Today, April 19, marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. What can one possibly say about this event that has not already been said many times over many years? What is there, if anything, that might be noteworthy about a 70th anniversary?
Maybe there is something to say; hence this post. Forgive me please, dear reader, if you are already familiar with some of the backstory I tell below. As I grow older, I am constantly surprised by what younger people do not know, just as I am constantly surprised by what I am capable of forgetting. So I tell this backstory for more than one reason.
Let me suggest, too, that aside from Jews, and Poles and Germans, others may find this story of some interest, for embedded in the understanding of it may reside lessons that transcend any one time and place. No, no, landsmen, do not worry: I am not about to universalize the Holocaust and banalize it by so doing. But the Holocaust can’t help but universalize itself, at least at the margins, since everyone involved in it, perpetrators and victims alike, were, after all, human beings.
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Back on April 8 many Jews and some others observed what is usually called Yom Ha-Shoah in Hebrew (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה) or Holocaust Remembrance Day. There is an historical connection between what happened on April 19, 1943, in Warsaw and this relatively new marker in the Jewish calendar, and it is a connection about which few seem to be aware.
After the re-born State of Israel came into being in May 1948, a discussion ensued about how to memorialize the Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide. As is sometimes (!!!) the case when Jews discuss such things, some disagreement was in evidence. Let us briefly recall its nature.
Many standard-issue Zionists of that time, philosophically muscular to the bone, wanted no part of any memorialization. For them, the entire period of the exile, from the year 135 CE, when the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome failed, until May 1948, was an ignominious (if also very protracted) era in Jewish history. These self-avowed secular socialists wanted to reconnect Jewish history to its glorious roots and saw the Holocaust as a shameful episode. Like lambs to the slaughter they went, these stalwart new Jews used to say, in private if not in public, and some so-called Jewish communal leaders, they charged, were complicit in the whole horrific episode. They did not fight back, and to the extent their otherworldly and superstition-based piety contributed to their passivity (a lot, most believed), then damn that piety and everything associated with it. Rabbis and anti-Semites caused each other, they believed. Commemorating the Holocaust, they feared, would contribute to the retention of the distorted “exile” values they wished to be rid of for all time.
Many religious Jews (and there were and remain more than one type) also rejected the idea of establishing a new day in the Jewish calendar for this purpose. One major figure, whose nickname was the Hazon Ish, ruled that Jews no longer had the authority to create new calendar entries. Others, the majority to be sure, reasoned that other fast days in the calendar sufficed for the purpose. Some put forth the 10th of the Hebrew month of Tevet, whose origin has to do with the first Babylonian breech of the walls of Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE. Others preferred to stretch still further the contents of the even more solemn fast of the 9th of Av, which marks the destruction of both the first and second Temples, and over the years came as well to mark other catastrophes, like the massive destruction of the First Crusade period.
Between the muscular secularists and the Orthodox, however, others wished to go forward in establishing a special day of commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust. This was eventually accomplished in 1953, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben-Tvi signed the law establishing the day. The key was the testimony and insistence of the few survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that there should be such a day. Their cachet was powerful enough to turn the tide of debate, and it was a testimony of great insight as well as social power.
If I may summarize, the Warsaw Ghetto survivors and those who rallied to their view decried the image of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust as sheep led docilely to their own slaughter. They pointed out that Jewish communities in Europe under Nazi occupation were not organized and were not armed. In every community there were Orthodox and secular and many of in-between views; not in a single national community or even a major city was there an overarching organizational structure that would have been capable of directing resistance to the German army. Jews in the various European countries under the Nazi boot had not even a common language. The further east one went, to but not so much into Russia, the more Yiddish was the language of daily use, but Dutch Jews spoke Dutch, Danish Jews Danish, French Jews French and so on.
In the Warsaw Ghetto, things were different. Jews there lived in close quarters, the population was culturally homogeneous for the most part, and the population was per force organized. They obtained weapons by various means, including from members of the Polish underground. They had heard about the Nazi intention to liquidate the Ghetto finally on the first day of Passover, the holiday that celebrates freedom, redemption and hope. They knew that Himmler had meant the liquidation to be a birthday present to Hitler. They had nothing left to lose. Under these conditions, Jews fought bravely, holding off the Germans for an entire month, and inflicting many casualties.
It was important for this distinction between the various conditions in which Jews found themselves to be made in a young Israeli state, loudly and clearly. And this caucus insisted that the name of the day be Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day—יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה—so that not only those who perished without hope of resisting, but those who fought back and the righteous gentiles who helped Jews, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, would also be included. It is a shame that so few American Jews know the actual full name, and this the nuanced meaning, of the day.
As a result of the Warsaw Ghetto survivors’ testimony, some favored establishing Yom HaShoah v’Hagvurah on the 14th of Nisan, the day just before the first Seder, the day the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began. The Orthodox objected on two grounds, however. First, this was too onerous an obligation on a day that families were preparing diligently for the holiday—and, indeed, there is a lot to do. Second, they said, it was not permissible to establish a fast day, or even a sad or solemn day, in the month of Nisan, when we are commanded to celebrate.
So what happened? The powers-that-were decided to compromise: They established the day of commemoration on the 27th of Nisan. Some argued that this date fell within the seven weeks of the counting of the Omer, which, with the exception of Lag B’Omer (the 33rd day of the Omer), was a semi-mourning period anyway for traditional Jews. And 27 Nisan was set because it was eight days before Israeli Independence Day. The symbolism is fairly obvious, to some at least: Modern Israel arose from the flames of the Nazi crematoria and, as in the eight days of circumcision, an eight-count later the country re-entered its covenant with history as a free, independent and living nation.
At first at least, this compromise pleased only some. The more left-wing muscular Zionists ignored the day, just as they were left cold by the idea of establishing Yad Vashem. The haredim (ultra-Orthodox) ignored it too, and most of them still do. When the sirens sound nationwide on 27 Nisan, and every other Jew in Israel observes two minutes of silence in place, the haredim go on with their schools and business and so forth, because they do not recognize the authority of the state in such matters. They do not accept the secular-religious synthesis within Zionism brokered largely by former Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook and epitomized by his characterization of the State of Israel as “the beginning of the dawn of our redemption.” This non-acceptance is why, in large part, the majority of Israelis disparages or detests the haredim, and it is why, incidentally, the unusual new Israeli coalition, which has no Orthodox party representation, looks the way it does.
Over time, all Israeli Jews but the haredim have accepted Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. This is because it’s taught in the schools and people become socialized to it that way. Those haredim who do mark the day do so as part of other, long-established fast days—their original point of view. But there are still some ultra-Orthodox who do not mark the day at all, or commemorate the Holocaust as such as a singular event. They have an argument to make on this score, and it is not an argument to be dismissed before it is honestly understood.
This argument, if I may do it justice in a very brief summary, has two main parts.
First, just as we are commanded to “blot out the memory of Amalek; do not forget” (Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25), we are, mutatis mutandis, commanded to blot out the memory of Hitler and the Nazis (“y’makh sh’mo”). Now, in the Biblical command there is an oft-noted paradox: Remembering to blot out a memory seems a contradiction in terms, for the act of remembering to blot out presupposes the impossibility of blotting out, doesn’t it?
Second, and you will soon see how this connects back to the first, as horrible as the Holocaust was, there have been other episodes that either seemed at the time, or actually were, just as horrible. I have already alluded to the terrible destruction of the Jewish communities in the Rhineland during the last year of the 11th and the early years of the 12th centuries. The Khmelnitsky massacres of the mid-17th century come also to mind. Back further in time, what the Romans did during and after the Bar Kochba rebellion was no picnic either; some 25-30 percent of the population was slaughtered according to most historical estimates. The point? We should not privilege one horror over others because we lack the perspective and understanding to do so. Doesn’t claiming with certainty that this one is the worst raise the bar—God forbid—for the next one? We don’t know the reasons such things happen, but appointing ourselves judges to establish singular days of commemoration suggests somehow that we do. This, the argument goes, is arrogance.
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So what, then, does the tradition do with such challenges? Let’s go back to 1099 for a moment. Few Jews know this (and that includes haredim, whose approach to Judaism is studiously anti-historical, as well as poorly educated secularized Jews), but the “mourner’s kaddish”—the memorial prayer for the dead—was a post-Crusade innovation. A hasid today may insist that Jacob said mourner’s kaddish for his parents or for his wife, Rachel, but he didn’t. The paragraph in the Passover Hagaddah that is recited during the Seder when the door is opened for Elijah—“Pour out thy wrath upon the nations that know thee not. . . .”—was also added around the same time.
But note carefully, for this is the point: These (and other) innovations in the liturgy do not mention the Crusades or the crusaders. They encompass the events without specifying them. This solves the aforementioned paradox: It is indeed possible to blot out the specific name of evil, but still remember the need to fight evil based on past experience. One can do this by transforming the prosaic history people endure into the poetry of the soul, into the syntax of the spirit. That is how the evolving Jewish liturgy has handled tragedy without extinguishing hope. This is the way it tries to balance respect for martyrs with hope in the future. This is what defines, in my view, the genius within this tradition.
As I argued in my Jewcentricity book, the contemporary Jewish community in America has more or less failed to understand this. By indulging in the conceit of the contemporary, the Holocaust has become a form of ancestor worship for too many. As critics from Jacob Neusner to Irving Howe have complained going back now many years, semi-assimilated Jewish Americans have replaced authentic Judaism and the God at its core with a “lite” politicized version in which the State of Israel is the deity and the Holocaust its ritual liturgy. Both God and normative Judaism have been rendered completely superfluous to it. Note too that the regimen of mourning within Jewish tradition has temporal distinction and boundaries: first seven days, then thirty days, then eleven months. But it ends, and it ends because the purpose of the regimen is to assist the mourners to return to the blessings of normal, everyday life. A Holocaust cult that seems never to end is profoundly un-Jewish.
It is this unhappy reality that led me many years ago to create Garfinkle’s Rule: No one who does not participate in the building of, or in the dwelling in, a succah has any right to participate in a Holocaust remembrance event, especially one in which the Heroism part of the day’s name goes unmentioned. (I capitalize these words because it is conventional; there are no capital letters in Hebrew.) I still hold by my rule. If the joys and elations of the tradition are sacrificed to the lachrymose and the ashen, a faux-Judaism that cannot be successfully transmitted to future generations will gnaw its way into consciousness. It already has, as the inter-marriage and assimilation numbers testify. Pace the ridiculous claims of those who have argued that burgeoning anti-Semitism in America is causing assimilation, the truth is that Jews themselves are causing it pretty much all by themselves.
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With this in mind, what can we say about the meaning of seventy years? An answer is on the way, but first a story.
September before last my wife and I traveled to Poland (she for the first time, me for the second) mainly for the purpose of visiting my paternal grandfather’s hometown of Suwalki (he was born there in 1872), in the far northeastern part of today’s Poland, near the Lithuanian border. Suwalki used to have a sizable and thriving Jewish community before September 1939. It was annihilated during the war almost in its entirety. Had my grandfather not left for America as a youngster, I would very probably never have been me.
Suwalki today is a pleasant enough town. But aside from the Jewish cemetery, and a single plaque on a building commemorating the birthplace of a certain person (Avraham Stern), there is no sign that Jews ever lived there, let alone did so for centuries. The old Jewish hospital, the Jewish Y, the rabbi’s house, and several other buildings in the old Jewish part of town have all been repurposed. Chances are that most of the residents of Suwalki today have never met a Jew, and do not know their town’s own rich history thanks in large part to the Communists, much assisted, of course, by the mere but relentless passage of time.
We were in Warsaw a few days, too. You can see on the sidewalks near where the Ghetto used to be memorial inscriptions testifying to its having existed. We saw a guide showing a group of Canadian Jewish tourists around, but there’s nothing to see, really, except in one’s own poorly or well-tutored imagination, as the case may be. Warsaw was all but leveled during the 1944 Uprising, as the Red Army waited knowingly, and cynically, on the far side of the Vistula for the Germans to destroy the place before their retreat.
A single Warsaw synagogue survived the war, in badly damaged condition. It has been refurbished beautifully and functions again today. When we went in a Talmud havrusa was in progress in a side room; two guys going at each other with vigor and care. But of prewar Jewish Warsaw, there is little else left. A new Jewish museum is in preparation, and when we were there large canvas-banner photographs of Jewish life before 1939 adorned the outside of the building then undergoing refurbishment. The whole idea of a Jewish museum in Warsaw fills me with equivocation, I must admit. A Jewish museum, after all, is what the Nazis planned once they had killed all the Jews. But if the Poles feel as though they want and need to do this, and have the support of Jewish groups, as they do, I’m fine with it. Their wartime suffering too was enormous, unspeakable; no avenue of healing should be off-limits to them as far as I’m concerned. Don’t forget, too, that soon after the war the Jews could rejoice in the birth of Israel, but Poles got cadres of vicious Communist thugs suppressing them for decade upon decade.
Now, finally, about the number 70: Psalm 90, characterized as a prayer of Moses, reads at verse 10 like this: “The span of our life is seventy years, or if we are strong eighty years, but the best of them is trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass and we fly away.” Leaving aside for now the many other symbolic uses of the number 70, and of the letter “ayin” that represents it—and there are at least a dozen in the tradition—the Psalm makes the simple point that the human lifespan isn’t too far from seventy years on average. When we fly away our memories fly with them, unless we have made an effort to pass them on in one way or another.
I think it’s fair to say that the world has learned something from the war and the Holocaust. When hateful people begin referring to enemy groups as insects or clods of human feces or as sons of pigs and monkeys, we all know now, much better than we did in the 1930s, that this is part and parcel of the dehumanization that invariably precedes genocide. This is a hopeful collective memory earned from the war, and of course it applies universally.
Needless to say, there have been other, literally monumental efforts to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, and of the heroisms great and small of World War II. But as the generation that lived during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the war flies from us with each passing day, we Jews, anyway, ought to know better than to rely on stone and glass monuments and buildings and sculptures and physical structures to preserve memory. That is not the Jewish way. Other civilizations throughout history have built great buildings—pyramids and palaces and castles and cathedrals and great walls, and some have even carved huge idols in mountainsides. Yet all of those civilizations have either perished, been layered over to oblivion, or are likely one day to be layered over. Jews instead built palaces of memory in the hearts and minds of their children using words and melodies, not bricks and stone. Jews have translated their historical experiences into ramparts of the spirit.
So the challenge is not that we will forget the Holocaust, anymore than we have forgotten the spilled blood of the First Crusade. The challenge is that we will remember it the wrong way, and so forget, and therefore lose, what is really important to us. If you want specifics here, direct your attention to how Psalm 90 continues: “Satisfy us in the morning with Your lovingkindness, that we may sing and rejoice all our days. . . . Let Your deeds be seen by your servants, and Your glory by their children. . . .”
Understand now? It’s about singing and rejoicing, and it’s about children. We have maybe seventy years, and when those years are gone no one will care how many tears we cried over our slain or how many Holocaust ceremonies we attended. We must remember our sorrows by embedding them in a tradition whose strength is that it is suffused with singing and rejoicing, a tradition that sees a child as raw material for the greatest monument anyone can build: a decent, compassionate, brave and loving human being. That, I humbly submit, is what this 70th anniversary means, or ought to mean, not just to Jews, but, if I may be so bold, to everyone.