, I would, my little Diary…”

In June she was deported to Auschwitz. Four months later, not yet 14, she died in a gas chamber.

For Donia Rosen, the story was different. An orphan, raised by her grandparents, Donia fled to the forest when she was 12, after her family was murdered. She found her way to the home of a 65 year old Ukrainian woman named Olena, who fed and sheltered her and kept her safe, enduring great personal suffering in the process. Once Olena said to Donia,  “I have just one wish – that God will enable me to keep you strong and healthy so that you will live and someday be happy. I ask nothing in return.”

[7]

Donia survived the war and immigrated to Israel. In her autobiography, she addresses all of us who survive her: “I beg of you not to forget those who are no longer living. You must avenge their deaths! I plead with you to erect a monument that will reach the heavens, so the entire world will see it – not a statue of marble or stone, but a tower of good deeds. For I strongly believe that only such a memorial can guarantee a better future for you and your children.”  [8]

The Twin Towers are gone, testaments to the persistence of evil in this world. Donia Rosen’s words live on, affirming the power of kindness and our own obligation to act.  Let us remember her, and build the only tower that can save us all.

 

 

 

[1] [[Heyman, Eva, The Diary of Eva Heyman – Child of The Holocaust, Yad Vashem: Jerusalem, 1988, pp. 23, 28]

 

[2] [http://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Survey-exposes-American-ignorance-about-Holocaust-549567]

 

[3] [W.W.Norton and Company, 2017].

[4] [pp.159-260].

[5] [p.339].

[6] [http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-state-of-the-jewish-world-2016/].

 

[7]

[The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, by Mordechai Paltiel https://books.google.com/books?id=YCz0J-8HIIMC&pg=PA280&lpg=PA280&dq=Donya+Rosen+diary&source=bl&ots=KRF8WazXOA&sig=z44Tr_YBn6pxdQj7GBKJTRGWSEc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiroeqXgLPaAhXJiVQKHYiABKcQ6AEIPjAG#v=onepage&q=Donya%20Rosen%20diary&f=false

 

[8] [[Rosen, Donia, Forest, My Friend, Yad Vashem: Jerusalem, 1985, p. 94.]

 

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