In his iconic work, Zakhor, the late Prof. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi explores how the transmission of shared memory has bound one generation of Jews to the next. It is through the enshrining of memory into our sacred texts and our oral traditions that we have continually passed on the Jewish faith and the sense of Jewish peoplehood.
Yerushalmi points out that our collective identity was formed out of a theological obligation to recall our history. “The Hebrew Bible,” he writes, “seems to have no hesitations in commanding memory. Its injunctions to remember are unconditional and even when not commanded, remembrance is always pivotal. Altogether the verb zakhar (to remember) appears in its various declensions in the Bible no less than 169 times. The verb is complemented by its obverse – forgetting. As Israel is enjoined to remember, so is it adjured not to forget. Both imperatives have resounded with enduring effect among Jews since biblical times.”
Yerushalmi’s penetrating observations about the importance of remembering echo forcefully in our minds as we recall three key anniversaries of events that took place in November and have contributed to forming the modern Jewish soul.
Eighty years ago – on the night of Nov. 9, 1938 – the Nazis let loose a wave of terror and torture upon the Jews of Germany and Austria. More than 1,000 synagogues were destroyed. Some 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses were ransacked. About 100 Jews were killed. Thousands were abused and harmed. And some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and deported to the Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. Because of the unceasing sound of countless panes of glass shattering and breaking throughout the night and the next morning, that awful occasion became known as Kristallnacht.
That horribly violent, brutish night was the prelude to far worse violence and brutality that would soon engulf the Jews of Europe and millions of other civilians in the path of the Nazi march. When the Second World War ended some six and a half years later, the full nature of the horror perpetrated upon the Jewish people was laid bare for the entire world to see.
The statelessness of the Jewish people resulted in the slaughter of a third of the Jews in the world.
But on Nov. 29, 1947 – nine years after Kristallnacht – the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition British Mandatory Palestine into two states: one Jewish and one Arab. After the vote, irregular Arab fighters immediately launched their own attack against the nascent Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine. These forces were joined some six months later by the armies of five Arab states. But the combined efforts of all the Arab states failed. Some 1,878 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, a sovereign Jewish state arose once again.
We remember these dates because Jewish peoplehood passes through them and because it is important that our children know this.
To these two significant dates, we must also add Nov. 11 – Remembrance Day. This year, Remembrance Day marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War.
Even though it does not fall within the Jewish historical calendar, per se, the significance for the Jewish world of the end of the Great War was enormous. Though hailed as the “war to end all war,” it was in fact merely a respite before the next, even deadlier, round of fighting and annihilation, as a re-armed Germany and its racist, bloodthirsty leadership would seek vengeance and recompense from the rest of Europe for the humiliation of Versailles.
The injunction to remember the slaughter and the cruel waste of human life that was the First World War is also unconditional. We owe all who served – and all who fell – a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.