Jeff Jacoby: Remarks from the Yom HaShoah Commemoration

Facebook Post : April 25, 2017 at 5:05 am

I was the speaker Monday evening at the Yom HaShoah commemoration at Temple Emanuel of Newton, Mass. My topic was “How The World Forgot to ‘Never Forget.'” Here is an excerpt from my remarks:

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When it comes to the Holocaust, there is no shortage of proof. It is among the most exhaustively documented events in human history. It was originally chronicled and documented by the Nazis who perpetrated it, and by the Jews who were their victims. Today, resources on the Shoah are endless: oral histories and diaries, photographs and films, encyclopedias and databases, college courses and children’s storybooks, March of the Living pilgrimages, Eichmann trial testimony, and on and on and on.

In 1943, speaking to his officers, Heinrich Himmler called the mass murder of the Jews “a glorious page in our history that . . . shall never be written.” But Himmler was wrong. The history *was* written. Remembrance of the Holocaust is buoyed by an ocean of scholarship, testimony, memorials, education. The survivors are vanishing, but what happened to them, and to the Six Million who didn’t survive, is documented so thoroughly that it will never be forgotten.

Or so we would like to think.

For the hard truth is that “Never Forget” was never realistic. Human beings *need* to forget. Our minds were created not just to retain information, but to let go of it. For most of us, even the most intense and agonizing memories diminish over time. We couldn’t survive if they didn’t.

The Shoah was not the first eruption of savagery and slaughter in our history. At the Passover seder just days ago, we reminded ourselves that the urge to wipe out Jews has been a constant in history: “Shebechol dor vador omdim aleinu le’chaloteinu.” “In every generation they rise against us to annihilate us.”

Yet how many of us remember the earlier horrors Jews went through? How many of us say “Never Forget” about the 19th-century pogroms in Russia? Or the slaughter of Granada’s Jews in 1066? Or the monstrous blood libels against Jews during the Black Death in the 1300s? Or the rivers of Jewish blood that flowed in the Rhineland during the Crusades?

Let me read you a description not from the Nazi exterminations 70 years ago, but from the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648 — 370 years ago. Bogdan Chmielnicki was a Ukrainian revolutionary who led an uprising against Polish rule. In the course of their rebellion, Chmielnicki and his followers carried out one of the worst massacres in pre-Holocaust Jewish history. Hundreds of Jewish communities were wiped out, tens of thousands of Jews were exterminated.

Listen to a bit of testimony from *that* holocaust:

“Some of had their skins flayed off them and their flesh was flung to the dogs. The hands and feet of others were cut off and were flung onto the roadway where carts ran over them and they were trodden underfoot by horses … Many were buried alive. Children were . . . torn apart like fish. They ripped up the bellies of pregnant women, took out the unborn children, and flung them in their faces. They tore open the bellies of some of them and placed a living cat within the belly and they left them alive thus, cutting off their hands so that they should not be able to take the living cat out of the belly … There was never an unnatural death in the world that they did not inflict upon them.”

In the wake of so much death, Jewish leaders of the time decreed a three-year period of active mourning, during which, for example, no music of any kind was to be played, not even at weddings. Just as we do, the survivors of that bloody era said “Never Forget.” But who today still remembers?

It pains me deeply to say this, but the same fate will overtake the Shoah. In time, the Holocaust will become, so to speak, “ordinary” history.

Indeed, it is already happening.

. . .

When the Pew Research Center undertook a deep survey of the American Jewish community a few years ago, it found that 73% of American Jews said that remembering the Holocaust was an essential part of being Jewish. But only 19% said that observing Jewish law was a critical element of Jewish identity.

That is not sustainable.

It is Judaism, not the Holocaust, which must be at the center of our value system. If we truly wish to inculcate an ethos of “Never Forget,” we should be focusing less on the narrative of how and where and how many Jews were killed, and emphasizing instead what it is about Jews that so enrages the Hitlers of history and drives them to genocide.

For more than 3,000 years, the tiny Jewish nation has stood for one idea above all: that there are God-based moral values to uphold in this world. Jews insisted that the God who created all human beings expects human beings to live ethical lives. To treat each other with decency. To be truthful. To feed the hungry and clothe the naked and love the stranger. And to acknowledge that morality is not relative — it is universal because God is universal.

The Holocaust was not, at bottom, about racism or concentration camps or scapegoats or yellow stars or ghettos or gas chambers. It was about Jews and Judaism and the Jewish mission. . . .