It is hard to write an essay about how the Shoah is dealt with in Jewish tradition. How can you form a view on something that has as big of an impact as the Shoah? The Shoah is almost impossible to grasp by the human mind. The evil, the torture, the suffering, the losses are extremely hard to digest. It was an enormous wound for Europe, the world, the Jews and all of mankind. As the world tried to recover, the universal approach to the Holocaust became the message of “never again”. No genocide should ever repeat itself to any nation, anywhere in the world. The lesson the world learned from World War II is how dangerous racism, intolerance, and anti-Semitism are.
Our task is to make sure history will not repeat itself in a different way. No group of people should be target to murder and hatred for any reason. Just the way it happened then, it could happen somewhere else and we are responsible for not letting it happen again. Yet for the Jewish world the blow was even harder. Communities were wiped out, families ripped apart, sages were gone and wisdom lost forever. As survivors and others tried to pick up the pieces, different views formulated. Right after the Shoah the Zionists felt a very strong need to establish a Jewish country. They felt that they were hated by other nations and could not trust anyone. Jews had thought that they were safe in the countries they lived in, but found out that they were betrayed by their own friendly neighbours and friends.
The Zionists thought that such a thing would not have happened if the Jews had had their own land, instead of wandering all over other countries. After the war survivors were not understood by Israeli society. They did not fit in with the ideal of strong, young people who come up for their rights. Zionists claimed that the Jews in Europe had not fought and were therefore weak. Their interest and focus was primarily on the resistance that occurred, the uprising in several camps and ghettos, the “soldiers” who fought along with the partisans. These were the heroes who did not let the Nazis kill them and consequently were worth talking about. In fact the Zionists felt a kind of shame for not doing enough for their brothers in Europe. As more and more became known about the fate of European Jewry, the Zionists could not swallow the great loss. To unburden themselves from the guilt, they started blaming the victim. The European Jews had not resisted fiercely enough. They had not fought. They were led to death like sheep to the slaughter. Because of the Zionist approach survivors became hesitant to talk about the past. They were embarrassed, for they were looked down upon for not fighting.
The truth is the accusation “like sheep to the slaughter” was baseless and wrong since there was nothing the Jews could have done. The Zionists were not fully aware of the power of the Nazis. Their army was so well trained and idealistic. They conquered country after country and were extremely well-organised and efficient. Jews on the other hand were not trained for the army, had no weapons, were threatened constantly and feared death. Were they supposed to fight the Nazis who occupied the whole of Europe? Furthermore the Nazis were helped by the local population and police. The Nazis were very clever at hiding their true intentions and kept it all very secret. The destination of the trains was unknown, they recruited people for ‘work’, the gas chambers were ‘showers’. When slowly details filtrated no one could or wanted to believe the rumours that were spread; they were too horrific. By the time Jews realised what was happening it was usually too late. They were trapped and could do nothing to defend themselves.
The main message the Zionist movement derived from the Holocaust was the importance of having a Jewish state and homeland with a strong army, so they could protect themselves and make sure nothing like that could ever happen again. Jews would not be murdered again without fighting! A different view is the spiritual view. Over the years people have learned to appreciate the strength of spirit that holocaust survivors showed. The way they continued their struggle to live, despite the desperate situation they found themselves in, is truly admirable. In the valley of death they kept their human dignity. When a breadcrumb more could mean life, they were willing to share with others. In those horrifying circumstances they managed to think of fellow inmates and keep them alive. Day after day they kept hoping and encouraging others. Most did not surrender to the thought of ending their suffering by jumping against the electrified wires in the camps. After the war they found the strength to rebuild, to continue, to start anew. They had the power to remarry and have children, build schools and start businesses, even though they were left with absolutely nothing. It is unbelievable that the skeletons who left the camps became functioning people again, who made a difference in the world. As the approach towards them changed, survivors started telling more of their stories. Because not only the partisans or the youngsters in the Warsaw ghetto fought back. Every single person who did not give up the desire to live was a soldier. Whoever got up every morning and kept hoping one day the war would end was a winner. Every person who got married and started anew had a part in the victory. Also people who did not lose faith, who put their life in danger in order to pray or fulfil a commandment from the Torah are real heroes. And so the heroes started telling us about their past…
Over the years the way the Shoah was related too has changed. The generation after the Shoah were the people who lived through it, so of course that is incomparable to a second or third generation. The people who came out of the hell called Auschwitz focused on rebuilding. They did not want to think about the horrors they had been through in the past. They did not want their children to know of the horrible circumstances they had endured and lived through. Unfortunately many of them were left with scars that never healed, so some of their children had to live in the shadow of what had happened and felt the results. )There are families were nothing ever got thrown into the garbage, because one potato peel could have saved a life in the concentration camps. This is just a side effect on the “lucky” ones who survived and still had a family. ) In general the topic was avoided.
The past was to be erased and never to be mentioned. No one should ever go back to the cursed places where it all happened. The Jews were desperate to leave European soil. They were determined to forget. The only remainder were the nightmares so many suffered. As the years went by and more became known about the Holocaust, things changed. The third generation had a thirst to know and started asking questions. Survivors who could bear it started telling stories, recalling things they witnessed, even writing their life story. Amongst holocaust survivors there are still different ways of relating to the traumatic experience they have endured in the camps. Some of them refuse to talk about it. It is too hard for them to speak about the horrors they have been through. They prefer to hide the past and look towards the future, live the present and appreciate what they have. Some of them even react in total shock when they hear of their family members going back to Poland, to Germany, the cursed places where it all happened. On the other hand there are survivors who feel they have a mission. If they are the only ones in their extended family, community, or town who survived, they feel they must tell the world. They have to honour the memory of those who were murdered. They have to continue life where it was extinguished. This is even more so now, as there are not many survivors left to tell us firsthand experiences. As more and more holocaust deniers try ignoring the facts and claiming it was not so bad, every bit of information is crucial. As the view of the world changed, there was an opening to learn. Survivors started feeling appreciated and felt they were listened to. Slowly the world realised there was so much to learn from these people. Nowadays most educators and parents think it is extremely important to teach children about the holocaust. Especially in Jewish education it takes an important place. First of all the Jewish community feels: “If we won’t remember, then who will?”, especially since there are many holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis. Anti-Semitism is already on the rise, a mere 65 years after the monstrous, incomprehensible Holocaust.
Holocaust education is not meant to depress the pupils. The history is taught in a sensitive way. The emphasis is not on the horrors and torture, but on how unbelievable as it may seem – people were able to remain human, even in the shadow of death. So many did all they could, to help one another, to keep some of the commandments of their religion. There are hundreds of stories about the bravery and kindness, even in the hardest of times. You can teach pupils so much about doing right or wrong, about the individual versus the group, about free will and free choice. A good example is Victor Frankel’s world famous book Man’s search for meaning. Frankel, himself an Auschwitz survivor, states that man, always and under any circumstance, has a free will. Indeed, so many prove his point. Of course everything that happened is indescribable, but when you emphasize the lessons to be learned, you gain much more than you lose. You could lose your faith in mankind when you hear how beastly the Nazis behaved, but when you hear about an inmate who kept another alive you realise the extent of human power. That is what the Jewish schools try teaching the students. They go back to these places to learn the past, so they can change the future. They connect to their heritage and feel proud of their grandparents who endured all that, yet stayed strong and continued. The pupils are also strengthened in their faith when learning about the many miracles every survivor has witnessed. Throughout high school pupils are exposed to information about the holocaust, as a much wider topic than what is taught in the curriculum of the history lessons. They visit several museums and memorials. Many Jewish schools in Europe organise school trips to Poland, were old Jewish communities are visited. Walking through the empty streets, imagining the blossoming Jewish cities they once were is impressive. A visit to the death camps leaves everyone shattered, yet strong. If they managed to survive that, if they managed to rebuild after all they have been through, then we can do anything. Although there are (very few) who claim it is time to move on and stop referring to the holocaust, we, the educators of the next generation, know we have a responsibility to remember. We have no right to let the unspoken voices of the millions who perished fade away. Whether it is as a tribute to the people thanks to whom we are here, or so we can create a better world, we must learn and tell the world. We must remember what happened, for he who forgets his past, is doomed to err in the future. So it is written in the Torah: “Remember the days of old, understand the years of generation after generation. Ask your father and he will relate (it) to you, your elders and they will tell you.” (Deuteronomy, 32:7) (Artscroll translation)
Deutoronomy, with an English translation by Artscroll
Victor Frankel, Man’s search for meaning (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man’s_Search_for_Meaning)
Special thanks to Mrs Judith Shachter for her help and information!