[continues from an earlier piece]
There is no easy way out of the quandary about presenting the Shoah to non-Jews, at least not if you have to pick a single approach. It is like standing at a fork in the road, knowing full well that both lead to washed-out bridges ahead.
Here are the two chief options. You can speak about the Jewish experience, hoping to elicit a bit of understanding and a great deal of sympathy. This will only work with certain groups of people; even there, sympathy can have an expiration date, especially if drawn upon too often. The gain may be mostly cathartic on the part of the presenter. Or, by proxy, it may be cathartic for the community that he represents. It leaves the presenter feeling true to his or her principles. It preserves the uniqueness of the Jewish experience, which was so different from that of the other groups who were not hunted as animals, and brutalized for pleasure by a bestial enemy bent on systematically achieving their total annihilation.
The alternative is to develop themes of universal application, especially after presenting the figures about the millions of non-Jews like Polish intellectuals and priests, Roma, gays, Soviet soldiers and the handicapped who suffered during the Shoah. The latter approach is more relevant and inviting to the non-Jewish listener, and can therefore aspire to educate and challenge. It demands paying a heavy price, however, in under-representing the Jewish experience. It can seem to be a violation of the memory of the kedoshim. How does one choose?
My instructions were delivered clearly and unequivocally. Several times, in fact, in the weeks before my presentation, various figures went over the battle plan. The theme was to be tales of resistance, but referring as much as possible to those who saved non-Jews, since they would be most relevant to a non-Jewish audience. Such an approach, it was felt, would be most consistent with the general diversity program within which the Holocaust presentation was embedded.
Still, they offered much latitude, and did not micro-manage my remarks. Hashgachah made my task so much easier. The general who introduced me offered definitions of the Holocaust, and some general background. He also ate up very little of the clock. When I stood to deliver, the program was well ahead of schedule, and part of my planned presentation had become irrelevant. I did not have to choose between two approaches. I could offer both. Anticipating this, I had hurriedly scribbled new notes in my outline while the general spoke, entirely changing the thrust of my remarks.
Briefly, I opened with some humor and segued to some information about myself, as it related to the Holocaust. I spoke of my mother and a few other teens, burying the burnt remnants of the sifrei Torah in what had been an imposing edifice of a shul in Konstanz, Germany. I spoke of her marginalization in school, leading to humiliation, culminating in expulsion – and the courage of local nuns who set up an alternative school for the Jews who had been thrown out. I continued with her deportation to a large concentration camp in southern occupied France, and how German policy changed just after she was released to head for the US. (Initially, internees who could secure papers to the West were allowed out. Immediately after my mother’s release, the policy changed, and the only destination became Auschwitz. My existence owes itself to what they would call good luck, and we know as Hashgachah.)
I owned up to the deaths of tens of millions at the hands of the Nazis, but I wanted them to know how the war against the Jews was different. I spoke briefly of aspects of the Jewish experience – of nowhere to go, and no way to defend themselves. (As a seasoned veteran of the ongoing battle against Palestinian designs on finishing Hitler’s work, I could not and would not resist the opportunity to throw in a reference to the emergence of the State of Israel – which was a popular country on base.) I spoke of physical resistance; I spoke even more passionately about spiritual resistance.
And I told one story whose lesson is complex. I told it primarily for effect. Its source is Rabbi Lau, and it concerned the last rov of Warsaw. He was murdered, as was his family. A close talmid made it his task to search out any survivors of his rebbi’s family, a search he continued for years. He learned that his daughter had indeed survived, and was living in , married to a non-Jew. She had a young son, attending a Catholic school. He sent her letters; she did not respond. He sent gifts before holidays, messages through travelers. He failed at breaking her silence.
Finally, he determined to make a trip and face her in person. He found her home, and knocked on the door. She opened it slightly. Recognizing him, she moved to quickly shut it. “I’m not interested in speaking with you.”
“Fine. I understand. But I have come from afar. May I come in at least for a glass of water?”
Reluctantly, she admitted him, and he was able to begin a conversation. It was clear that she had no interest in keeping any connection with anything Jewish. She explained. “Should I tell you how Tattie died? He was sitting at the table, learning, with talis and tefilin. The SS burst in. My father was such an angelic soul, that he simply didn’t understand what this was about. He greeted them warmly, asked them what he could do for them. This left them speechless for a moment, until one of them gathered his wits about him. He took the butt of his rifle, and smashed Tatty’s tefilin through his skull. That is how he died.”
The talmid thought for a moment, and asked her. “Will you always remember the face of your father?”
“Of course. How could I ever forget?”
“What about the faces of the SS? Do their faces remain etched in your memory?”
“Certainly. I could not forget if I wanted.”
“OK. Which image do you want your son to retain? That of your father, or that of the SS?”
She was stunned. “What do you want?” He replied that he wanted to educate her son as a Jew. She agreed, if he would take personal responsibility for him.
The son became a rosh yeshiva in Israel.
By this time, it was apparent that I had the full attention and emotional engagement of the audience. I don’t think they expected what came next. I told them that the story I told was cathartic for me – but I was a Jew, and they were not. What could the Holocaust possibly mean to them? Having made the Jewish case, I could now make the universal one with a clear conscience.
There were discrete lessons that were learned through the Holocaust, and I would share several of them. I will present them here only in summary form:
1) The SS didn’t murder millions. Thousands of ordinary citizens had to assist in the logistics, supplying the trains, coordinating the schedules, etc. How did ordinary citizens become mass murderers? One theory points to the ability of people to accept the premises of their governments. The unspeakable can become acceptable – unless people learn to think critically.
2) Others disagree. They argue that habituation is not enough. The Holocaust would not have occurred without strong ideologues. Mass murder will continue to take place if people cannot recognize pure evil for what it is. (I threw in that the military was one of the last places where people claimed to know pure evil when they saw it, and were prepared to resist it by force.)
3) Holocausts do not happen in a vacuum. Murdering millions required a run-up, in which Jews were dehumanized through hate speech, incitement, and legislation. There is a continuum between racial jokes, bullying, hate speech, and murder. The power of speech is more deadly than most realize.
4) Hatred can be more powerful than reason. Hitler denied soldiers on the front the backup they needed, preferring to send trains to Auschwitz instead.
5) Freedom requires discernment. Goebbel’s Big Lie strategy counted on masses of people not discriminating between truth and falsehood.
6) We have a hard time coming to grips with mind-numbing catastrophe. leaves us vulnerable, unlikely to act when we should. Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”
7) Individuals can and did make a difference – although there were not enough of them.
I then launched into a resistance primer, with very brief descriptions of people, mostly non-Jews, who did resist. By prior instruction, I included a good number of people whose resistance aided non-Jews, like other prisoners in death camps, and downed Allied fliers. The list included familiar names like Raoul Wallenberg, Chiune Sugihara, and Oskar Schindler. It then moved to names not so well known: Father Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Waitstill Sharp, the Ten Boom family of Amsterdam, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes, Irena Sendler, Feodor (the Russian officer who protected the young Rabbi Lau, sometimes with his body), and Recha Sternbuch and the Swiss policeman who helped her.
The descriptions, coming rapid-fire, were effective. They provided a good set-up for my final shot.
All the stories about righteous resisters and many like them would not have made any difference in the end without the single element most important in stopping Hitler: the use of force. Some people had to be so confident in the difference between good and evil that they committed the lives of millions to crush the Nazis. My children, I said, are third generation survivors; all of them in the US military, I continued, are third generation liberators.
There was no question that this last message was more than warmly received, from the enlisted men and women, and up to the top brass.