FROM ASHES TO DIAMONDS

I have no idea whatsoever how many in our country are aware that ashes can be transformed into diamonds. With the surge in cremations in  this country, companies have opened that will extract the carbon from the ashes of loved ones and turn those ashes into diamonds to be worn as jewelry by the spouses, children, relatives, and friends of the dearly departed. Having been sensitized to the Holocaust during my formative years, I have witnessed the ashes of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen,Treblinka et al being metaphorically transformed into diamonds for decades. Accordingly, I see it as a sacred task to sensitize others to three diamonds that have emerged from the ashes of those murdered by Hitler’s Third Reich for the crime of being a Jew.

Museums have been built throughout the world over this past half century. No longer did Yad Vashem have to serve as a solitary memorial to the Six Million. No longer would those who managed to defy Hitler and his war machine, attempt to put the past out of mind, as they looked ahead to a brighter future. Holocaust museums abound, albeit some have made the choice to widen their scope and focus on tolerance of other (non-Jewish) groups as well. Seventy-five years ago, quotas were very much on the minds of those somehow managed to survive Hitler’s hell. At best countries were opening their gates of immigration to trickles of Jews with no place to go. Half a century later, quotas  were still connected to the Holocaust. When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington, tickets had to be purchased months in advance, because the museum simply could not accommodate all who wished to visit. Those who once closed their eyes to the ashes produced by the  Holocaust, could hardly believe their eyes by the diamonds crafted by those who established Holocaust Museums.

Any city in this country that saw a sizable influx of survivors after World War II, also saw a group unto themselves. True, local Jewish leadership helped in trying to find housing and employment for the survivors who arrived, but rarely, if ever, were survivors absorbed by those Jews, who were long settled, and Americanized. It was not in any way unheard of, for the survivors to be referred to as “greeneh” (Yiddish for greenhorns) – especially, when they began to seize the many opportunities afforded them, by the “land of the free and the home of the brave”, and in doing so financially surpass many other Jews who had already laid stakes in that very same community decades earlier. And yet, those survivors also rose from the ashes. Business acumen and financial success aside, the increasingly few survivors still among us – octogenarians and nonagenarians – are  now venerated by the rest of the Jewish community, as they appear at events connected to Holocaust museums. They are now regarded as diamonds in our midst.

One of the greatest concerns, nay fears, of those about to die, is that they will be soon forgotten. Those concerns, nay fears, were especially well founded by those whose very lives were in the hands of the Nazis. If nobody cared about them while they were alive, why should anyone care about them once their lives were snuffed out? In all too many cases, no cemetery plot has ever held their remains, no kaddish has ever been said in their memory, and no yahrzeit has ever been observed on their behalf. Tragically, so many who perished have been forgotten. As an entity however, as a group of six million, we have allayed their concerns and fears of being forgotten. They have been included in our prayers. Less than a week ago, as we offered up the Yizkor service, we included a paragraph specifically prepared for those murdered by the Nazis. Outside the synagogue, we have included them as well. Throughout this country, Holocaust education has been included in the curriculum of Public education. Students in this country who have never met a Jew, are now being introduced to Jews of European countries whose very existence was so problematic to the Third Reich, that a “final solution” was sought. When it comes to the Holocaust, our elected officials also seek solutions. Whereas the solution sought by German elected officials were inextricably linked to ashes, the solution sought by our elected officials in the field of education is such a shining example that it is inextricably linked to diamonds.

As we observe the 75th yahrzeit of the Holocaust, let us never forget a world turned to ashes. Let us also remember the ubiquitous museums constructed in their memory, the venerated survivors who speak for those who were denied life, as well as those responsible for Holocaust curriculum in our Public Schools. Each one, a diamond in a different setting.

INTERNATIONAL HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY

Practically 75 years ago to the day, a glimmer of light came into this world that would have ramifications decades later. On January 27, 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz – Birkenau, arguably the most infamous of all Concentration/Extermination Camps of the Third Reich. On the 60th anniversary of the liberation, a special session was held at the United Nations which culminated in designating January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Gevald! I was raised on Yom HaShoah. Each year on the 27th of Nissan, Yom HaShoah commemorations were held in Jewish communities throughout the world. When I learned of International Holocaust Memorial Day, I was indignant, to say the least. How dare the United Nations and then the 42nd president of the United States proclaims another date to memorialize Man’s Inhumanity Towards Man! By what right and under whose authority could they do such a thing? Yom HaShoah is a collective yahrzeit for the Jewish people. I don’t recall any Jewish leader suggesting that another date be chosen so that the yahrzeit of the six million be shared.

When a cooler head prevailed, I realized that while intending to pay homage to the same dark chapter in the history of mankind, International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom HaShoah couldn’t have been more different.

International Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates a twentieth-century version of the Exodus from Egypt. It was the Soviet Union ironically, that led the pack of allied armies, playing the role of the biblical Moses, while those miraculously still alive in a hellhole in southern Poland, the very descendants of the Israelite slaves freed from the diabolical Pharaoh were the first of their people to be redeemed from unspeakable enslavement and unfathomable treatment. Military prowess aside, International Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the first step of allied armies being able to reassure the victims, “Don’t worry. We’re here to save you. We’re here to free you. We’re here for you to reaffirm your faith (whatever faith you may have left) that the forces of good have ultimately triumphed over the forces of evil.”

Not so, Yom HaShoah. Although chosen to coincide with the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, where a handful of Jews armed chiefly with chutzpah, managed to stave off the Third Reich for weeks, Yom HaShoah commemorates a twentieth-century version of the biblical Lot and a handful of others managing to survive the destruction of his society. Even though the Sodomites were in no way blameless or faultless like the Jews of Eastern Europe, there are still parallels to be made. The pillars of fire and the stench of death of Sodom and Gomorrah served as prototypes for the pillars of fire and the stench of death of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Both Lot, as well as the survivors of Nazism, set about building a new future for themselves. Both were cautioned of the dangers of looking back. Looking back was only helpful in that it ensured that those who succumbed not be forgotten, as well as it served as a reminder that we do not forget.

International Holocaust Memorial Day is a day for the outside world to justifiably remind itself of its success is thwarting evil and rescuing the few that remained; Yom HaShoah is a day for the Jewish world to remind itself, that the remnant that survived will serve as living proof that it refuses to wallow in self-pity and victimhood and that Jews must never inflict upon others what others inflicted upon them.

We commemorate an event that took place seventy-five years ago that gave the free world reason to be optimistic and those still alive at Auschwitz – Birkenau reason to dare to hope, that humanity did not go up in the chimneys of the Nazi crematoria after all. For me personally, International Holocaust Memorial Day is beyond my expectations. As for Yom HaShoah, I would have expected nothing less.
  
 


EIGHTY

For so many in this country, this past Sunday went by largely unnoticed. Other than being part of Labor Day weekend, precious few were aware that this past Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. As Jews, we have a sacred task. Aside from continuing to serve as the moral conscience for a world that would all too willingly relegate remembering World War II to historians, we Jews must look for a deeper meaning to this 80th anniversary. The carnage that occurred between September 1, 1939 and May 8, 1945 must not be viewed solely in terms of a world war; the carnage that occurred between September 1, 1939  and May 8, 1945 must be viewed as a war that was thrust upon the Jewish world!

It was the great Talmudic sage Yehudah ben Teima who taught us that 80 is commensurate with strength. Little could he have realized just how prescient his words would prove to be. These last 80 years have been years of amassing unimaginable strength, both for Jews in Israel as well as for Jews here in these United States. During this time period (actually only 71 years, since Israel did not become a sovereign state until May 1948) Israel has succeeded in building an army that is feared by its enemies, begrudgingly respected by those who are ambivalent towards the Jewish State, and admired by her friends. From a non-military aspect, I never cease to be amazed by the non-stop construction of factories, office buildings and private homes; I continue to remain in awe at the founding of new towns and the paving of new roads. As for Jews in this country,  who could ever have dared to imagine back in 1939 that there would come a time where there would be annual Chanukah parties at 1600 Pennsylvania  Avenue? Our strength is not that there are Jews who are members of the first family, but that for the most part, American Jews are nonchalant about it. Currently, there are at least two presidential hopefuls who are either Jewish or who have Jewish spouses. Again, American Jews remain un-phased.

Centuries after Rabbi Yehudah ben Teima, lived Rabbi Chanina who was known for his wit when it came to word plays. An example his ingenuity can be found  toward the end of Shabbat services, between Ein Keloheinu and Aleinu, where he asks us to read a word as “Bonei’ich” (builders) rather than “Banei’ich” (sons). In the spirit of Rabbi Chanina, I suggest that “shmonim” the Hebrew word for “eighty” be read as “shmanim” (oils), a word that appears in the all-time Chanukah favorite “Ma’oz Tzur.” I do so, because for the better part of eighty years, we have been amassing Holocaust stories and vignettes that defied the odds and were therefore very much Chanukah in nature. With our marking the 80th anniversary or “shmonim shanah,” perhaps the time has come for us to focus on “shmanim”  or oils that are post Holocaust defying of odds, where survivors built and produced and contributed in ways that far surpass  the building, producing and contributing of those who never knew from such horrors. Not unlike Chanukah, it borders on the incredulous when one accomplishes the unimaginable during periods of darkness; not unlike Chanukah, survivor stories border on the incredulous, given what they were able to accomplish during periods of light.

On any typical weekday during Shacharit and Mincha, we implore the Guardian of Israel, “Al yovad goy echad” that the “unique nation” not be destroyed. If there were ever a time for this imploration to take on special meaning, it would be at this very moment. Numerically, “al yovad goy echad” equals 80. This nation, the Jewish nation, I believe is here to stay. Whether or not this nation remains unique is dependent upon us.

For the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II to have meaning in our lives, let us look back on these eight decades and regard them as 80 years of distinction, 80 years of defying the odds, and 80 years of strength.