In the Diaspora: Hallowing helplessness

Israel's narrative of Holocaust resistance trumps Jewish America's death cult.

holocaust survivor 298ap (photo credit: AP)
holocaust survivor 298ap
(photo credit: AP)
When Michael Weinstein introduced his father, Edi, as the speaker for a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at a Manhattan day school, he used an unexpected adjective. The word was "optimistic," and it is a quality of character one hardly associates with a Holocaust survivor. But a son knows something about a father, and Michael knew something essential about Edi, something the audience at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School would learn in the next hour, something that American Jewry at large would benefit by understanding. It is the difference between existence and resistance, between a death cult and a life force. Holocaust remembrance in the United States, very much unlike Israel, centers almost singlehandedly on mourning the dead. This worthy and necessary imperative has turned over the years into something that mocks the memory of the slain: a consecration of weakness, an association of victimhood with morality, almost a form of necrophilia. Edi Weinstein, an octogenarian with a bald head dotted by age spots, addressing maybe 130 people in folding chairs on a Monday night, offered a bracing corrective. And it wasn't one of those facile attempts, like the films Life Is Beautiful and Jakob the Liar, to concoct some redemptively upbeat spin on mass murder. It was an optimism born of the refusal to surrender. In his time at the podium, Edi avoided none of the horrors of his experience, which of course evoked the experience of millions. Ghetto, Judenrat, work gang, cattle car, Einsatzgruppen - his journey from his Polish hometown of Losice to the death camp at Treblinka included so many of the horrible commonplaces of Nazi extermination. Edi spared no sensibilities in describing what he saw, right down to the babies tossed into mass graves, the image that he said haunts him still. The larger theme of his account, however, turned on escape. Edi escaped not once but multiple times, first from a forced-labor crew outside Losice, then from Treblinka itself, finally from a Polish family extorting money not to turn him in. He hid for one month in a pigsty, 17 months in a fish hatchery and nearly three months in the forest, before being liberated by the Red Army on August 1, 1944. No sooner had he been saved than he joined the Polish army, proceeding to fight in the liberations of Warsaw and Auschwitz. "I was proud that after five years of blood and brutal persecution," he told the audience at the Heschel school, "that I was still able to participate in Germany's defeat." EDI HAS told his story in the form of a memoir, Quenched Steel, and it strikes me as no surprise that it was published by Yad Vashem rather than any American museum or company. A narrative of resistance, a narrative of auto-emancipation, fits far more easily in the Israeli context than the American one. As widely as Primo Levi's literary testimonies are read in the US, I have to wonder how many people realize he fought in the Italian underground against fascism before being captured and sent to Auschwitz. His suicide, much later in life, serves as a convenient emblem of the American perception of a survivor as, actually, more of a living ghost. Nearly 25 years ago, as a young reporter on The New York Times, I was assigned to write a profile of Elie Wiesel. When I showed up at his apartment for the initial interview, he was hurrying out to take his son to play video games at the local pizzeria. I was baffled: Elie Wiesel was supposed to suffer, period. Elie Wiesel wasn't supposed to have a child, much less enable him to play Pac-Man. Now I think of that moment as the essence of Wiesel's importance, his insistence of continuing to live. The trip to the pizzeria forms part of a greater whole that also includes his Zionism and his engaged stance on human rights issues around the globe. But in Jewish America, we like our communal heroes weak if not dead, and we measure our worthiness in our ability to claim victim status. Israel troubles us with its strength and its fallible exercise of power. How much clearer the moral lines are when the world can be divided into Nazi executioners and Jewish corpses. If the dead could speak, perhaps they would say that nothing desecrates their memory more than we, the comfortably alive, hallowing their helplessness. Certainly Edi Weinstein, a kind of emissary from the dead, including those in his own family, offered testimony only on behalf of pluck, guile, courage, fearlessness. Which, I imagine, is what his son meant with the word "optimistic." When Edi finished his formal presentation, he returned instantly to the here and now. Playing the doting zayde, he made a point of introducing one of his granddaughters and informing the whole crowd she'd been admitted to Columbia early-decision. He advised his listeners that, if they wanted to know more about him or his book, "You can find me on the Internet," which sounded mighty tech-savvy for a man in his mid-80s. During a brief Q&A before El Malei Rahamim and Kaddish, someone asked Edi, "What kept you going?" He answered, "The will to live. Plain and simple." Now there's another prayer worth regular recitation. The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.