Monday, 9 May 2016

Yom HaShoah - Holocaust and Authenticity

Want to talk about the Holocaust.

It's a lovely day, we have a lovely BM to celebrate, but still it's worth talking about the Holocaust, in the week of Yom HaShoah - the Day of Holocaust memory - in particular. For Jewish communities across the world this is way we emerge from the festival of our freedom - Passover. We celebrate being free and then, on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, we commemorate the worst act in our history, and the worst act in human history.

There is something spiritually powerful about locating a commemoration of the Holocaust in the week after Passover, almost as if to say - you were slaved, you are now free, but never forget how fragile that freedom is, how easily all the things we free Jews take for granted - the ability to practice our religion, the ability to walk down the streets knowing that the police are on our side, even the ability to inhale fresh air - were taken from us again, only a blink of the eye ago.

But the reason for the co-incidence of Passover and Yom HaShoah is both simpler and equally powerful. The date was chosen to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Soon after their conquest of Poland the Nazis commanded Jews to concentrate in tiny ports of cities they once thrived in. Some four hundred thousand Jews were concentrated into a 3.3km2 area of Warsaw. To give you a sense of what that means; the London Borough of Camden is as half as numerous and seven times the size. And then the deportations started; 7,000 Jews a day were taken East, supposedly for resettlement. 

Actually they were taken to their death at Treblinka. In two months 300,000 Jews were, to use the jargon liquidated. When the Germans came into the Ghetto on the first day of Passover 1943 the remaining survivors, already sick, hungry and weakened, decided to fight. A week after the Passover they had their greatest success, but the Nazis simply regrouped and came back again, in larger number and with more powerful weaponry. The revolutionaries never had a chance at victory in anything like the generally held sense of the term. Their leader, Mordechai Anilewicz, knowing the end was coming committed suicide, rather than fall into the hands of the Nazis.

The Nazi commandant, Jurgen Stroop, held that some 71,000 Jews were killed or deported during the revolt. But does that mean the revolution failed.
On the afternoon of 19 April two boys climbed up on the roof of a building on the Muranowski Square and raised two flags, the red-and-white Polish flag and the blue-and-white banner of the ŻZW. These flags remained there, highly visible from the Warsaw streets, for four days. After the war, the Nzai commander charged with the overthrow of the revolt, Jurgen Stroop recalled:
" flags were of great political and moral importance. It reminded hundreds of thousands of the Polish cause, it excited them and unified the population of the General Government, but especially Jews and Poles. Flags and national colours are a means of combat exactly like a rapid-fire weapon, like thousands of such weapons. We all knew that  The Reichsfuehrer [Himmler] bellowed [at me] into the phone: 'Stroop, you must at all costs bring down those two flags!'"
What does it mean to have flown those flags. Does it, did it ever, mean anything in the face of simple, brutal, heinous, murder?

Does anything?

Does anything mean anything in the face of simple, brutal, heinous murder?
You can, if you spend too long in the annals of the Holocaust start to wonder, you can become more than a little depressed at the state of humanity.
The great C20 Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who fled Berlin in 1938, once called racism 'a maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.' Why are we, as a human race, still so unreasonable. Even today, even still.
Here's something I found just this year, it's a clandestine poster, produced in the Warsaw Ghetto by the ZOB - the Jewish Combat Organisation. It reads,  "All people are equal brothers; Brown, White, Black and Yellow. To separate peoples, colors, races – Is but an act of cheating!"

Why are we still cheating? it's enough to make you give up .... well give up on everything. What's the point?

All of this brings me to an intellectual hero of mine, Emil Fackenheim, another Jew who escaped the Nazis by the skin of his teeth, Fackenheim was arrested on Kristallnacht - the Night of Broken Glass in November 1938 and detained in Saccenhausen, but escaped to Scotland, and then Canada. He was an ordained Rabbi, but really a philosopher. He began his academic career as an expert on Kant and Hegel. But there was something about the Holocaust that gnawed away at his ability to do regular scholarship. It gnawed for two decades and then, in the 1960s Fackenheim started to write about the Holocaust.
Can we confront the Holocaust and yet not despair [he wrote]. The contradiction is too staggering and every authentic escape is barred. We have lived this contradiction for twenty years without being able to face it. Unless I am mistaken, we are now beginning to [do that]. And from this beginning confrontation there emerges what I will boldly term a 614th Commandment, the authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another posthumous victory.
It's one of the most famous passages of my Jewish youth. Fackenheim references the 613 traditional commandments found in the Torah Ben you read so beautifully from this morning. And to this he adds this other command, the command not to give in, not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory.
We are forbidden [he went on to say] we are forbidden to deny or despair of God however much we may have to contend with him or our belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world ... lest we make it a meaningless place where God is irrelevant and everything is permitted.

Powerful words, but the sense you have is that there is something not quite fully articulated in Fackenheim's 1970 work, The Jewish Return Into History. And 15 years later Fackenheim is back, with a new book, and a deeper version of the same problem.

Can there ever be, he writes in To Mend the World, an authentic response in the face of the Holocaust?

It's no longer just about being a Jew. Fackenheim, the philosopher, has fallen out of love with philosophy - Heidigger, one of the greatest thinkers of his generation was a proto-Nazi. If a philosopher of Heidigger's calibre, Fackenheim writes, can be responsible for something as awful as giving Nazism intellectual support then maybe philosophy is no longer worth the paper it's written 's on. He cites Kierkegaard's chilling assertion that a “single event of inexplicable horror ‘has the power to make everything inexplicable, including the most [otherwise] explicable events.’” It's a kind of depression. What's the point of celebrating, dancing, living even, when the Holocaust has happened and has shown all these responses to the gift of life to be so worthless. The key word for Fackenheim is 'authentic.' What could be an authentic response to Auschwitz, to Hitler, to the Holocaust - what could you possibly do that would mean anything in the face of that barbarism?

Fortunately Fackenheim is able to dig himself out of the dark pit into which he descends
[It was while studying the story of an Auschwitz survivor Pelagia Lewinska] I made what to me was, and still is, a momentous discovery: [he wrote] that while religious thinkers were vainly struggling for a response to Auschwitz, Jews throughout the world had been responding all along…with an unexpected will to live—with under the circumstances, an incredible commitment to Jewish group survival.[1]

Somehow, even in the depths of the hell that was the Warsaw Ghetto Jews put on plays, educated their children, even produced posters proclaiming the importance of treating every human being the same, no matter their faith, creed or colour. Those actions, writes Fackenheim, were authentic because they were forged in the midst of the awful events themselves.

There were Hasidim in Buchenwald who swapped four servings of bread for a chance to wear tefilin. That makes wearing tefilin today an authentic response to the Holocaust. There was even a group of philosophy students who plotted to assassinate Hitler. The plot failed, they were all murdered, but their bravery rescues, says Fackenheim, the value of engaging in philosophic thought.

And of course the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was authentic, even if it didn't bring an end to the Nazi oppression. It's a beacon of the power of human beings to claim their own destiny, even when the breadth of choice is so parlous. To fly a flag, to launch a revolt against more mighty and more numerous opposition is authentic. We can respond authentically to the Holocaust, taught Fackenheim, despite its horror, by committing ourselves to models of response that were discovered in the midst of the event itself. A response is not about making things better, it's about authenticity, it's about the expression of humanity still counting for something.

This, in part is why we need to keep telling these stories of so long ago, stories of authentic responses to horror. It's to remind ourselves that there is a possibility to live authentically post-Holocaust.  It's why I tell myself these stories. It's why I'm sharing these stories with you today.
Ben, you are a Jewish adult now, these are your stories too, this is your charge, to tell these stories, to respond authentically, and never to hand Hitler a posthumous victory.
It's a challenge for us all,
Shabbat shalom

[1] Emil Fackenheim, The Quest for Past and Future (Bloomington, IN: Beacon, 1968), pp. 19–20.

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