Remembrance Day should also look to future

Are we waiting for another Hitler to unite us? Is that what it is going to take? God forbid!

Nazi poster by Dieter Kalenbach 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Nazi poster by Dieter Kalenbach 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Just a few weeks ago, in Denver, Colorado, an elderly man approached me as soon as I concluded a presentation about the Am Shalem movement. I thought he simply wanted to shake my hand and was stunned when he rolled up his sleeve to show me his concentration camp number. After hearing my presentation about the Am Shalem vision for the future of our state, which emphasized the unity of our people, he felt compelled to show me that he was part of our horrific past and he wanted to share his own message with me.
When he showed me his Auschwitz identification number I needed to hear his story. He recounted the experience of the slaughter of his entire family. He described how Mengele chose to keep him alive in order to experiment on him. And what was the experiment? To see what happens to human beings when they do absolutely nothing all day long. Every few days his group, which was given no work to do and no materials to do anything with, would be examined by the doctor to see the results of simply wasting away without being productive on any level.
He related, with great emotion, that the Nazis piled all confiscated items near the women’s camp and, upon seeing tefillin (phylacteries) in the pile, the women risked their lives to snatch two pairs of tefillin which they then passed through the electrified wire into the men’s camp. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he described how precious it was to wear those tefillin, all because of the dedication and of the “virtue of righteous women” in the camp.
My only response after hearing these and other memories was to ask the man if I could have the merit of hugging him.
Since that conversation, my mind has been racing. Yom Hashoah is giving me the opportunity to concretize those thoughts and put my reflections into perspective.
My first thought relates to not judging people based on externals. This man looked like a very simple fellow from the outside, with none of the external trappings we associate with religious piety or spirituality. No beard. No long peyot (sideburns). No black hat. He was wearing more common dress.
And yet, he represented a generation which is far more pious and spiritual than we could ever aspire to be despite all our external symbols. Very few among those in our yeshivot and kollels can come close to the spiritual level of this modernly dressed and successful businessman whose tears captured his great joy in wearing tefillin in Auschwitz while putting his own life at risk.
Not all among the most piously dressed in more recent generations would remain a proud Jew after suffering the torture of Mengele’s cruel experiments. What a lesson in terms of not making judgments about others and the insignificance of externals – a lesson which all survivors can no doubt teach us all.
My second thought relates to those women. I thought about how such “simple” and unknown women have exemplified the special quality of Jewish women since our early days, during our slavery in Egypt and throughout the ages, rising to the occasion and both asserting themselves and risking their lives to preserve the Jewish people.
I have been thinking about the disgrace that anyone would even think about sending our women to the back of a bus, silencing their voices from talk shows on the radio, removing their faces from the public sphere and failing to empower them with public positions of leadership.
The Holocaust serves as another in the long list of examples of the greatness of Jewish women throughout our history which further solidifies the most basic notion and precept in Jewish law that we must treat women with the highest levels of honor and respect.
Finally, I thought about this heroic survivor’s explanation of why he approached me and shared his past with me. He told me that he related deeply to my message about the need for Jews to unite because “Hitler forced the unity of the Jewish people.”
He couldn’t be more accurate. In the centuries leading up to the Holocaust, the Jews of Europe fractured into different groups with significant hate developing among them. Jews ceased viewing other Jews as Jews and polarization reached all-time highs. Hitler certainly took care of that.
He made no distinction between observant and non-observant Jews. He did not differentiate between the scholars and the uneducated. It was insignificant to him what type of head covering or clothing people wore. To him we were all Jews and all were to be exterminated. And, in the camps, all Jews had to find ways to coexist regardless of their backgrounds. They did just that.
Now, by the grace of the Almighty, we are in our homeland with the autonomy to govern and defend ourselves, but we are back to the same old game of divisions and polarization. Are we waiting for another Hitler to unite us? Is that what it is going to take? God forbid!
This Yom Hashoah I am going to think about all of these messages. I invite you to join me in committing ourselves to not judge others by external appearances or any other standards, to respect every member of our nation regardless of background or gender, and to work to break down the walls that divide us and unite as members of a caring and loving family.
Doing so will serve as a supreme merit to the memory of the six million, will honor the survivors and will transform Yom Hashoah into a meaningful day which does not only commemorate our tragic past but paves the way for our bright future.
The author is a member of Knesset, an ordained rabbi and the founder and chairman of the Am Shalem movement.