Look Back on Yom Shoah, Celebrating Yom Haatzmaut

So here we are celebrating Israel’s 60th. It’s really exciting and wonderful to be here and to be experiencing festivities in Israel for the first time. Of course I am also relishing the irony of Olmert being investigated yet again for a corruption scandal right in time for the celebrations. But before I offer any reflections about being here over the 60th, I want to write further about the Shoah program at Pardes. My next article, will be devoted toward Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haaztmaut. I’m also thinking of posting some correspondence that my friend and I had over the relationship of the Jewish people and the diaspora. I think I will leave that until next week because its such a big topic.

The day before Yom Hashoah we heard from an Auschwitz survivor, Ruth Grand. Despite having been the only survivor of her family, she continued to remain an observant Jew and now she has four children, 11 grandchildren and 1 great-grandchild on the way. One person told her that she didn’t look like a survivor because she looked happy. I think her story was very inspiring for us because it showed people’s ability to survive and rebuild after such a tragedy.

The next day was devoted to remembrance and commemoration of the Shoah. We first heard from Pardes student and literature expert Avi Lang who talked about Yiddish culture in Russia. While the Russian revolution promised and end to Jewish suffering and resulted in the flourishing of Yiddish culture, the Soviet Union of the 1930’s became an oppressive and anti-semitic place for the Jews. Stalin spearheaded a reversal of tolerant policies toward the Jews and proceeded to purge Jews of political and cultural offices. After the war, violent pogroms erupted in the Ukraine and public mourning of the Holocaust was prohibited. While Stalin was the first leader to recognize the new Jewish state, he continued to purge the Jewish intelligentsia and most of it was not discovered until the archives were declassified in the 90’s.

Avi also had us read a story by Dovid Bergelson. Bergelson was born in 1884 in Uman. Although he moved to Berlin in the 20’s and hung out in intellectual circles, he longed to return to Russia. He denounced Zionism to gain favor with the Soviets, eventually moved back to Russia and was later rewarded with a prison sentence from Stalin and eventually his execution. The story called ‘The Declasse’ described a deteriorating shtetl life coming into confrontation with the modern world. The shtetl seems to be portrayed as a morose and stagnant place, while the modern world is all about action and progress.

The second lecture was given by Rabbi Landes who surveyed different theological viewpoints of the Holocaust, particularly the notion of Hester Panim–G-d’s lack of intervention. He noted that there are three important principles in Judaism: G-d is omnipotent, G-d is good and Evil exists. The problem is that it is impossible to reconcile all three.

Some Jewish thinkers we looked at, tried to eliminate one of the three elements in order to make things work out. For example, Richard L. Rubenstein argued that G-d is not omnipotent–which doesn’t necessarly mean ‘the end of all gods’ but rather ‘the demise of a God who was the ultimate actor in history.’ I actually liked what Eliezer Berkovits had to say, which is that Hester Panim is a condition of the world and that at the core of humanity is the ability to choose. If G-d is always present he is withdrawing this essence of humanity because humanity can’t really choose.

My conclusion from this lecture and study is that theology can’t explain it all, and moreover it is really hard to give any explanation for how the Holocaust (or other genocides for that matter) could happen without divine intervention. Frankly it is hard to provide even any type of explanation–theological or not.

Then we heard from Morris Wyszogrod, an artist from the Warsaw Ghetto. It was through his art that he was often able to survive. Morris was born in Warsaw and was the only one of 4 children who survived. Even when Jews heard rumors about the Germans and the war, he said that they tried to convince themselves that the Germans weren’t bad. (But then you know the story.) Morris went to graphics arts school, but once the Germans came he was banned from going to the school to obtain his degree.

After the Ghettoization of the Jewish community, Morris was able to work for the Nazis making signs and painting portraits of the officers. Eventually his family was rounded up and murdered, and after the Warsaw uprising the rest of the Jews (including himself) were made to walk through the burning ghetto where wounded and burnt people were still lying in the streets.

After the uprising,  he was put on a truck which took them to a concentration camp, where he witnessed horrible atrocities but was spared his life because he was fit to work. One officer who rode around in a horse suffocated children by wrapping the reins around the child and then making his horse gallop and drag the unfortunate child after him.

Morris was transferred to several other camps as the Germans were losing ground in the war. In a subcamp of Auschwitz, prisoners were made dig up the bodies of Jews and then burn them to wipe out evidence of the massacre. In another camp his artistic abilities were again tapped by the Nazis.

After he was liberated from the camp and the war and after getting in touch with his American Uncle, Morris worked for the Joint Distribution Committee in Poland. He was in Poland when the 1946 pogrom occurred, and he was in a jeep that drove by the scene of the massacre. He said that the people in the jeep went inside the building where it occurred and took photographs of the scene.

Morris came to the U.S. and studied at the Pratt Institute, He went on to work for the JDC, designing their ‘rescue, relief, reconstruction’ symbol, and well known companies in the U.S. He married another survivor and they have several kids and grandchildren.

Morris wrote a book about his life called ‘A Brush With Death’ which includes some of his own artwork. You can read a review about it here and you can purchase it on sites like http://www.amazon.com. ‘ Hearing from both Ruth and Morris made me realize that I really need to write down more information about my grandmother’s life. She is my only grandparent still alive, and she and her family escaped Germany before the war–but left many behind who perished. Sometimes when I speak with her she brings up some interesting piece of information about a family member I don’t know about. I need to write down more of her history–not just because of the Holocaust but to preserve our own family history.

The lecture also gave food for thought about the role that culture played in Nazi Germany. Like power grabbers before them (Rome comes to mind first) the Nazis used the arts and culture to create an image of themselves as an elite people and to legitimize their political claims. How ironic that in order to build display this cultural elitism they resorted to acts of robbery–dispossessing Jews of their own artwork. The Israel Museum has actually been exhibiting works that fell into Nazi hands and that still have no owners.

Moreover it delegitimizes the myth that those with more culture create better, more civilized societies. No! It seems like culture can be warped and polluted and abused. Morris described and showed us a picture of a violinist in the concentration camp playing violin for the commanders after a hard day’s work. The Romans, for all of their amazing architecture and engineering were also brutal (as Jews knew first-hand). The gladiator battles weren’t exactly highbrow affairs meant to elevate people’s minds, but more like a way to feed the poor masses.

It also goes to show you that humans who commit evil acts are not necessarily monsters when it comes to other aspects of their life. They can be incredibly loving with their family or culturally attuned when attending a concert. But this adherence to moral codes, family values and cultural ideals in all the realms outside of the realm in which they commit atrocities only makes the evil even more repugnant. If these people were completely one dimensional, perhaps the evil would not be so difficult for us to understand. But these were people who had feelings and value systems and who appreciated a well-done still life painting and yet succeeded in decimating European Jewry.

After hearing from Morris, we participated in a short ceremony where candles were light, students read texts written by Holocaust victims and several prayers and poems were sung. The afternoon session, which I didn’t attend, was devoted to the role of nonJews in the Shoah.

That is my summary of the Shoah program at Pardes. As I mentioned earlier, tomorrow I’ll devote some blog space to this past week’s festivities.

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