Every year, on this day, I take some time to write my thoughts about the Shoah. Year after year you have seen me refer to the writings of my “guru” Robert Nozick wherein he has said:
“I believe that the holocaust is an event like the Fall in the way traditional Christianity conceived it, something that radically and drastically alters the situation and status of humanity.”
Nozick later goes on to say:
“…the Holocaust has created a radically new situation and status for humanity as a whole, one that the sacrifice of Jesus can not, and was not meant ti heal. The human species is now desanctified; it it were ended or obliterated now, it’s end would no longer constitute a special tragedy.”
I am certainly unqualified to speak about Christian beliefs; Nozick does so, I think, only as an intellectual exercise. But I do like one of the conclusions he comes to because it speaks to my desire for interfaith dialog. Nozick uses his contention to conclude this:
“The status of the human species can be redeemed, if at all, only through (almost) everyone’s now taking the suffering of others upon themselves”.
In essence, Nozick is saying that after the Holocaust humanity must adopt a post-Christian, post-Jewish, (post-whatever) worldview where we take personal, individual responsibility for the survival of our species. Christianity can’t save us. Judaism can’t save us. Islam can’t save us. Buddhism, Shinto, Hinduism, Mormonism, Scientology, New Age spirituaity, Atheism, NO SINGLE BELIEF SYSTEM CAN SAVE US. Only WE can save ourselves and only if we accept personal responsibility for it. No prophet, no Messiah, no Bodhisattva, no savior, no Mahavatar. JUST US. THAT is my own personal belief and I am grateful to Robert for teaching me how to think about it.
I want to tell you a bit about the way I see myself in this context and my way to actualize it. First, Unlike Jesus, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and other “great souls” I have no plans to forgive the atrocities of the past. This may seem counter-intuitive since I just said that I must take personal responsibility. I do not view my position that way and I’ll explain why momentarily. First, I’ll provide some context.
There are a number of large collections of first hand accounts of the Holocaust: some at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, some at Yad VaShem, some in smaller museums like the very beautiful memorial in Montreal and others in LA, Houston, etc.; still others widely distributed around the universities and libraries of the world. By way of context for my feelings let’s look at some of the words of survivors and liberators.
From the Testimony of Yaacov Schwartzberg:
The Lithuanians became organized squads in capturing Jews to work. They did it voluntarily. They helped the Germans. They actually did more of the capturing and torturing and running and all that and bringing the people to hard work, hard labour, where they took them to work. They captured them in the streets. Some of them were never saw them return. They took them and afterwards I found out about it. I didn’t know at that time. They were taken and shot, murdered in Ponar, which was on the outskirts of Vilna, a forest with big holes there, you know, dug up, craters like, the size of craters, which were dug up there. Afterwards I found out that these craters were prepared by the Russian army to hide over there different equipment from the Germans, but no equipment was hidden there. The Germans used those big holes, these dug out holes, they used them to murder the Jews in and bury them there. They used to walk on the edge, they shot them, they fell in there into these big holes, these graves. Some were even buried alive. Some people that escaped from there came back to the ghetto and told the story. Not too many, but some did.
From the Testimony of Barbara Stimler:
We started going through the… through the gate; the SS men were on both sides. And the girls, young people that could see what state I was in, they had a bit of sugar and they started putting sugar in my mouth to revive me. And when they were going through the gates, they were just holding me up, and was left and right, left and right. I went to the right, they told me to go to the right, the SS men. And we had to be…. we were…. they formed us like fifths, five, five, five, we had to stay in five, five girls. And it was dark; it was dark, and they are starting to march us. And can you imagine the screams, the…. the mother was going to the left, the daughter was going to the right, the babies going to the left, the mothers going to the right, or the mothers went together with the babies… Oy oy! I cannot explain to you the cries and the screams, and tearing their hair off. Can you imagine?”
From the Testimony of Edith Birkin:
…This feeling of death, all these people going in the gas chamber. It was a very weird place, very weird place. With this atmosphere of death all the time you know, and this unbelievable situation of people being… you could smell, you could smell these people being burnt. All the time you smelt this… it was a little bit like you know, when people used to boil glue, it was the bones that smelt like glue.///
From the Testimony of Jeanne Levy:
An SS officer was standing there and a woman said, “But you know I can still work and I am still strong. Please help me.” And he gave her a kick that we felt over the whole floor with his foot and said, “You can only die once.”
From the Testimony of Laura Varon:
We were starving and we thought that they gave us food. And while we approached the bowl, in the nose I smell detergent and my stomach was sick already, got even more sick, and I tried to vomit, but I didn’t have nothing to eat and they were beating us to eat and they were calling us names, “Schwein, Jude, whore Jude.” We learned that after, what this means. And beating us in the head, in the shoulders. And I told my sister, “Eat, eat, because he is going to kill you, she is going to kill you.” My Aunt Fortuné, we ate everything and we were vomiting and eating, vomiting and eating. You understand? …Cleanser. Detergent, like chlorox. They gave us so we didn’t have any more periods. And also to kill, Hitler wanted to kill our genes, but he didn’t succeed because still we can reproduce…
From the Testimony of Jack Oran:
We didn’t know what it meant, to the right or to the left. Little did we know that to the left meant going…to the left meant elderly people, young people. To the right, we didn’t know what it’s going to be with us when they marched us into Birkenau, into the camp. In Birkenau we enquired among other people that were there and they told us: “You see that fire that’s burning far over there? That’s where they burn the bodies of the people.”
From the Testimony of Emil Reed:
… a certain amount they sent to march out from the ghetto some place for transportation and the others, what they killed and they left a certain group to go to Plaszow, to the concentration camp, so we had to clean up all the corpses, what they killed there, and put them on the trucks and go with them up to the cemetery, dig the ditches for them and have them buried there. That’s what they assigned people whom they assigned to go to Plaszow.
From the Testimony of Don Krausz:
In February, 1944, all the Hungarian Jews that were in Holland were sent to Germany. My father and three of his brothers were sent to Buchenwald. Sixty thousand people died in Buchenwald. Of the four of them, only one brother came back. From what that one brother told me, my father was practically beaten to death there.
From the Last Will of Ilya Altman:
“On August 31, in the middle of the day, a car full of people arrived. We didn’t know who they were. After a short break, all of them were driven off to the forest, and only when the car returned with their belongings did we realize that these were our wives and children. Imagine this tragedy! The date of September 1, when we burned our families, we shall remember all our lives. The same fate awaits us, but when this terrible moment will come, we don’t know. We live with the hope that God will let us survive till the moment when we will be able to avenge all our dear ones torn out from our hearts. We ask everyone to avenge us, because meanwhile there is nothing we can do, and we wait for liberation.”
from 1985 remembrances of Dachau Liberator Glenn Edward Belcher:
Immediately in front of me after entering the gate – and about 20 yards away was a moat with water in it about 4 or 5 feet wide – a dead soldier was laying face down in it. Just beyond the moat was a high fence – I’d guess it to be 8 or 10 feet high – I understood it was electrified. On the other side of the fence was a valley which was about 20 feet wide and 8 or 10 feet deep – on the other side of the valley were barracks and those locked up. We did not talk to the prisoners and they did not talk to us – between usthere was a moat, an electrified fence and a steep up and down valley. We stared at them and they stared at us. It was as if they didn’t know what to do and neither did we. On our side of the fence and to the right of where the dogs were – were the gas chambers and ovens where people were killed and then burned. There were stacks of bodies (all looked like skeletons) apparently prepared for burning.
From a letter home by Dachau liberator US 1st. Lt. William Cowling:
Another door with the word showers lead off of this and upon going through this room it appeared to be a shower room but instead of water, gas came out and in two minutes the people were dead. Next we went next door to four large ovens where they cremated the dead. Then we were taken to piles of dead. There were from two to fifty people in a pile all naked, starved and dead. There must have been about 1,000 dead in all.
There came a time after the Shoah when German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer declared publicly that Germany would pay reparations to the Jews. Doesn’t that imply that Germany was repentant enough to warrant forgiveness? I might consider that a possibility. But, did you know that, at the very moment that Adenauer was offering reparations, his Secretary of State was Hans Globke the man who drafted the Nuremberg Laws and the legislation that gave Hitler unconditional power? Why could Globke serve the German government after the fall of the Third Reich? Easy. He was never an official member of the National Socialist party so he was free to continue serving the government! That is reason #1 for my refusal to forgive: I can’t forgive what has not been atoned for.
Here is reason #2: In Judaism, forgiveness must take place between one man and another as part of repentance. For me to “forgive” a NAZI is meaningless. The only people who could offer forgiveness are but ashes now. No forgiveness is even possible.
Number 3: There are 2 things that Jewish law says are not forgivable: Murder and Defamation of Character. Everyone who died in the Shoah was MURDERED and the propaganda leading up to those murders what expressly intended to destroy the lives and reputations of all Jews then and into the future. First, those are both unforgivable. Second, to defame all Jews is to defame all Jews irrespective of time. So, this was not only an assault on European Jews, it was a personal assault on me and all Jews to come. No forgiveness here.
The 4th reason: Since the Shoah, our global planetary ethics have not improved. If anything, they have worsened. We have seen the Cambodian Khamir Rouge murder over 3 million, the Ethiopian Red Terror resulted in half a million murders, over a million were murdered in the Rwandan genocide, almost a million were murdered in the ustasha genocide in Croatia, the Hutu Massacre in 1972 in Burundi resulted in a quarter million murders, the Chinese government killed between 2 and 70 thousand people for being part of Falun Gong in 1999 (not to mention the insanity of the first 2/3 of China’s 20th century!), AT LEAST half a million people were murdered in Darfur,Sudan between 2003 and 2010, and even as you read this the Yazidis in Iraq are being systematically massacred, abducted, raped, expelled and forcibly converted by Islamic State (ISIL), And as icing on the Islamist insanity, yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the abduction of 300+ girls (over 200 still missing) by Boko Haram. I’m told I would be “happier” if i could “forgive people” and “get rid of all the anger”. But I don’t want to get rid of my anger because I don’t want to loose my desire to fight these horrors. So, I would refuse to forgive the ideological perpetrators of these travesties even if Jewish law has a path to doing so.
So, today, as Jews around the world gather to mourn the Martyrs of our Faith I say to you that forgiveness is impossible. Jewish law does not permit it and it would be counter productive to the goal of stopping the insanity of which the Shoah is only my most personal example. I side with Professor Nozick’s ultimate conclusion:
“The Holocaust is a massive cataclysm that distorts everything around it… a massive and continuing distortion of the human space … It’s vortices and gnarled twistings will extend very far. Hitler too constituted a force that distorted the lives of those around him – his followers, his victims, and those who had to conquer him. The vortex he created has not disappeared.”
The vortex will never disappear. The only way to minimize its effect is through human action directed toward and dedicated to using, love, reason, and respect for all human life in a (still questionable) quest to reestablish a reason to call humanity unique enough to continue it’s existence in a universe that couldn’t care less. Not through simply “remembering” and surely not through blind forgiveness,
It’s up to us.