Tradition Today: The saddest day of all

Let it be a day of remembrance and mourning, of tribute to those who suffered, those who perished and those who offered help and comfort.

concentration camp in Mauthausen (R) 311 (photo credit: Herwig Prammer / Reuters)
concentration camp in Mauthausen (R) 311
(photo credit: Herwig Prammer / Reuters)
When Pessah comes, the two newest sacred days of the Jewish calendar are not far behind: Yom Hashoah V’hagevura (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut. Without positing a causal link between them, these two days commemorate the two most significant events in modern Jewish history and the polar opposites that they represent. Holocaust Remembrance Day signifies the worst tragedy we have ever experienced, that which brought the Jewish people as close to extinction as we have ever been. Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrates the great triumph of our return to our national home, the phoenix-like resurrection of the Jewish people from the ashes of near-destruction.
To my mind, Holocaust Remembrance Day is the saddest and most tragic day of the Jewish year. Nothing even remotely like it ever occurred before. The systematic destruction of six million individuals, one-third of our people, the elimination of a great center of Jewish life and learning – it is beyond imagining. Each year, I listen to the reading of Megillat Hashoah, a liturgical retelling of the events of the Holocaust, written by Avigdor Shinan under the auspices of a special committee of the Rabbinical Assembly and the Schechter Institute. It is chanted aloud in synagogues throughout the world, and I contemplate an event that I cannot begin to comprehend. I ask myself questions about it and I read many excellent books that describe aspects of it, and I still cannot grasp fully what happened and why.
That human beings could do what the Germans and others under their leadership did is almost inconceivable. We know that there is an evil inclination in all of us, but this goes beyond the meaning even of “evil.” And that it was the work of a nation that was highly cultured and had contributed to humanity some of the greatest works of literature and music and philosophy is beyond understanding. As Abraham Heschel remarked, his problem was not so much where was God, but where was man.
It is clear that many things contributed to the rise of Nazism’s plan to rid the world, once and for all, of the Jewish people.
Among them was Europe’s long history of anti-Semitism, which was at least as strong in France as it was in Germany. Another was the built-in anti-Jewish teachings of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. The accusation of Jews as killers of God taught in every church and religious school had its effect. However, at least the Church had a teaching that Jews should be kept in misery but kept alive to show what happens to those who reject the son of God. Nazism taught that they should be denied life. As a matter of fact, it taught that Jews were not human, they were a kind of vermin that should be eradicated just as one would kill rats. If there is anything that we can learn from the Shoah, it is that is it forbidden to categorize human beings as inferior species, or any group as superior to any other.
I am also appalled when I hear people – Jews or non-Jews – using the term “Nazi” to describe anyone or any actions. To hear Israeli policemen castigated as Nazis, as we do all too often, is beyond the pale. To call anyone a Hitler is to show a lack of sensitivity and a lack of understanding of what Hitler stood for. The Shoah was no less than the coldly calculated industrial plan of how to use technology to eliminate an entire people, to create death camps, to purposely deprive human beings of the status of being human and reduce them to ashes, one by one, until no Jew remained alive. It desecrates the memory of the Six Million and denigrates their tragedy when anyone uses the Shoah in any political way or to promote any particular agenda, Left or Right, religious or secular.
Let it be a day of remembrance and mourning, of tribute to those who suffered, those who perished and those who offered help and comfort. Let it be a time when we reaffirm the value of all human life and our right to live proudly as Jews, equal members of the human race.