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The Shoah and Jewish identity


They say the best story to tell, is the last one you have heard.

Recently in Jerusalem, I had lunch with a member of my synagogue, Marcia, and her son Corey. Marcia was telling stories about her parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors. One of the stories she told has stayed with me. It was about her father, Henry, a native of Kielce, where one of his cousins, an Auschwitz survivor, was murdered in the infamous postwar pogrom.

When she was younger, Marcia asked her father what was going through his mind when he was in Auschwitz. “Not for a moment did I allow for the idea of not surviving,” he answered her then, “because my purpose in life was to help others in need.” In fact, Henry saved the life of his best friend, Robert Luft, by making sure to carry him when he could no longer walk on his own – literally lifting his feet off the ground – during the Death March. There in Auschwitz – possibly the worst place on Earth in all of human history – Marcia’s father was keeping himself alive so that he could help others.

This short story offers an important lesson about Holocaust education – and a reminder of what inevitably comes to mind when one spends a week in Poland.

One lesson you learn from first-hand exposure to the Shoah is the evil that man is capable of. It is so profound, so extreme, so unimaginable to us, that sometimes, even today, we struggle to fully understand it. The Shoah teaches us that we dare not be naive about anti-Semitism and racism, and that we must be ever vigilant about the first signs of intolerance expressed toward us or others.

But there is a danger here, too. As important as the Holocaust is to our history and our identity, it must not, and cannot, be the sole or main pillar of Jewish identity. We cannot choose to remain Jewish only to spite Hitler. There is so much more to being Jewish than defying Hitler.

Two thousand years ago, the rabbis debated the question of what is the most important commandment in the Torah. They offered four answers:

• Rabbi Akiva quoted the passage in Leviticus, “Ve’ahavta lerayahca kamocha” – “Love thy neighbour as thyself.”

• Hillel argued that Akiva’s ideal is too lofty for most. Instead he suggested (to a potential convert) that the central principle of Judaism is summarized in the saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbour.”

• Ben Azzai quoted another passage in the Torah which states that God created all humanity in the image of God. We are all equal before God, and we are all endowed with infinite value and preciousness.

• Other rabbis argued the most important value is the one that is repeated most in the Torah: “Love the stranger since you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Take a look at this list and contrast it the policies and actions of the Nazis. In a split second you will see how antithetical each principle is to the Nazi worldview. The Nazis despised the stranger, scoffed at the value of the dignity and inherent worth of all humanity (“life unworthy for life,” for example, is how they described the disabled), and caused untold harm to millions. Loving one’s neighbour, not harming others, the infinite dignity of all humanity, and loving the stranger –  these central Jewish values are exactly the opposite of what the Nazis stood for. They believed in endless hatred – we believe in endless love.

So, as I often tell participants on the March of the Living, when they look back on our week in Poland: of course let us remember the terrible evil the Nazis visited upon the world – and especially the Jews. Yes, part of our identity should be connected to remembering the Shoah. And yes, continuing to practise Judaism can be seen as an act of defiance toward Hitler’s aims.

But among the main reasons for practising Judaism should be its core humanistic and humane values, its demand upon us to create a more loving and caring world. And we celebrate these values not because Hitler attempted to destroy them – even though their may be some psychic gratification in that –  but because these God-given values are inspiring and life-affirming, because it is what our ancestors believed in and practised for thousands of years, and because they will not only enhance our lives, but the lives of all members of the human family.

We best honour our ancestors and the memory of those who perished in the Shoah by loving our friends, neighbours and especially the stranger, by recognizing the dignity inherent in all humanity, and finally by remembering how a young man named Henry responded when he was in Auschwitz over 70 years ago. Our purpose in life is to help others in need, he maintained, even while under the brutal confinement of his Nazi overseers.

If he could be thinking of others in, of all places, Auschwitz, surely we can do the same and more, regardless of what challenges we may be facing in our own lives. In that way, we best defy the Nazis, and more importantly, pay true homage to our tradition and to our ancestors. Our experience of slavery should not embitter us toward humanity.  Rather, given our own history, we, of all people, should be extra sensitive to the plight of the marginalized, those pushed to the edges of society.

Eli Rubenstein is the national director of March of the Living Canada.