The Place of the Holocaust in Our Jewish Consciousness – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk

This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the remarks of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Friday, February 21, 2014 at Shabbat Evening Worship. We encourage you to comment below, to share or post it widely so as to engender conversation on the valuable topics it raises for us in the temple community and in the Jewish community in general.

A second grader in our congregation visits her mom’s room just before bed-time. As she draws close to her mom, she says: “Mommy, I learned about the Holocaust today.”  Caught off-guard, mom quickly recovers and says: “What is that, sweetie? What is the Holocaust?”

“It’s when six-million European Jews were killed,” says her 7 year old.

“Well, how did you learn about the Holocaust?”

“I was researching for my country that I chose to focus on in our Olympics project.  I chose Israel, and my book said that before Israel began, there was a Holocaust”

“How did it make you feel to learn about the Holocaust?” asked mom.


“Yes, it is sad. It was a very dark chapter in Jewish history. Very dark. Your grandmother and her family got out of Europe when they felt they couldn’t stay there any longer and be safe. And your great-grandmother had many of her relatives died…”

“In concentration camps,” her daughter finished mom’s sentence. She then reached for a hug. “Well, good night, mommy.”

“Good-night” said mom, plaintively, later approaching me as she began to think about next steps. What should she? What could she? What ought to be her next steps and in what ways can her family place that horrifically dark chapter in our Jewish history into context.

It’s not so simple to answer those questions- is it? It’s February 21, 2014. Today’s Cleveland Plain Dealer tells the story of dozens of people described as anti-government demonstrators, 70 people shot down by the security forces of the President of the Ukraine. This all occurred no more than a 20-minute drive away from the fields of Babi Yar, where Jews were massacred and murdered during the Holocaust. Yesterday’s newspaper told us that the President of Uganda is signing into law legislation that makes homosexuality a capital crime and essentially legislates hatred and prejudice in ways no less painful to read about than the history of the Nuremberg laws would be if your 2nd grader were studying Germany for her Olympics project.

But my point is- it is 2014! Today we have more data and testimony than ever in our history to substantiate the truth of the Holocaust and counter the wide array of crooks who claim that the Holocaust is a fiction. We live in Cleveland which ranks among the highest numbers of survivors of the Holocaust and their children who can still speak to us and tell us and our children more about the facts of the Holocaust they come across in a research project.

I want you to ask right now: When did you first learn about the Holocaust? What did you learn? How was it explained? Take a moment to think about it and then discuss with the people sitting nearby you.

In our congregation there are a wide array of answers. Some grew up in a climate where the Holocaust was never discussed or taught. Just last year on this bimah we heard a rabbi speak to us of how his own father never ever spoke of his incarceration at Dachau nor his amazing story of having been released from that camp before disease or death destroyed him.

Others of us grew up in religious schools that couldn’t get enough of the Holocaust. I remember that in my education- so flooding the market at the time were the memoirs and testimonies of survivors. It seemed to me there was a Holocaust connection to every holiday of the year. None of these linkages were forced… because any of us who has delved into the study of the Holocaust realizes that nearly every day of the year is a memorial day of sorts- a day on which the furnace of hatred, which we call by the problematic term Holocaust blazed its force on Jews and all the undesirables of Europe.

These extremes – not ever speaking of the Holocaust vs. making it appear that the only reason to ever observe any of our traditions is the martyrdom of the Holocaust- are not just part of our American culture. They also are part of modern Israeli history and literature.

The Hebrew poet Uri Zvi Greenberg in his poem Lo Nidmaynu LiChlavim (“We were not Likened to Dogs”) explains: “We were not likened even unto dogs among the gentiles – Ki Hen Kelev Etzlam Yirucham, for they pity the dog. They caress and kiss him with their mouths…When this dog dies – how much they mourn him! We were not led like sheep to the slaughter in the boxcars. For like leprous sheep they led us to extinction over the beautiful landscapes of Europe. The Gentiles did not handle even their sheep as they handled our bodies…Before slaughter they did not pull out the teeth of their sheep. They did not strip the wool from their bodies. They did not push the sheep into the fire to make ash of the living and scatter the ashes over streams and sewers.”

I won’t read the text in its entirety. You get the point. And you can see how a full exposition of how degraded and dehumanized were our people in the Holocaust is hardly the path of choice for explaining to our next generation what it meant for six million Jews to perish. The pace and detail and emotion of Greenberg’s poem are relentless. It is the sound of a wound that does not appear to stop bleeding. It is nearly vulgar.

Jewish poet Ruth Beker, penned the following poem in 1979, which reflects an entirely different emotion than the Greenberg poem. Beker writes:

“Don’t. Don’t show me any more pictures. I don’t want to know about children in horse carts, about men in cattle cars, about women being taken away, about mass goodbyes, unearthly cries. Let me pretend that my people were kings in freedom, that the children were princes on horseback, that the women were queens of it all. Throw away those pictures I said. I don’t want to know. No. My grandparents were not murdered. No. My parents were not slaves. No. My arm has no number. It happened once to another tribe. It happened once in another age. Put away those pictures I said. Don’t show them. How can I tell my children that we were treated worse than rubbish, for the garbage men here wear gloves. And pictures were taken of it all. Don’t show me anymore. Don’t tell me anymore. Don’t.”

The emotion of this writing is quite powerful as well. Beker’s words try to persuade us that there is merit to pretending there is no evidence, no picture, no testimony to the egregious horror of the Holocaust. She imagines aloud: what would our little girls feel about their history if there was nothing but exaltation and respect delivered unto the Jewish children and women and even the men of 20th century Europe? No tattooed numbers. No memories. Hostility against our people as an aberration, brief and unrelated to our time.

You tell me. Is Beker’s method any more or less effective at bringing about the sensitivities our kids need to place the Holocaust into its proper context. Do kids who don’t know that a Holocaust occurred, or who never run across it as a fact of their people’s narrative, gain some advantage?

This is not easy. It is not a simple topic to discuss or absorb. And we owe it to ourselves to be aware of the extremities of these arguments- but lean not too long or hard on the door to either extreme. As a rabbi, I engender tough critical reaction from congregants whether I add too many Holocaust related programs- or when we pull back on its heavy emphasis.

Yet the first thing I realized when examining my reaction to the story about the 2nd grader in our synagogue is that all the ideas I had running through my mind for this mom were tactical. What should a mom say next? What should she show her daughter next? Not tomorrow. Not the next day. But not waiting forever either.

I realized in looking through my thoughts that all of them were reactive and none proactive. I have not developed an ideology- a place in which to permanently show our students and those who come after us that the Holocaust has altered our consciousness and our mission in the world as Jews.

I discussed all this with Cantor Sager, who pointed out to me the lesson she drew from this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, in which the Israelites draw close to one another in the newly constituted space of the tabernacle they have been assembling. They complete its careful and precise Godly-ordained blueprint. They are in tremendous limbo- not settled into their transitional path, no longer rooted in the slave mentality of enduring Egyptian servitude and nowhere near their destiny in the land of promise.

But she wrote this to me in an email this morning:  “Perhaps the detailed construction of the Mishkan (the portable tabernacle) is the (people’s)  ultimate response to the horror, tyranny, oppression, that the Israelites experienced in Egypt.  Even in the aftermath of that horror and in the face of the unknown – including hunger, thirst, danger, boredom, we do what we can do to bring holiness into our midst.  If the Mishkan and its details is ultimately a symbol of our lives – then it is our responsibility to construct lives of sacred purpose even when faced with evil incarnate.”

I like her point of departure very much. Our lives devoted to sacred purpose are the very best response to any question any 2nd grader has of us. And they are most certainly the best response…to the Holocaust and to those who continue its horror in the world by seeking the destruction of others based on their allegiance to faith, race, political party, gender or sexual orientation.

Just this past September, we welcomed Naomi Natale to Fairmount Temple on Yom Kippur as our Stern Social Action lecture. Naomi spoke about tangible activism- the fashioning of hundreds of cribs in an art installation to depict the orphan crisis in Kenya. Or the creation of hundreds, then thousands, then one million bones laid down last June on our national mall, made by individuals of every age group, every race and religion, as a visible petition to the world to remember genocides that have occurred in history and to call attention to those which are still occurring.

I heard Naomi speak to us about the message she and thousands of others were trying to communicate through the One Million Bones project. What I was thinking during Naomi’s presentation then is the same thing I’m thinking now on Shabbat Vayakhel. I want to know: what is our responsibility? What does sacred purpose for us look like? What is my responsibility? What is yours?

There are no easy answers. Perhaps the most important thing we can do – though- is not let that lack of clarity in our answers lead us to stagnate or to do nothing. We and our community can ill afford to be asleep at the wheel on our end of responsibility. There are too many children who need next steps to build the world we want to be safe and protected in… and too many of us who don’t want “never again” to be just a passing slogan, who want that it should permanently affect the Jewish conscience to be part of defending those who are defenseless, and organizing to figure out who is vulnerable and to get busy supporting their cause.

I have learned that in early April at the Maltz Museum, award-winning author and scholar and acting dean of the Case Western Law School Michael Scharf is speaking on the contemporary significance for humanity of the term “Never Again.” He will explain its value when it comes to our accountability for crimes against humanity. Michael is a compelling speaker on this topic and I urge you to consider attending this valuable evening at the Maltz.

As you continue to struggle on this with me, together we may need God’s help to respond. For me the best framework for that help is remembering that those who came before us can help us fashion the tabernacle in which we dwell in this time of transition. A hero of the first decades of Israel, Hannah Senesh, who died while striving to save Jewish lives in the Holocaust, wrote down what it is we need from God:

Ha-chol V’chayam– Sand and sea, Rish-rush shel ha-mayim – rush of water,  Barak Ha-shamayim– crash of the heavens, and T’filat Ha-adam– the prayer of our hearts.