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.

DOES THE POLISH PRESIDENT LACK POLISH?

I never met Polish President Andrzej Duda, but I have a great deal of respect for him.  “We have a right to our historical truth,” he said, after signing a law that would punish those who accuse Polish society of complicity in the Holocaust. I admire his candor. President Duda never mentioned anything about “the truth” when it came to the Holocaust; President Duda spoke about our historical truth.

I do not consider myself an expert when it comes to Poland, its people and its history, but there is one thing I do know. No different than the Jews, the Polish people see themselves as victims of Nazi inhumanity. There is a great deal of truth to the Polish self-image of victim-hood, in that the Nazis did regard Poles as sub-humans, albeit on a higher level than Jews. As far as a good many Poles are concerned, Polish complicity with the Nazis was academic. How can one be complicit when one is treated as an inferior many Polish people will argue? Therefore, there are any number of Poles who maintain that complicity with the Nazis is not up for discussion, in that it never happened.

Neither is the message of deicide, spewed for centuries by any number of Polish parish priests over the centuries, indicting all Jews for the death of their savior. That too is not up for discussion. If any generalization can be made, and generalizations typically are made when it involves war, it was Ukrainian peasants working in Auschwitz, Dachau, and any other Nazi death factory who were complicit in the Holocaust. Ukrainian peasants had far more blood on their hands than the Polish populace. Having been systematically starved to death by the millions a decade earlier, courtesy of Uncle Joe Stalin with his nationalization program, a good many Ukrainians were inured to suffering and death. Religion aside, it was any number of Ukrainians, and not Poles, who participated in the gross human injustice of shoving Jews into the gas chambers. As such, Polish President Duda was not wrong in speaking for the Polish people when he maintained that “We have a right to our historical truth.”

“Having a right to our historical truths” enables Polish President Duda to remind the world that close to 7,000 Poles have been awarded the distinction of righteous Gentiles at Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. No nation other than Poland can make that claim. Among those Polish righteous gentiles, there were those who ended up paying the supreme price for aiding, abetting, and harboring Jews. One such individual was Sister Marta, a Catholic nun who was executed by the Nazis for the “crime” of rescuing Jewish families from the Slonim Ghetto and hiding them in her monastery.
Last but not least, “having a right to our historic truths” reminds us that there is more than a modicum of ethnocentricity when it comes to wars. It is this ethnocentricity that defines how we refer to a war. To wit: The War of Independence that a fledgling Jewish nation was caught up in immediately upon proclaiming statehood in May 1948, is referred to by the Arabs in countries surrounding Israel as “Al Naqba” or “the catastrophe.” Put differently, what is arguably remembered as the proudest day in the twentieth century for Jews world-wide is recalled as the most calamitous day in the twentieth century for Arabs worldwide.  However much it may pain us, however justified we may be, it is simply not within our purview to tell the Polish people, or any other people involved in World War II, how to define the years 1939-1945. If the Polish government remembers World War II completely differently than the way we Jews remember World War II – if the Polish government subsequently passes a law to punish those who accuse it of complicity in the Holocaust – as a sovereign nation, they have that right, regardless of how wrong we Jews consider them to be.

DENYING THE DENIERS

I have absolutely no idea whatsoever as to how many Holocaust Deniers sully humanity with their ludicrous claim that the Holocaust never existed. I do know, however, that there is one notorious Holocaust denier less, with the recent death of Ernst Zundel. In addition to spreading lies and misinformation, Zundel’s “claim to fame” was that he was deported from Canada and then the United States. Back in his native Germany, Zundel spent five years in prison for the crime of “Folkverhetzung” or incitement of the masses. I, for one, see a certain sense of poetic justice when a Holocaust denier is in turn denied citizenship – not once, but twice, and then denied freedom. But rather than waste my time on Ernst Zundel, I feel that it is important for us to understand what makes Holocaust deniers tick. Accordingly, I offer three reasons:

Holocaust deniers have a pride and love for their “Vaterland” that is second to none. Because of such extreme pride and love, Holocaust deniers simply cannot allow for an everlasting stain to sully the history of Germany. Unlike others who protest, “I was just following orders,” Holocaust deniers claim that there never were any orders, because the Holocaust never existed. Forgive me for saying so, but if Holocaust deniers knew the term “lashon harah,” which can be understood as besmirching a reputation, Holocaust deniers would maintain that Jews worldwide are guilty of “lashon harah” for besmirching the sterling reputation of a country (Germany) that is simply beyond reproach in any and every way.

They love attention. By knowing how to push all the “right” buttons, Holocaust deniers are in all their glory. It matters little, if any, to Holocaust deniers if they achieve fame or infamy, just as long as they get media coverage and Jewish dander up. Holocaust deniers instinctively know that there are two subjects that are bound to set Jews off – Israel and the Holocaust. Both (the Holocaust outranks Israel) go directly to the emotions. Never accuse Israel of violating human rights of Palestinians; never accuse Jews of fabricating the Holocaust. The very same people who would ignore any lunatic, who claims the French Revolution never happened, refuse to ignore any lunatic who claims the Holocaust never happened. Instead, we Jews give that lunatic every bit of our attention and then some, even though we feel our blood pressure rising by the minute.

Whether we are prepared to admit it or not, the Holocaust has become the raison d’etre for a good many American Jews. Rather than inculcate Jews with “thou shalt not grant Hitler a posthumous victory,” the Jewish philosopher Emile Fackenheim should have left as his legacy “the Holocaust must not become the sum total of our Jewish existence.” As a rabbi, I can’t tell you the amount of times students have equated Hebrew School experience with learning about the Holocaust. Heaven forbid that Adolph should replace The Baal Shem Tov or The Chofetz Chaim or Sarah bas Tovim or Gluckel of Hamlen! Yet, because of our inability to realize that our national nightmare was but six years of our 4000 year-old history, this is exactly what has taken place!

Holocaust deniers are an extension of “Der Fuehrer.” “Der Fuehrer” came awfully close to eradicating Jews. Holocaust deniers are coming dangerously close to eradicating Jewish education in that Holocaust education seems to have come dangerously close to usurping Jewish education. The Holocaust must never be forgotten!  By the same token, we Jews dare not forget that the Holocaust must never obliterate the rest of our history and heritage.

Living at a time when saying nasty things (unless they are against Israel) is a deadly sin, let the rest of society and our lawmakers deal with Holocaust deniers. Let descendants of World War II veterans take up the cudgel. As far as we Jews are concerned, let us ignore Holocaust deniers. Seeing that they cannot evoke any reaction, much less anger on our part, Holocaust deniers will eventually slink away with their tails between their legs.