Blood, Fire, and Pillars of Smoke by Rabbi Zell
True, two weeks have passed, since Jews throughout the world sat down to the Pesach Seder, with Haggadah in hand. Nevertheless, I should like to recall an all too often overlooked biblical quote in the Haggadah, that immediately precedes our recounting of the Ten Plagues. I do so because taken out of context, this biblical quote may very well have foretold, our bringing to mind as well as to heart the travesty of the Holocaust, mere days after bidding farewell to the Festival of Matzah. Blood, Fire, and Pillars of Smoke exclaims the prophet, Joel. Close to three millennia later, that threefold vision would evolve into an unfathomable nightmare, that was to plague the world – in particular the Jewish world – arguably making for the darkest period in our people’s history.
“For most Gentiles, Jewish meat is cheap, cheaper than beef, even cheaper than herring,” said the fictitious Ari ben Canaan (played by Paul Newman) in the movie Exodus. Ari ben Canaan could just as easily have substituted Jewish blood for Jewish meat, in that Adolph Hitler was obsessed with purifying Germany of Jewish blood. Accordingly, Hitler spared no effort and expense when it came to tracing Jewish blood. Aryan blood was pure. Jewish blood was debased and would compromise the purity of Aryan blood. With the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935, German citizens with three or more grandparents born as Jews were considered Jews irrespective of belief, practice, or having abandoned their religious roots. By law, any individual with three or more grandparents born as Jews, was no longer regarded as a citizen but would henceforth be defined as a stain on the German people, as well as their much-coveted culture.
To be sure, one can find both positive as well as negative statements concerning fire espoused by our rabbinic sages. Among the latter, we find: “The fire known to us in this world is one-sixtieth of the fire of hell (Talmud: Pesachim 57b). On November 10th and 11th Jews living in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland understood this statement only too well. It began with the burning of objectionable books. It didn’t take long for the fires set on Kristallnacht to spread to synagogues. And when those Jewish houses of worship erupted in flames, firefighters quickly arrived on the scene… to make sure nobody attempted to put out the flames. People – at least in our culture – appear to be mesmerized by burning buildings. Once upon a time in America, people would chase firetrucks to the scene of the fire, only to stand and watch. Apparently, it served as a form of entertainment. Did the same hold true for non-Jews watching the “Fires of the Fuhrer”? Were they also entertained as they watched deliberately set fires engulf Jewish buildings, especially Jewish houses of worship?
Irene Safran, a survivor of the Holocaust met Josef Mengele, the German physician known for his barbaric and torturous medical experiments performed on Jews in Birkenau (adjacent to Auschwitz) in mid-1944. “Good afternoon, ladies. How are you? Are you comfortable?” he asked us cordially. “When will I see my little girl?” one woman finally mustered the courage to ask. “In a few weeks, don’t worry,” Mengele answered politely and pleasantly. Of course, the sadistic Mengele meant that we’d see our loved ones in a few weeks when we joined them as we went up in smoke in the chimney of the crematorium.
No doubt, I am in the minority. But when white smoke emanates from the special chimney placed atop the Sistine Chapel, signifying that a new pope has been chosen, I cannot help but contrast it with the smoke rising from the “special” chimneys at Auschwitz. For Catholics, smoke rising from the chimney at the Sistine Chapel represents godliness; for Jews and hopefully, for the rest of mankind, smoke rising from the chimneys at Auschwitz represented nihilism. It was the prophet Joel, who horrifically envisioned the pillars of smoke at Auschwitz, as he foresaw pillars of smoke together with blood and fire.
The prophet Joel’s three plagues proceeding the ten plagues in the Pesach Haggadah provide for a striking contrast. The ten plagues were just desserts visited upon the Egyptians. The three plagues visited upon the Jews should have made mankind sick to its stomach. The ten plagues came from G-d. The three plagues were an affront to G-d. The ten plagues restored human faith in G-d. The three plagues caused G-d to lose faith in mankind. Come Yom HaShoah, let us make an effort to remember as well as to memorialize and help G-d rebuild His faith.