Am Yisrael Chai
She was short, stout and her complexion had that rosy glow of the people of the Netherlands. Her mouth smiled, but her eyes never rested from their furtive darting back and forth. It was as though in her peripheral vision she were on the alert for some early warning of an approaching enemy. Though her mouth never stopped smiling, her eye movements became even more rapid and there was a tightness of terror in her lowered voice as she told what the Nazis had done to her. They took everyone in my family. They did such terrible things to my body that I was surprised I was even able to have children. They made me afraid to love…to love even my own children.”
Most of the Nazis who had done this were already dead by the time her children were born, and the others were in hiding. But for this woman they would always be present. Just like the indigo number indelibly tattooed on her arm, “they” would always be with her.
The speaker addressed the group with an implacable, no, an invincible sadness in his eyes. They were eyes that had seen too much and could never stop seeing. The horror of the Holocaust had burned into those irises so that wherever he looked he could see only victims and victimizers. “Hitler changed the course of Jewish history,” he said. “It is a turning point, and we can never go back to an innocent trust in the Almighty. How can I trust a God who would let this happen to those he calls his chosen people?” The Nazi-hunter seemed to be held together by bitterness. Without the anger, maybe he would fall apart. To him, the Holocaust proved there was no God, “Because,” he said, “if there is a God, he is so ghastly and cruel that we can’t believe in him anyway.”
We all have heard from survivors—if not from our own relatives, then from a guest lecturer. And if not from a personal encounter, then from a book or at a museum. Holocaust studies are offered in many schools. It seems that every city with a significant Jewish population has its Holocaust memorial, or even a Holocaust museum.
For many, it is not enough to tell about the horror. It is not enough to memorialize those whom we lost. For some, the Holocaust must become the definer of relationships.
We are part of the same people because this terrible thing happened to us. Anyone to whom it did not happen is not merely “not one of us,” but is suspect. We ask ourselves about the outsider, “Would that person play a part if it were to happen again?”
The chief focus of the Holocaust studies is: Why did it happen, and what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again? The chief purpose of the Holocaust memorials is to make a defiant statement to the outer community that says, “Never again.” Well and good. Any decent person should add an “amen” to that. Yet our people constantly seek this support and affirmation from the non-Jewish community to the point of making them feel guilty.
In dialogue, Jewish participants confront Christians and often mention “2,000 years of persecution, climaxing in the Holocaust.” Some Christian partners in such dialogue apologize as if they were kin to the dreaded SS guards in the death camps. Perhaps they feel that if they didn’t apologize, they would be insensitive or uncaring or perceived by others to be so. But would they be? This is one of many questions that bear asking, questions such as:
- Can anyone who did not take part in the Holocaust apologize for it?
- Can one person ask forgiveness for what other people did?
- Can individuals who did not endure the Holocaust extend forgiveness on behalf of those who were tortured and killed?
Perhaps the most important question ought to be: Where does the blame lie? In dialogue, as often as not, blame for the Holocaust is placed squarely upon one who was called the Prince of Peace. The phrase “2,000 years of history leading up to the Holocaust” is more than a reference to past prejudice and persecution. It is an indictment against Christianity that misrepresents Christ’s message and intent. Anyone who gives credence to such an accusation bestows upon Hitler the power to change theology.
The genocide committed by the Nazis doesn’t tell us anything new. All of recorded history has shown how inhumane the human race can be. There is nothing new about prejudice and hatred, nothing new about making racial and, yes, even religious excuses to exclude and even kill people. The profound lesson of the Holocaust is: Human nature does not change.
We should not be surprised by brutality, hatred or the bestial satisfaction some find in causing pain. We have seen all of this throughout history. Perhaps those who believed that the human race would evolve out of such savagery are shocked. Perhaps those who had hoped that humanity had grown in its social attitudes as well as its sciences are devastated to see that our sciences have only contributed to make the haters, the killers, the racists more effective.
Human nature doesn’t change by education, or by shared social experiences. Intelligent Germans who had once enjoyed the society of their Jewish neighbors didn’t protest very much when those same Jewish neighbors had their properties confiscated, received relentless beatings and ultimately were dragged off to concentration camps.
After the Nazis’ defeat, many German people said, “We didn’t know what was going on.” Perhaps some had heeded the advice of the three monkeys called, “Hear No Evil,” “See No Evil” and “Speak No Evil.” But such unwillingness to face evil and take a stand against it makes a person evil. That is not to say that all Germans were consenting to the brutality, or that only Germans were involved. Romanians, Hungarians and Poles also were quick to hand over their own Jewish populaces to the Nazi executioners.
In the Axis-occupied countries, the Nazis usually didn’t have to send the Gestapo or the SS to round up the Jews. The local constabulary was usually willing to help. And the shame of shames that some Holocaust survivors have told, is that within the concentration camps, cruelty between fellow Jews was at times almost as loathsome. It might be argued that some were driven to serve the Nazi section leaders or be killed. Many who survived the death camps only because they stooped to such degrading service must forever bear the guilt and shame of knowing that others, more noble than they, chose to die rather than be part of the instrument of torture.
Yet even the most noble have a breaking point, a stress point where they will turn ignoble; for they are, after all, only human. Unfortunately, under certain circumstances, that “only human” factor can deteriorate into subhuman behavior. Such was the case with the Nazi regime that murdered six million of our people.
We must face the question, “Is the human race by nature good, with that goodness interrupted by occasional outbursts of evil, or are people by nature selfish with that selfishness interrupted by occasional outbursts of altruism?” In facing this question, we may find some answers to the Holocaust.
Many see the Holocaust as an unprecedented act of brutality because one-third of our people were exterminated. Yet such genocide is not unique. Some say that one-third of the Cambodian population was slain by the Pol Pot regime under which they were similarly dispatched—but by their own race and tribal kin. Stalin starved to death a purported 20 million people. What shall we say of the Kurds or Shiites in Iraq or the starvation of the Christian South Sudanese by the Muslim North? Hardly a decade passes without a perpetration of genocide.
It is tragic indeed that human nature remains the same as it was in the very beginning of our history. It is written in the Torah in the book of B’reshit, that Cain, the son of Adam, killed his brother Abel out of jealousy. We don’t like to admit that people have not become more virtuous, but our discomfort with this lack of virtue does not change reality. Despite a veneer of sophistication, we are no more kind to one another in this century than in days gone by. Most people will turn, as individuals or as a society, on anyone or anything they deem to be a threat.
No, the Holocaust was not unique because of the size and scope of the genocide. What made it unique was the thorough Nazi documentation that enabled the media to report with newsreels and photographs how utterly ghastly and gruesome it was. The Holocaust was unparalleled because it was explicitly revealed, to the unanimous horror and revulsion of the whole world.
So outrageous and intolerable was the very news that it brought immediate reactions from all quarters. Recoil from the horrors heaped on the descendants of Jacob brought about a brief respite from universal and relentless anti-Semitism, and engendered certain responses in both the gentile and Jewish community.
The world was shocked into the realization that the Jewish people needed a Jewish homeland. In 1947 a stunned United Nations made provision for such a haven in Israel, the land of our forefathers. Many refugees and Holocaust survivors flocked to the newly established state.
Consciousness of the Holocaust motivated and energized the Jewish people in a new way. More than ever, we felt a need to assert and protect our Jewish heritage. We revived dormant loyalties and sought to instill them in our children. Many of us in more fortunate parts of the world leaped into action to aid Israel. Some of us made aliyah, while others contributed to the growth of the new homeland with funds, temporary labor and service in the Israeli army.
The Holocaust left an indelible impression on our people. It left us not only with memories of incredible horrors, but with lessons to learn and truths to apprehend. Some of the lessons are frightening, and some of the truths make us uncomfortable:
Yet it is better to be aware than to be ignorant of them. For example:
Jewish education and schools are certainly worthy of promotion. But the implication that the Holocaust is somehow the main heritage of Jewish youth is not quite fair to those young people.
In April of 1992, The Los Angeles Times carried an article by Ephraim Buchwald titled “The Holocaust Is Killing America’s Jews.” He wrote:
There is almost nothing more sacred or more sensitive for Jews living in the generation after the Holocaust than the memory of the six million martyrs of the Nazi genocide. The poignant question, “Where was God?”, rather than being a theological provocation, is more likely a reflection of the abiding pain that lingers from the staggering losses. After all what could possibly be more important than sanctifying the memory of those who died—except ensuring a future for those who wish to live as Jews? There is great justification for the continuing obsession with the Holocaust…But obsession with the Holocaust is exacting a great a price. It is killing America’s Jews. An obsession with victimization leaves no room for the joy of the faith and is driving many away.
Might it not be that we are looking in the wrong places for an answer, for understanding, for resolution, for healing of the horrors experienced by six million of our people in this century?
To remember the Holocaust is appropriate, but to be obsessed with the past is morbid and self-destructive. Might we not do better to take affirmative action now, in our time, and seek light and understanding that will help preserve us in the future?
In grappling unsuccessfully with the question of the Holocaust, some Jewish theologians have concluded that the God of Israel is dead or never existed at all. But if the God of Israel never existed, never called the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the children of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah to be his people, why struggle to remain Jews? Why concern ourselves with clinging to an identity that usually has brought us more pain than benefit throughout our history?
The answer is that the God of Israel does exist. God is not dead, and the LORD was not exterminated in the gas chambers. For reasons we do not know, God did choose us to be a people set apart to serve and honor him among the nations. For reasons we mortals cannot understand, God has allowed great tragedies to befall our people, not the least of which was the Holocaust. Yet despite our enemies, the One who made us a people through our father Abraham and our mother Sarah has preserved us throughout the ages. And we can look to that One to continue preserving us, as he has done in the past.
How, then, should we respond to the Holocaust? We might raise the fist and shout in the many languages of our people that tired slogan, “NEVER AGAIN,” but to whom are we shouting? To the ghosts of Hitler, Haman, Pharaoh and others long dead who would have destroyed the Jewish people? To those today who bear us no good will?
We have no reason to believe that potential enemies of our people now or in generations to come any more humane or moral than they were in Hitler’s day or Haman’s day. They certainly will not be vanquished by our shouting slogans.
Shall we argue with history and take false comfort in believing that the human race has become so much better that no society could accept or condone genocide, or, to use the more modern term, “ethnic cleansing”?
We Jews don’t have the might, the numbers or the ability to fight off those who would exterminate our people. Whom would we be fooling if we believed we had the power to prevail over what we have never been able to prevent in the past?
There is a better slogan than “Never Again!” It is an affirmation rather than a denial—a declaration of fact that cannot be denied or defied. That slogan is “Am Yisrael Chai,” which means “The People of Israel Live.” Because our God lives, we continue to exist as a people in spite of a multitude of destroyers.
Every year at Purim, we celebrate God’s preservation of our people. Even as we twirl groggers and boo Haman, the point of the holiday is not his villainous plan but rather how the people of Israel were preserved in spite of Haman’s wickedness.
And what about Moses? As a baby, he had to be hidden from the murdering henchman of a Pharaoh who commanded that every Jewish boy baby be destroyed. Not only did Moses survive, but despite Pharaoh’s plan there was still a nation of Hebrews to be led out of slavery. And God commanded us to celebrate Passover, to remember our bitter slavery in Egypt in order that we might pass on the story of God’s glorious redemption.
God wants us to remember Purim, and Passover, and the Holocaust. The reason to remember is not so that we can shake our fist at the non-Jewish world and try to force or shame them out of ever trying to destroy us again. God wants us to remember that, no matter how the human race might abuse the free will with which we were created, no matter how the enemies of the Jewish people may seek to annihilate us, we will survive. God will not allow the destroyers to prevail. We grieve for the loss of one-third of our people. But shouldn’t that very grief also be the occasion to thank God for the preservation of the other two-thirds?
We survive, even thrive, in lands far away from our own land, though we continue to be driven from one country to another. Harried from without, weakened by sin and skepticism from within, still we shall survive. The reason we continue to survive is neither our wit nor our might. It is not our piety. We Jews survive because our God reigns—because he who promised Abraham and Sarah a glorious destiny at the end of time will keep his word.
Jewish survival is always precarious, yet our God lives. Hence, Am Yisrael Chai.