What do we commemorate on Yom Hashoah?
We remember the most horrific event in history. In a macabre mix of cruelty and efficiency, six million Jews were murdered in just six years. In events that still defy belief, a leading western nation put its strategic self-interest aside to pursue genocide, and an army of well-educated men plotted the murders of 1.5 million children. In the end, nearly two-thirds of Europe’s Jews were murdered.
It’s impossible to ignore the Holocaust, and as a consequence, it’s easy to misinterpret the Holocaust. The memory of the six million has been misused by small-minded preachers and petty politicians, and even by idealists who desperately search for good everywhere.
Lawrence Langer, in his book Preempting the Holocaust, critiques those who find “positive lessons” in the Holocaust. He cites an incident at Matthausen, when a group of Jews were thrown into a pit of quicklime, and shouted for hours as they died an agonizing, slow death. Langer concludes: “Nothing we hear from well-intentioned commentators about… the light of human community emerging from Holocaust darkness… or ‘fellowship of the suffering and the long suffering’… can silence the cries of those hundreds of Jews being boiled to death in an acid bath.”
Langer is correct. The six years of the Holocaust are an enormous black hole of barbarity, an inexplicable horror that one can mourn, and only mourn.
And yet that is not all. There are two perspectives in history. An event can be viewed both on its own and as part of a larger narrative.
So what would be the larger narrative of the last 77 years? In terms of world history, little has changed. Over and over, political leaders have vowed “never again,” but that promise has proved false. Since 1945, there have been genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Even Samantha Power, who writes eloquently about ending genocide, serves an administration that did nothing for the civilians of Syria. In the last 71 years, the world has not changed very much.
But in terms of Jewish history, things have changed dramatically. The Holocaust was the culmination of two millennia of anti-Semitism and should have broken our spirits. Survivors should have given up hope, and world Jewry should have collapsed.
Yet nothing of the sort occurred. In the shadows of the concentration camps, orphaned survivors got married and started new families. The brichah sent ten of thousands of survivors to Israel, where many went directly to fight for the new state. And survivors around the world built communities and garnered remarkable accomplishments in business, scientific and political life, including several Nobel Prizes.
Alongside the survivors, the Jewish world re-energized itself. After 1,900 years of exile, Jews returned to their homeland and built a state that is a world leader in multiple areas. The arc of Jewish history since the Shoah has been nothing short of miraculous, with a people rising from the ashes in a manner no one could have predicted.
On Yom Hashoah, we need to keep two stories in mind. Our first responsibility is to reflect on six years of carnage and mourn the six million. But at the same time, we must be inspired by the remarkable story of the past 71 years.
Last year, I accompanied the March of the Living to Birkenau and spent a dismal Yom Hashoah in that awful site of mass murder. But then I caught a glimpse of two teenagers standing by the barbed wire with Israeli flags draped over their shoulders. I was profoundly moved, because it reminded me that Jewish history did not end in 1945. We now have the State of Israel, and we have proud young Jews who will carry the legacy of the six million. And even though it was Yom Hashoah, I couldn’t help but think, “Am Yisrael Chai.”