Sermon for Yom HaShoah

This sermon was written for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), 5771, and delivered at Temple Israel of New Rochelle on Friday April 29th, 2011.

A few years ago, I came across an article in Ha’aretz, one of Israel’s daily newspapers, and the story has stayed with me to this day. It’s a story that I found and continue to find both beautiful and troubling.

One day, about eight years ago, Dr. Ron Folman walked into a tattoo studio on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street accompanied by his parents, Professor Yeshayahu and Dr. Ahuva Folman. He asked his father to bare his left forearm, and told the tattooist: “I want an exact copy of that tattoo.”

The original inscription, B1367, was seared by a German soldier into the arm of the 10-year-old child Yeshayahu Folman in June 1944, on the day he was brought to Auschwitz. The boy had been sent alone from Piotrkow in Poland, and did not know what happened to his parents, whom he would find only after the war (May 1, 2008, Yair Ettinger).

Yair Ettinger, the reporter, then discusses Yeshayahu’s experiences during the Shoah, and how when his son, Ron, proposed this idea to him, he was originally “appalled.” He eventually cooperated, as he, the father, understood his son’s desire of replicating the tattoo as an act of solidarity. More interesting than this, however, is Ron’s own perspective. The following is a direct quote:

[The tattoo wasn’t] done as a demonstration or public statement. It was about my relationship with my father, and the family members who survived and those who didn’t. My father was sick at the time, and for the first time I felt in real danger of losing him. It was purely emotional. I didn’t think of the meanings. It was the act of a man who sees his father in the hospital and suddenly all the years he absorbed, between the lines, the great pain, the tears – everything burst out. Until then I suppressed feelings associated with the Holocaust, but when I saw him lying there I felt I had to, wanted to, make a private statement about my feelings toward him and the Holocaust. It was a desire to tell him that his son understands what he had been through and shares his pain.

As for the Holocaust, perhaps it was to tell myself I’d never forget.

I’m still not entirely sure of what to make of this story. At first, I find myself shuddering, in thinking that someone might want to take on the abuse and degradation inflicted by the Nazis. Tattoos have been forbidden to Jews since Talmudic times, as they are understood as desecrating the human body. Since the Shoah, however, the Jewish community has come to treat tattoos with an even greater aversion because they link us to something that was forced upon us, whose purpose was to strip us of our names, identities, and humanity, and reduce us down to a number. How could it be that someone would desire to inflict this kind of desecration on his own body?

And yet another part of me sees a beauty in this action. Folman did his best to ensure that he would always remember, and be able to teach, that the Shoah was not just a horrific event in our history; rather, it was something that happened to people he knows and loves—he fixed upon himself the memory that the Shoah was a cataclysmic, physical, and emotional event. And the best way he could ensure that this memory would vividly persist was to create a physical representation. Through the numbers on his arm, he would remember his father’s stories and experiences—he would pass on this personal story to the next generation.

It is through real personal connections, through relationships, that the Shoah has stayed in our hearts as real, horrific, and life-altering. And though we may not all be survivors or the children of survivors, most of us have learned about the Shoah directly from the lips of those who suffered.

For many of us, this personal connection to the Shoah changes our philosophy of what it means to be Jewish—to live as a Jew in the greater world. Some thinkers understand it to be a new revelation—a second Sinai.

Emil Fackenheim, a theologian who escaped Germany before the war, builds on the understanding that we were given 613 commandments. He says that with the Shoah came a new revelation—the 614thcommandment: You will survive.

He divides this commandment into four components:
  • Jews are forbidden from handing Hitler a posthumous victory.
  • Jews must survive as Jews.
  • Jews must remember the victims.
  • And Jews must not despair of God, “lest Judaism perish.”

To Fackenheim, this isn’t just rational philosophy, this is something felt at a deeper level. Those who survived, among whom we are all included, encounter this revelation in the depths of their souls. Something, which some may call God, spoke to us, and revealed this new commandment.

I feel safe in making the assumption that many of us, having learned about the Holocaust’s atrocities, feel this way. The Jewish people must survive, and we must remember what happened. We can’t exactly put our finger on why, but we know it in our kishkes.

There’s a problem, however, to which this article points us. In the next decade or two, like Ron Folman’s father, the last of those who witnessed the Sho’ah firsthand will die. There will be no one left with whom we can have this personal connection. Yes, we can read history books, we can rent movies like Schindler’s List, we can teach a unit in history class, and we can remember it through our synagogue liturgy. I am fearful, however, that these venues of encounter are not enough—alone, they cannot produce the same visceral responses as a personal, human connection. I believe that without that connection, the Holocaust will cease being the calamity that brought about Fackenheim’s 614th commandment, and instead, be moved to the annals of Jewish history, to be commemorated once a year.

I believe, however, as one who feels called upon by this “new revelation,” that we must never let this happen. It is not enough to never forget—we must continue to feel. The Shoah is part of who we are. It’s not that we should live our lives as if we’re on the verge of destruction. Rather, it is that we must maintain our strength as a people, and that we must seek every way that we can to flourish and bring the holiness of Torah to the world. We must use this annual day, Yom HaShoah, to remind ourselves that we must never forget—that we must act and find ways to bring these stories to the next generation and beyond in a way that brings it to life, that transmits its meaning and weight, and that passes the human connection on to our children.

Fortunately, we have begun experimenting with new ways to pass on the stories. Right here in the Temple, some of our 7th graders are learning about the Shoah in an experimental program. They learn alongside Catholic students, who may have never before encountered the Shoah in an emotionally charged manner. Learning about the horrors for the first time, they experience a shock that our kids, sometimes hearing more distant stories, may not have found on their own.

An example of other efforts is one performed in partnership between the Azrieli foundation and my alma mater, York University. They are working to publish as many memoirs as possible from Holocaust survivors. These memoirs include the actual experiences from the Shoah, but also, the stories from before and after. They are stories that tell of human beings like us who suffered and survived. And best of all, these works are published and distributed throughout the Jewish community for free. These survivors may live on through readers connecting to their very personal memories.

A similar project being undertaken, with which you might be more familiar, is the Shoah Project, founded by Steven Spielberg. The project documents survivor stories through top quality film production, and puts them into context with historical texts and archival data presented through different forms of multimedia. Through the project, once-living memories will be preserved in a vivid and engaging manner, and hopefully will be enough to pass on the power of the Shoah to future generations.

Temple Israel’s project is small, a stepping stone at best, and I’m not sure of how far the Memoirs and Shoah projects will go. What’s important though is that we, the Temple Israel community, and we, the Jewish people, are beginning to make efforts to find what might transmit the memories in the absence of living witnesses.

Just this week, we came out of Pesach, the festival where we are commanded to teach our children that we have all come out of Egypt into freedom.

Once we were slaves, now we are free.

Yom HaShoah demands that we do the same: that we pass on to our children the sense that we were all victims, that we are all survivors, and that we all must fight for a vibrant and spirited Jewish life.

The two examples I mentioned are beginnings of our tackling the problem of how to help the next generation connect. And while Ron Folman’s tattoo will no doubt be effective in drawing out questions and passing on memories, I would not personally recommend this action.

I do recommend that we take the point to heart, that the experiential memory of the Shoah, and its resulting revelation, is something that like the Exodus, we must pass on to our children.

We must help our children to remember the atrocities and the victims.

We must help our children to know that the Jewish people, must grow and flourish.

We must help our children to know that there are those who survived, and we are all among them.

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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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