By Rabbi Shawn B. Zell
Memorials are great “sanitizers”, especially when it comes to the Holocaust. As incredible as it sounds, Holocaust memorials go one step further than the Torah. “Our hands did not shed this blood” proclaim the elders who live closest to where our corpse has been found (Deuteronomy 21:7). Holocaust Memorials proclaim that while we bear no guilt for the reprehensible crime, we nevertheless take upon ourselves the responsibility to bring testimony that the Holocaust must never be forgotten, much less happen again.
And while this touching and meaningful ceremony facing up to the past is taking place, other Holocaust Memorials are being defaced with swastikas replete with all too typical anti-Semitic rhetoric being spray painted.
If any community is truly serious about bringing the flames of the crematoria to light, then that community should use those same resources and energies dedicated to erecting a Holocaust memorial differently. Education always seems a good place to begin. Education however smacks of facts and figures. And facts and figures are at best boring, and at times have proven to be an effective sleep inducer. Let’s face it, how many Americans above the age of 30 are able to tell others what took place at Valley Forge? Holocaust education must employ hands-on activities for students such as role-playing: (a Jewish family aware that they will soon be rounded up making contingency plans). Education can involve a group of students building a scale model Jewish ghetto. Education can elicit a short production of a righteous Christian family, providing aid and shelter to Jewish friends or neighbors, well aware of the consequences they face if they are ever discovered or reported to the authorities. And if there is a prize that is awarded to those who create the best project, so much the better.
March of the Living and Birth Right Israel are two totally different programs conceived to make Jewish teenagers and young adults what did happen (the Holocaust), as well as what can happen (Israel). Both Jewish groups have as their goal putting Jewish youth together with other Jewish youth with the intent of making them aware of their collective past as well as their collective future. Rather than debate the efficacy of such programs, there ought to be an organization both in Israel as well as abroad that focuses on non-Jewish teenagers and young adults. Naturally, it is not intended that socialization is within its purview. It is intended however that these teenagers and young adults become acquainted with the plague of anti-Semitism that continues to infect and infect society. Particular emphasis should be placed on the one and a half million children who perished at the hands of the Nazis as well as those children who were placed in the care of Christians, where ultimately their Judaism went up in smoke, in that they were inculcated by the Church and raised in the homes of devout Christians.
Last but not least, there ought to be mini-courses for High School students – especially in Europe – that would be centered around the concept of redressal. High School students will soon be adults. Yet, society in the western world has failed miserably when it comes to properly equip those affected by tragedy and death. As a result, few, if any have the vaguest idea of what to say just as few if any have the vaguest idea of how to redress a difficult situation. Have any educators ever thought of addressing the issue of “I cannot apologize, but…? Have any educators ever thought of addressing what can be said or what should be said by a Christian teenager to a Jewish teenager about the Holocaust? Perhaps the time has come to resuscitate the concept of pen pals, where Gerhardt Tauber from Heidenheim writes an “I cannot apologize, but…” letter to Gershon Tel Dan in Holon, during the week of Holocaust Memorial Day.
If it is the dead that we wish to keep alive, Holocaust Memorials, while very much necessary, tend to fall woefully short. Perhaps the time has come to focus on the living in the hope of according to honor to the dead. In doing so, anti-Semitism might very well be confronted as well. Living descendants of Germans, Poles Ukrainians et al reaching out to living descendants of those who perished in the Holocaust may very well be the best way yet of memorializing with meaning.