After watching a commercial for a website that claimed to be able to trace a person’s ancestry, I excitedly called a friend and expressed my newfound desire to research my heritage. To my surprise, though, my friend was not nearly as enthusiastic as I was. “Just think,” he said, “a great ancestor might bring you pride, but what if he or she wasn’t that great at all?” After hearing these words, I immediately lost interest in my endeavor, believing that I was suddenly spared the experience of discovering that my great-great-great-great grandfather was a ruthless Genghis Khan.
Later that night, I began to give the prospect more thought. What if I were to discover that one of my ancestors was in fact terrible? Growing up Modern Orthodox, I always cautioned myself against purchasing German-made products, as I was often instructed to hold the country accountable for its Nazi-ridden past. But would I be obligated to suffer for a crime committed by one of my earlier relatives?
Struggling to answer the question, I turned to a Rabbi for advice. He read in Exodus 20:4, embedded within the Ten Commandments, that the Bible describes God as he Who visits the sin of fathers upon children to the third and fourth generations. The next verse continues, Who shows kindness for thousands of generations to those who love Me and observe my commandments. While four generations may seem like a long time to commemorate a crime, the message is striking. By telling us that a person’s responsibility for a good deed is greater than his liability for a bad one, these verses demonstrate the Bible’s propensity to focus on achievements over sins.
After paying notice to the Biblical rule, I began to reconsider the blame that my peers and I have placed on other people for their ancestors’ crimes. Every day, I thought, the Jewish people must grapple with the issue of forgiveness, as we have been victims of oppression from one tragedy to another. Forgiveness may be one of the more difficult reactions to Jewish history, but one that seems repeatedly necessary for us to move on.
The New York Times recently published an article about a Jewish hockey player who joined a professional ice hockey league in Germany. Evan Kaufmann, one of a handful of Jewish players to represent the country in international sports, comes from a family of Holocaust survivors and victims. The article details his struggle to reconcile the fact that he represents a country that committed unspeakable atrocities to his family a mere two generations ago. Kaufmann has found the ability to forgive, but, he emphasizes, “Obviously you don’t want to forget.” The German people will never be able to erase history, and the horrors of the Holocaust will always remain as potent reminders of anti-Semitism. However, my community must still recognize Germany’s recent actions – including outlawing Holocaust denial – as powerful indicators of their attempts to repent.
While Evan Kaufmann and others may be willing to struggle to see past years of history, many of us may not be emotionally capable of doing the same. In the Orthodox community, I regularly hear people preach against buying cars and other distinctly German products. And I understand the sentiment: the Holocaust is deeply personal and terribly different from other historical events. That a survivor is emotionally unwilling to buy a Mercedes is understandable, and the world must show sympathy. Despite this, though, newer generations must also recognize that the German people today are largely different from their Nazi ancestors, and that the country has taken meaningful steps to change.
As we continue to move forward in time, we should pay attention to scripture and re-evaluate the blame that we place on a people for the crimes of their ancestors. My realization taught me that forgiving must never be equated to forgetting. So would I be obligated to suffer for a crime committed by one of my earlier relatives? I pray that I will never need to know.