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.

UNLIKE THE HOLOCAUST

“It was like images out of the Holocaust,” exclaimed Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein last weekend in Poway, California  as he found himself a victim of another atrocity aimed at Jews. Far be it from me to take issue with Rabbi Goldstein’s comments, but for the vast majority of us, it is most proper, especially this very week when we observe Yom HaShoah and remember the Holocaust, to realize that to make such a comparison does a great disservice to the six million.

Unlike the Holocaust, no attack on a synagogue, church, or mosque in this country is government executed and government sanctioned. The Chancellor of Germany did not come out and say “Our entire nation mourns the loss of life, prays for the wounded, and stands in solidarity with the Jewish community. We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate, which must be defeated,”  much less place a phone call to any wounded rabbi. The Third Reich was far too busy rounding up rabbis – the Nazis were very democratic, refusing to distinguish one Jew from another – and  shipping them to concentration camps where most would meet their deaths either quickly or slowly.

Unlike the Holocaust, the New York Times did not bury the story of last week’s synagogue shooting at Chabad of Poway, or the shooting at Etz Chaim Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, on page 23 of its newspaper. Both incidents were front page news. What takes place at a synagogue – good or bad – is treated no differently than what takes place at a church or mosque. It’s of major concern to Americans and therefore it garners front page news in newspapers throughout the nation. Whereas the Third Reich maintained the attitude of “we do not distinguish between Jews, we treat them all the same viz. like vermin,” the media in this country maintains the attitude  “we do not distinguish between religions, we treat them all the same viz. with dignity and respect.”

Unlike the Holocaust, non-Jews in this country show solidarity. At Shabbat services one week after the Pittsburgh catastrophe, we at Tiferet had visitors. Unlike other non-Jews who attend our services, either out of curiosity or out of an interest to embrace Judaism, those who joined us at Shabbat services on November 3rd of last year, did so purely out of solidarity. It was their way of saying “we feel terrible about what took place. We lack the necessary words to provide comfort and consolation. We would therefore like to visit with you, so that we can pray together.” Eight decades ago, non-Jews showed  no such solidarity. True to its designation, the silent majority said nothing. Hitler’s war was against the Jews, not the Lutherans. To quote a saying I learned after arriving in Dallas, “the Christian world did not have a dog in that fight.” The precious few who were abhorred by what was taking place, were afraid to speak out, lest they endanger their own lives. Today, days after the catastrophe at Chabad, the silent majority continues to remain silent. The ones who are afraid to speak out however, are not the precious few. They are the repugnant few, who regret that the assailant was not more successful in his vendetta against Jews. They know that American society will not tolerate individuals who harbor such views and cling to such feelings.

I have no idea what Jewish leaders – both religious, as well as lay – will be saying to those who come together to commemorate the Holocaust, this Thursday evening. Personally, I’ll be offering up a prayer. I will be thanking HaShem that I live in a country where the elected political leadership expresses solidarity when a crime is committed against Jews, where the media gives what took place full coverage and where non-Jews stand together with Jews, attesting to the fact that we are one nation under G-d.

NEXT YEAR IN THE VATICAN

Having done some reading about Eugenio Pacelli, aka Pope Pius XII, my interest was piqued the other day, when I read that a year from now, the Vatican will be opening sealed archives in an effort to show how Rome responded to the systematic annihilation of six million of our people, during the Holocaust.

I am neither a historian nor the son of a historian. Nor can I profess to know what those archives will reveal. I cannot help but feel, however, that we are in for no surprises. Chances are that those who have vilified the Pontiff for “having done nothing” will continue to do so. It’s also quite  likely, that those who have defended the Pontiff for having done “more than we realize,” will continue to do so as well.

Because the vast majority of us will never get to see what those archives will reveal, perhaps we can focus on three aspects of these archives that are most revealing. As strange, unfair and inexcusable as it may seem, the Catholic church has its own agenda. The agenda of the Catholic church is not always in harmony with the interests of the Jews or any other non-Catholics for that matter. Right or wrong, the agenda of the Catholic church places the interests of the Catholic church first and foremost, as it well should. Not that there is the equivalent of a Pope in Judaism, but did you hear Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef (Chief Rabbi in Israel for Sephardic Jews) or Rabbi David Lau (Chief Rabbi in Israel for Ashkenazic Jews) speak out last year at this time, when scores of  Syrians being slaughtered by their own? In no way do I presume to equate slaughter of Syrians in an internecine conflict, with the annihilation of Jews by Hitler and his war machine. I do however wish to point out, that agendas and attitudes of religious leaders are by no means culture free and  transcendent of religious boundaries.

Speaking of religious leaders, no Jew should ever forget the efforts of 400 plus rabbis, who, three days before Yom Kippur in October 1943, at the height of the Holocaust, traveled to  the nation’s capital to meet with the President, to plea that action be taken over the genocide of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Rather than refuse to meet with them, the president furtively exited the White House through a side entrance, leaving his aides to tell the rabbis, that the President was not available. I am not aware of any recriminations  by Jews for such behavior on the part of the President, nor do I suggest that there ought to have been. But if pretty much all leaders of the world during that era, get a pass for their “shah-shtill” attitude which was all pervasive, shouldn’t there be a pass for Pope Pius XII as well? There is absolutely no question in my mind, that His Holiness could have done and should have done more to prevent six million Jews being annihilated. But the very same argument of doing more, can also be applied to an American President, Commander and Chief of the Army Air Corps, who could have ordered American fighter aircraft to bomb the railway tracks to Auschwitz, thereby delaying the transport of boxcars stuffed with Jews, destined for extermination, but chose not to. True, the morality expected of a Pope cannot and should not be equated with morality of a President, but let’s put saving human lives at the top of agenda. We can debate morality later.

Regardless of its authorship, in his last speech to the public, Hubert Humphrey reminded us that “…the moral test of government is how that government treats … the needy…”. That same standard applies to any society or community. For a good portion of my life, I harbored much resentment toward the church, for the way it treated Jews over the centuries. Once I discovered how the church treated its own, my resentment toward the church ceased. The silence on the part of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust was no different than the silence on the part of his predecessor Pope Pius XI a quarter earlier, during the Armenian genocide, when Moslem Turks annihilated well over a million Christian Armenians.

Let the Vatican archives be finally opened. Regardless of what those archives reveal, let us reveal, that we are aware that the Vatican has its own agenda, that other world leaders turned deaf ears to us Jews as well, and that before we expect any contrition from Rome, the Vatican has plenty of “teshuvah” to do for neglecting its very own. Next year in the Vatican!

PERCENTAGES

I am most likely in the minority, but in reading about International Holocaust Remembrance Day which was commemorated this past Sunday, I was not the least bit alarmed to learn that 52% of millennials cannot name even one ghetto or concentration camp that existed during the Holocaust. Nor was I dismayed to learn that 62% of millennials did not know that six million Jewish lives were snuffed out in the Holocaust. Please understand, in this case, I forgive any and all millennials for being oblivious. Quite frankly, I’m not in any way convinced that the millennials are different in any way different from any other segment of the population in this country. I would however be alarmed and dismayed if 62% or even 52% of the population in this country:

a) felt that Jews wielded too much power in this country and in doing so, had both Congress and the Senate under their thumb and that Jews controlled the media. As one strongly feels that the Holocaust ought to be sacrosanct as far as Jews are concerned, I am much more concerned about the outside world being aware of the state of the Jews in the here and now. Learning about the Holocaust, portrays Jews as victims; perceiving Jews as being in control of government as well as the media, portrays Jews as assailants.  Both  are portrayals, that are nothing short of repugnant. If I were forced to choose between being portrayed as a victim or being portrayed as an assailant, I would opt for the former. For it is the latter that creates disdain. And it is disdain and not sympathy that has historically caused us bloodshed and expulsion. I am relieved that far less than 62% or even 52% in this country do not feel that we Jews wield too much power I this country.

b) felt that there is a kernel of truth to any and all anti-Semitic remarks. Close to a decade or so, I showed a group of teenagers here at Tiferet a clip from the ABC network  “What Would You Do” . It was shot a N.J. bakery, where an employee (staged) refused to put up a flyer given to him by two Jewish teenagers about a Job Fair at a nearby synagogue. While most of the customers in the bakery told the employee that he was way out of line with his attitude towards Jews as well as what he said, there was one customer who felt that there was a kernel of truth to Jews being too pushy and controlling  all the money (the customer cited Bernie Madoff). I am grateful that this was a minority view. I am relieved that far fewer than  62% or even 52% of the populace in this country do not feel that there is a kernel of truth to any and all anti-Semitism.

c) felt that the Holocaust was a hoax. Unlike so many others, I am adamant that the Holocaust never be forgotten, not because of the outside world, but primarily because of the lessons it holds for us Jews. The first lesson is that no Jew should be smug enough to reassure himself  that there will never be another Holocaust. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was once asked if he thought that “it could happen here”. Without flinching, he said: “Morgen in der frie (tomorrow morning)”. The Holocaust teaches us that we dare not expect others to take a stance and to rush to help. If we do, we will be bitterly disappointed. Perhaps most important of all, the Holocaust teaches us  about unbelievable acts of heroism on the part of the precious few – Jews and non-Jews – who dared to do what most did could not or would not. Unlike so many others, for me the Holocaust teaches us that hope peeks through when hopelessness overwhelms. Perish the thought that 62% or even 52% of the populace in this country believe that the Holocaust was a hoax.

The fact that 62% of millennials or any other segment of the population did not know that six million perished, the fact that 52% of millennials  or any other segment of the population were unable to name a ghetto or concentration camp – the same percentage would in all likelihood be unable to list ten American Presidents or ten states and their capitals – does not faze me at all. I find solace:

that when it comes to feeling that Jews wield too much power in this country

that when it comes to feeling that there is a kernel of truth to any and all anti-Semitic remarks

that when it comes to feeling that the Holocaust was a hoax

and that the percentage of Americans who hold these feelings is reassuringly very low.

MEMO TO MAHMOUD

What’s the matter with you? I think your brain is going soft with all that comedy you are playing with those “Poor Palestinians.” Never invoke the Holocaust in an attempt to cast Israelis in a bad light! Ever!

Imagine that! A Menachem Begin adulating rabbi, dispensing advice to a Palestinian thug who treats his own with nothing but contempt and disrespect. Abu Mazen! If you are so drawn to the Holocaust, better you should learn from the best! I’m infatuated with Menachen Begin. Chances are that you are infatuated with Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany. Better you should commit the following Goebbels quote to memory: If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. Continue to lie to yourself, your people and the rest of the world about how oppressed the Palestinians are because of the Zionist imperialists. The fact that you no longer have any credibility with your own people, the fact that other Arab countries see you for the phony and crook that you really are, shows that you haven’t done good enough job of telling a lie that was first promulgated decades ago.

Mahmoud Abbas! The sharpest knife in the drawer, you aren’t. Don’t you realize that by invoking the Holocaust, you are leaving yourself as well as the populace you feign to care for extremely vulnerable? The legacy of the Holocaust is that when Jews suffer a terrible blow, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, move on and create productive lives and promising futures for themselves. Can the same be said for your people who continue to live in squalor? You and your people are an embarrassment to humanity! Rather than encourage your people to muster their human resources and build better lives for themselves, you and your people have wasted these past 70 years wallowing in self-pity. You want Holocaust comparisons Palestinian Authority President? I’ll give you Holocaust comparisons! Hitler set out to destroy a people. You and your predecessors have set out to destroy the integrity and self-worth of a people. Hitler extracted gold from the mouths of Jews; you extract food from the mouths of your own people. If I were you, I’d think twice before I make any Holocaust comparisons.

Father of Mazen, Yasser and Tareq! At the same time you were studying law at the University of Damascus, singer-songwriter Cal Perkins was telling young Americans: “You can do anything you want, but don’t step on my blue suede shoes.” As far as Israel is concerned, trash it any way you wish, but don’t you ever accuse Israel for the Holocaust or liken Israeli leadership to the Third Reich. When will you ever learn that we are living in the age where there is zero tolerance for anti-Semitic remarks? Repeat after me: Israel bashing? Kosher! Jew bashing? Treif! Refer to the Prime Minister of Israel as “Bibi the Butcher” and no one will even raise an eyebrow. Call Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman “the Mad Russian” and there will be those who might even chuckle. But don’t even think that the Jews were responsible for the Holocaust. That’s one place you don’t wish to tread!

Mahmoud Abbas! I can’t help but feel that you would greatly benefit from a class in firearm safety. Enrolling in and successfully graduating from such a course might just prevent you from shooting off your mouth as well as shooting yourself in the foot as you seem to be able to do with such great aplomb.