Jews must try to understand the Holocaust. The Holocaust is part of the fabric of Israel, Jewish identity, Jewish being.  But who can say that they really understand?  Understanding the Holocaust is beyond our reach, but yet we must try.

I’ve been taking a 2-part course given by Tel Aviv University and Yad Vashem on the Holocaust.  Actually this is my second time around, the first time a couple of months ago.  The course is an excellent one.  If you want to remember the Holocaust, and you should, but you hardly know anything about it, so what’s the point in remembering something you do not know about in the first place.  Here is a link to start you off:

I’ve learned a lot about myself and my family in taking this course:

My father’s parents, Bertha and Morris Jarmelofsky came from an urban area in the Ukraine near Kamianets-Podilskyi.  Kamianets-Podilskyi was occupied by Germany on July 11, 1941.  One of the first and largest Holocaust mass-murder events occurred on 27–28 August, 1941.  In those two days, 23,600 Jews were killed.   The Kamianets-Podilskyi massacre was the first mass action in the "final Solution" of the Germans.  Eyewitnesses reported that the perpetrators made no effort to hide their deeds from the local population.  I wonder how many Jarmelofsky’s were slaughtered then.

 In Israel, remembering the Holocaust is a big deal.

It is a national holiday.  In the evening before, all businesses are closed.  I got off the train at about 8 o’clock and Nahariya was like a ghost town, deathly quiet.

The next morning at 10 o’clock, the sirens wail for 2 minutes; traffic comes to a halt and people get out of their cars and bow their heads.

I was at home and looked out the window.  This is what I saw and felt:

“The siren sounded at 10 o’clock.
I stood by the open window, 
Peering into the street.
A balding young man in a black t-shirt; his head. bowed.
A woman holding a toddler; She bowed her head.
Another woman, child in hand, her head bowed.
The street cleaner stood still; he had stopped sweeping.
I stood, remembering, a tear ran down my cheek”.

There is a lot of talk about how intolerance and hate speech promulgated by politicians and the Church was responsible for the Holocaust. On one level this kind of touchy-feeling talk is supposed to arouse your sensitivity regarding humanity and social justice. But the core of the Holocaust, the nitty-gritty was the killing sites.

The story of the Holocaust is not only about death camps. The killing sites did not start with gas chambers. Gas chambers started in 1942.  It started with shooting pits where more than two million Jewish men, women and children were shot to death, an efficient although primitive way of killing.  Don’t think it was only the SS that pulled the triggers.  The regular German army, the Wehrmacht, and local collaborators were right up there with the Einsatzgruppe SS.

There were six death camps: Chemlo, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek and Auschwitz.

Below are excerpts from a lesson in the second part of the course, dealing with everyday life in Auschwitz; it is quite telling:

“One of the elements of dehumanization in the camp and an endless source of suffering for the prisoners was the terrible sanitary conditions.

From the beginning, subjection to filth was an aspect of the survivor's ordeal. In Nazi camps, especially, dirt and feces were permanent conditions of existence.

We rarely bathed. It was extraordinary to bathe in Auschwitz.

We didn't know what tooth brush was. There were no undergarments, not a single item of underwear.

Women lost their periods. Under those conditions, we didn't regret it. It was even a good thing, because there was no basic hygiene.

No underwear, no sanitary pads. Imagine conditions in which a woman can't take care of her hygiene. It was suffocating. Living in filth, which was a constant physical aspect for the bodies of the prisoners, deeply wounded the psyche as well and highlighted a lack of distinction between body and spirit, a fusion that symbolized the experience of life in the camps”.



I don’t know what to take away from all of this: it is beyond my capacity to fully appreciate, and “appreciate” is not an appropriate descriptor – “understand” is much more suitable. The scope and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is overwhelming.  However if I keep on trying, I will approach understanding, but I will never really get there.  Neither will you.

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