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Counteracting The Worst Plague of All

Sermon Shabbat Va’eira 5780

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

This Shabbat we read of the plagues inflicted on Egypt long ago, the ancient curses that helped our people achieve liberation and freedom. But a greater plague—indeed, the greatest plague in human history, and the most enduring one—remains very much alive in our world today. It is the deep, irrational diseased hatred we call Anti-Semitism. Particularly at a time of rising Anti-Semitism around the world, we have a duty to remember the Holocaust now.

The Shoah marks a nadir of Jewish history, and it represents the culmination of the worst anti-Semitic destruction in all of our long history. At the beginning of the Shoah, traditionally understood as starting on Krystallnacht in Germany in November 1938, there were almost 17 million Jews in the world, about 9 million of them in Europe. By the end of the Shoah in 1945, there were just 11 million Jews left in the world, and fewer than 3 million in Europe; 6 million were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

So the way that we choose to commemorate the Holocaust is particularly important. This Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, most notorious death camp of the Nazis during the Shoah. As such, January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the date when Europe and most of the non-Jewish world commemorates the murder of 6 million Jews in World War II. International Holocaust Remembrance Day was established by the UN in 2005, formalizing a date that many nations—Britain and Germany among them—had observed for over a decade. In addition, the International Holocaust Forum was established in 2005, on the 60th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Red Army, and it meets every five years. It is meeting right now in Jerusalem, at Yad Vashem, the greatest Holocaust memorial center in the world.

But for Jews, Yom HaShoah falls in the spring, on the 27th of Nissan, a date chosen for complicated reasons by the Israeli Knesset. Does the Knesset do anything that is not complicated? While Israel also marks International Holocaust Day, it is Yom HaShoah that is the religious date for commemorating the martyrs of the Holocaust. Before I explore the meaning of this 75th Anniversary of liberation, a few words about the history of Holocaust Remembrance.

First, we need to realize that commemorating the martyrs of the Shoah was a challenging thing for Jews in the immediate aftermath of overwhelming trauma. There were few formal efforts to do so in the period just after the end of World War II. There was an enormous Jewish refugee problem with the European survivors, many of whom remained stateless and ended up in displaced persons “DP camps” after the war for months or even years, and the immediate concern was to provide new homes and lives for the survivors in countries far from Europe. In addition, many of the survivors soon found themselves locked behind the Iron Curtain, in the newly completed Soviet Bloc under Stalin’s hegemony, where commemorations of World War II deaths were extremely unlikely to reflect anything about the Jewish character of the victims.

And of course, less than 2½ years after the end of World War II the UN Partition Resolution of November 1947 led quickly to the Israeli War of Independence, and in May 1948 the proclamation of the State of Israel, whose victory in that war, and independence as a Jewish state, was not assured until March of 1949. The world, and the Jewish world in particular, was too busy trying to rebuild and remake itself to take time for memorials. And the trauma was too fresh, the destruction too immediate for many to even face exploring its implications.

When the new Israeli Knesset, meeting in Jerusalem, sought to establish a day on which to remember the victims of the Shoah, they initially were asked by survivors of the partisan fighters to choose the date when the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began in 1943. That date, of course, coincided with the first night of Passover. According to Halakhah, Jewish law, no mourning dates may be established during the entire month of Nisan, since that represents the month when our people were liberated from Egyptian slavery. The Orthodox establishment was certainly not going to consent to a day of mourning on the first day of Pesach itself.

And so, a long, drawn-out argument ensued, lasting nearly two years. The Orthodox adamantly opposed any date during the month of Nisan for Yom HaShoah, a day of mourning for the victims of the Holocaust, preferring a date during the counting of the Omer, a kind of minor period of mourning traditionally; they asked for date during the month of Iyyar, after Nisan was done. The Ghetto fighters were similarly adamant that a date unrelated to any historical connection to the Shoah made no sense, and the Israeli establishment, the Labor Zionists, did not wish the date of Yom HaShoah to fall after Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s then-new Independence Day.

Eventually, in nearly Talmudic fashion, a compromise was reached that pleased no one. Passover’s celebration was spared, but the full month of Nisan was not. The date chosen was the 27th of Nisan, not quite after the month of freedom and Pesach, and not really connected directly with the date of any historical event, but exactly a week before Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s independence day, demonstrating the even the horrific trauma of the Holocaust might be redeemed by the founding the Jewish State.

Yom HaShoah has continued as an important date, but has never become the great Memorial Day that might have been envisioned for such a remembrance. But International Holocaust Day has grown in importance each year since it was formalized, at least among non-Jews. And in a world in which the revival of Anti-Semitism seems to be in full-swing, it is assuming a place of greater consequence than ever before.

And so we come to this 75th anniversary this coming week. Five years ago I had the opportunity to attend the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. At the time, it was a powerful affirmation of the need to remember; but somehow the words I wrote during that experience seem more relevant today.

I’ll share some of them with you now. The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (and the Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Monowitz camps) was held on a cold, snowy, windy day. The slush around the huge camp was frozen into icy slurry when I arrived by bus from Krakow in the early morning, slippery and rough to walk over. It was on this day 70 years ago that Red Army troops ended the torture and murder of the Jews at Auschwitz, and it is this day that Europeans, and most people around the world, hold Holocaust Remembrance Day.

How did any of those poor Jews survive a few days of January, let alone the full weight of a Polish winter—or two, or three? And of course, at Auschwitz, a designed death camp for most of its existence, that was the least of their problems.

At 3:30 PM the ceremony itself began. In many ways, it was much like every Holocaust memorial ceremony I have ever attended, participated in or led. Larger, better produced, more widely televised, but progressing as expected. There was somber music, thoughtful speeches, and the remembrances of Holocaust survivors. Each of the survivors rose to speak her or his own narrative of systematic destruction, brutal cruelty, sadistic torture and murder, of loss, mourning and memory. All the speakers were excellent, but a survivor named Roman Kent was particularly eloquent. He urged tolerance and respect for all peoples, saying that among the greatest lessons of Auschwitz is that, “Hate is never right and love is never wrong.”

Kent also spoke of holiness, which struck a chord for me. “The heroic deeds of the non-Jews who saved the lives of strangers, the righteous Gentiles who acted in this way, were truly holy. A few thousand people in the face of tens of millions, but they acted with true moral courage, endangering their own lives to save Jews.

“They lit a moral torch in the face of oppression by darkness.”

He concluded, “I would add an 11th commandment after the universally recognized 10: Thou shalt never be a bystander.”

Steven Spielberg was here, too, having produced an elegant little 15-minute film “Auschwitz” that was part of the ceremony. The film noted that the accidental fact that the barracks built here for migrant workers in the 1800's shaped the town’s fate, and illustrated how under the Nazis it grew to swallow up surrounding villages and eventually encompass 48 sub-camps, the largest and most efficient death camp in the Reich. It is still enormous. Birkenau was the extermination camp, and between 1.1 and 1.5 million people were slaughtered here, most of them burned to smoke in the crematoria.

The night before, Spielberg spoke in Krakow, where he filmed “Schindler’s List” in 1993, dedicating its proceeds to create the Shoah Foundation and its great work chronicling the lives of survivors. He said, “If you’re a Holocaust survivor your identity as a Jew was threatened by the Third Reich. Your identity is flooded with mortality, [and] unspeakable acts of hatred, but your identity is also one of resilience and an incomparable appreciation of life despite all those who tried to take it away from you.

“Your identity is in the courage you have shown in telling your stories…

“If you are a Jew today, in fact if you are any person who believes in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, you know that like many other groups we’re once again facing the perennial demons of intolerance. Anti-Semites, radical extremists and religious fanatics that provoke hate crime – these people that want to, all over again, strip you of your past, of your story and of your identity, and just as we talk about our personal histories and what makes us who we are, these people make their own points. Facebook pages identify Jews and their geographic locations with the intention to attack, and there is a growing effort to banish Jews from Europe.

“The most effective way we can combat this intolerance and honor those who survived and those who perished is to call on each other to do what the survivors have already done, to remember and to never forget.”

Ron Lauder’s speech, towards the end of the program, was the first real surprise in today’s commemoration. Lauder began, "I'm here simply as a Jew... If I had been born in Hungary in 1944 instead of New York would I have lived? The answer is no, I would have died like the 460,000 Hungarian Jews who died here in this terrible place, Auschwitz.”

He noted that he changed his speech after the horrible attacks in Paris, Belgium, and around the world in January 2015. “Jews are being targeted again in Europe and around the world simply because they are Jews.” He spoke about the return of Anti-Semitism in Europe, noting that, “The lies that are continually told about Israel are poisoning the world. In our world, if you tell a lie three times and no one contradicts it, it becomes the truth.”

Lauder noted the brutal persecution of Christians going on in the Middle East, that journalists are being killed in Syria and Iraq. And he concluded, “World indifference led to Auschwitz. Do not let this happen again...”

The great author and poet Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, was quoted by several different speakers. The final one was Piotr Cywiński, the director of the Auschwitz Holocaust Museum and Center. He quoted Levi saying, “It happened, therefore it can happen again… It can happen anywhere.” And concluded,

“Even today we have the right to be afraid.

But we also have the obligation to be responsible…

‘Never again’ is not a political program, but a personal decision.

It means – never again because of me, never again in me,

never again with me. I believe that never again with all of us.”

We all pray that he is right.

Five years have passed since those eloquent speeches and that moving commemoration on a bitterly cold day and evening. Those five years have not improved the situation of the Jews of Europe, nor have they seen Anti-Semitism whither away in the face of courageous leadership. Instead, as we all know, they have witnessed a dramatic increase in the kind of hate speech and violent actions that a climate conducive to Anti-Semitism allows, and we have all witnessed leaders who have permitted and even apologized for those who traffic in this most ancient and horrible of hatreds. As the President of Germany said at the opening of the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, “I wish I could say that we Germans have learned from history once and for all. But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading. I cannot say that when Jewish children are spat on in the schoolyard, I cannot say that when crude Anti-Semitism is cloaked in supposed criticism of Israeli policy.

“I cannot say that when only a thick wooden door prevents a right-wing terrorist from causing a bloodbath in a synagogue in the city of Halle on Yom Kippur. Of course, our age is a different age. The words are not the same. The perpetrators are not the same. But it is the same evil.”

And of course he might have been speaking of the United States, where we have witnessed the first violent attacks on synagogues in American history in the past 15 months, and where anti-Semites killed people in a Jersey City kosher market and slashed people at a Hanukkah party in Monsey.

These are hard things to think about, and difficult problems to contemplate. I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture tonight. America, and France and Germany and Britain for that matter, are far from facing what our people faced in the 1930s and 40s. We are widely accepted, and the number of Anti-Semites, and of violent Anti-Semites, remains a tiny percentage of the population, primarily representing psychologically disturbed individuals. There is no reason to panic, or to hide our Judaism at all.

But this 75th Anniversary commemoration must remind us that we have much work to do to educate people about the true dangers of hatred and bigotry, and to continue to teach about the Shoah and its impact to younger generations. It is our responsibility to further this education as one of the best ways of reversing the rising tide of Anti-Semitic hatred flowing through our country and our world.

When we do this actively, even insistently, we have the capacity to stop this plague from spreading. And if we can do that, we will allow the innate goodness and blessing of Judaism to grow and flourish.

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