A Holocaust survivor shows his prisoner number tattooed on his arm, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the 10th grade I studied the same tractate of Talmud that I did in the 5th grade. I remember cynically telling my rabbi at the time that this made no sense and that I had already covered the material. He answered me that the changes within me, and the changes in the world around me, made learning the same exact material a completely different experience, and that I would gain something completely different out of the material this time around. He was predictably correct, and I recall this learning experience every year when Yom Hashoah comes around.
Every year millions of Jews around the world spend at least one day of the year trying to make sense out of the incomprehensible events of the Holocaust. We grieve for the six million who died purely for being Jewish, and attend events that endeavor to in some way memorialize this unfathomable number. However, every year we find that though the horrific events of the Holocaust do not change over time, the changes within us and the world around us can make our receipt and remembrance of these same events very different experiences. Unfortunately, the change in the world around us this past year makes this Yom Hashoah a particularly layered and difficult experience.
I remember the events of last summer when Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali were kidnapped and murdered for no other reason than being Jewish Israelis. I remember feeling somewhat fortunate during those tragic and grievous times that I’ve grown up in a generation where Jewish lives can mean that much. Where the disappearance and murder of three Jewish boys could galvanize and unite a nation and people. Where Jewish life retains a value, and where being murdered for being Jewish is not accepted by the world, but more importantly by us as Jews. When Yom Hashoah comes around this Wednesday night, I will be thinking of this. I will be appreciative of living in a period where we can afford to treat Jewish lives with their proper value- unlike the generation of the Holocaust, where a Jewish life was transformed to a nameless number. Therefore, Gratitude will be one aspect of Yom Hashoah for me this year.
Yet, this will not be the only emotion I feel during this year’s Yom Hashoah. As the year progressed the murder of Jews for being Jewish became more common and accepted. On November 18, four Jews were killed in Har Nof while praying for being Jewish (a responding Druze Israeli police officer was also killed in the attack). The public response to this attack was also extensive, and I again felt fortunate to grow up in a period where we can care that much about Jewish lives. Note however, I describe the attack as being four Jewish worshipers killed- not the names of the four Jews killed. This is because I do not remember the names of those killed in Har Nof off-hand, unlike Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali. I knew the names at the time, but the names were treated as a side point- they were generally just four Jewish men who were killed-a nameless number.
This pattern continued throughout the year. In January four Jews were killed in Paris for being Jewish, and I’m not sure I ever learned their names. In February another Jew was killed in Copenhagen for protecting a Jewish event, because Jewish lives need protection in Europe. Again, I do not think I ever learned the name of this Jewish guard.
A number does not invoke any emotion or feeling in people. It is a soulless character that does not trigger any sentiment or compassion. It is the antithesis of a human which has a soul and generates empathy in people in some form or fashion. A name that identifies a human provides character ad context and can elicit these feelings in people. A number is dehumanizing, whereas a name humanizes.
The primary emotion I will feel during this year’s Yom Hashoah is trepidation. I will feel trepidation that being killed for being Jewish has become more accepted by the world, but more importantly has become more accepted by us as Jews. I will feel trepidation that when I hear of a Jew being senselessly killed, it seems completely comprehensible to me. I will feel trepidation that Jewish lives are being diminished to nameless numbers, and that we are being dehumanized once again by some in the world, and moreover that we are accepting this dehumanization.
So while I will feel grateful this Yom Hashoah to grow up in a period where we can care about the loss of Jewish lives to the extent we do, I feel trepidation that this is beginning to erode. I feel trepidation that six million people killed for being Jewish is slightly more comprehensible to me at this time than it ever was before.
The author is a second-year law student at Harvard Law School.