Remember . . . For Life
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Gabe was one of the least negative people to walk this earth. Despite the traumas of the first decades of his life, he never spoke of himself as a victim. Gabe had every reason to reject God, but he held an unwavering faith, laying tefillin every day and living proudly as a Jew. Gabe would have been well within his rights to be suspect of human nature and resent humanity as a whole, but he lived everyday with love and generosity of spirit. Having experienced the horrors of Nazism and Communism firsthand, Gabe was no Pollyanna, but he leveraged his experiences towards a life of compassion, always critical of any person or movement that sought to suppress the humanity of another. To his dying day, Gabe never forgot what he lost, asking that the names of his brothers, who were denied proper burial, be inscribed on his headstone alongside his own. A deeply good person, a man who, despite having every reason to hate, had a heart as pure as it was filled with love, Gabe never allowed the trauma that was and would always be his to define the future that he sought to create for himself, his family, and all those blessed to know him.
Long before Gabe Legmann, and for that matter, long before the Holocaust, we Jews well understood that who we are, as individuals and as a community, is defined by memory. The frequency with which the Bible instructs us, more than any other command, to remember that we were once strangers in a strange land. The Jewish obligation to see ourselves as if we personally came out Egypt and stood present at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. At times of joy and of sorrow we remember. That is why we break a glass at Jewish weddings: “If I forget thee…if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.” (Psalms 137:5) It is why, when we invoke God’s name in our prayers, we always remember our God to be the same as the God of Abraham and Isaac, Sarah and Rebecca. It is why Milton Berle could quip that when a person converts to Judaism, they are granted five thousand years of retroactive persecution. Jews are not the only people for whom the remembrance of things past shapes present identity – we are just a particularly good case study. For us, the project of remembrance is part and parcel of the task of living.
But what we also know as Jews is that memory consists of not one but two activities: remembering, yes – but also letting some memories go. We need both. The generation of the Exodus had no shortage of sins: the Golden Calf, the lack of faith of the spies, multiple rebellions, and complaints every step of the way. Their greatest sin, however, the one that tied all the others together and ultimately denied them entry into the Land, was their inability to free themselves from the psychological shackles of their servitude. They conjured up imagined pleasures, the fleshpots of their Egyptian sojourn, allowing memories of the past to colonize their present to the detriment of their future. But it is not just misplaced nostalgia that impedes our forward momentum. As Jews we are also on guard against the peril of perseverating in the memories of hurts better left behind. “Remember Amalek,” commands Deuteronomy in reference to our sworn enemy; “blot out their memory.” (25:17-19) How can one, you might ask, remember and blot out memory at the same time? The Rabbis explain that the commands are not contradictory: We remember, but we let go of the resentment – a cortical pruning that makes each of us who we are and ensures our forward momentum. It should not be lost on any of us that the Yom Kippur ritual described in the Torah involves not one but two goats: one that is sacrificed and one that is released into the wilderness, representing what we must let go. The distinction is the task at the core of this Yom Kippur day: this sifting of memories, vows, injuries, insults, and all the rest. What shall we bring forward? What shall we let go of? What is the right balance between the two?
Aside from the personal loss, the passing of Gabe, the last Holocaust survivor whom I can count within my extended family, has prompted me to reflect on the generational transition and transformation that we are all living through – the passing of the generation of Holocaust survivors. According to the Claims Conference, the survivor population in the US has dropped below fifty thousand, with a seventy-six percent projected decline by 2030. The numbers give us a sense of urgency; the landscape is shifting. Whether we personally are descendants of survivors or not, our Jewish identities have all been shaped in their presence and by their presence. For me, survivors were family and family friends, at our Shabbat table, out to dinner with my parents, and all over. It was both remarkable and unremarkable to have a Hebrew School teacher with a number tattooed on their arm. The same will not be true of the next generation. Removed in time and testimony from the events of seventy-plus years ago, there will be a new generation of caretakers of Holocaust memory, different than the last. So, I ask you as we enter this new phase of Jewish history: What shall we remember? What memories shall we allow to fade? Is there a right and wrong to Holocaust memory? Who decides its correct use? Who calls out its abuse? What will this next chapter look like? How shall we remember the Holocaust?
In its most basic formulation, the answer to the question of Holocaust memory is both straightforward and unequivocal: We must always remember. As long as a Jew has breath to breathe, we remember the six million souls, one and half million of them children, who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Israel’s Holocaust Museum takes its name – Yad Vashem – from the prophet Isaiah, who describes the fear of those individuals who, lacking descendants, faced the anxiety of being forgotten. (56:5) We create a monument to their names by means of museums, memorials, education, Yom HaShoah observances, bnei mitzvah pairings – by any means necessary. We remember and we never forget.
But how shall we remember? Is it death or life that we recall? Zokhreinu l’hayim, we say throughout this day. Remember us l’hayim, for life. More important than remembering how the Six Million died is to recall how they lived. Each life, representing a universe, and a millennia-long history of European Jewry, of culture, literature, music, learning, and living. If there is an adjustment that awaits the coming chapter of Holocaust remembrance, it is that we need to spend more time learning about those lives as they were lived and less on those lives as they were lost. In her provocatively titled new book People Love Dead Jews, author Dara Horn points out that while many can name and perhaps have even visited one, two, or three concentration camps, how many of us can name three Yiddish authors we know and have read? At Yad Vashem, in Battery Park, on the National Mall, around the country, and throughout the world, these last seventy -plus years have seen the proliferation of Holocaust museums and Holocaust history departments and professorships to memorialize, document, and teach how Jews died. We should be proud of this work; it reflects the very best minds, philanthropy, and volunteerism of a generation.
Now let’s set some goals for the next seventy years: a massive program of cultural reclamation to honor the lives, not the deaths, of the millions of Jews and the millennia of history that we solemnly vow never to forget.
To the question of whether to remember the lives of the Six Million there is only one answer: a categorical yes. More textured is the answer to the question of how we remember the wickedness of the Nazis and their collaborators. At risk of stating the obvious, the passing of the generation of survivors also signals the passing of the generation of perpetrators. I well understand the need for justice, for reparations, and even for vengeance over these last seventy-plus years. Given the horror, how could it be otherwise? But what about the next seventy years? Shall we not loosen our grip on hatred just a little?
Since his passing, I watched the video of Gabe’s story as it was documented by USC’s Shoah foundation. As he sat down to be interviewed, Gabe noted that his interviewer had a German accent. He made a comment to the effect of being comforted in the knowledge that he was in the presence of a German on the right side of history. “Not so,” the woman clarified. Her parents were card-carrying members of the Nazi party. She had struggled her entire life to come to terms with her family history; her efforts to preserve Holocaust memory reflected her commitment to turn the corner of personal and national history. Now, she may have been exceptional, and it is not as if antisemitism and hatreds of all kinds don’t still persist in Germany and elsewhere. Of course they do – a topic to which we will turn momentarily. Nor is it a matter of whether we the living can forgive on behalf of the dead; it is not, I believe, our moral right to do so. It is, however, the first principle of Jewish theology that every person and every generation be judged on their own merits. Besides, there is an untold psychic cost to holding onto hatred. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the Jewish musician about whom I have spoken in the past, was himself a refugee from the Nazis. He toured the world and every so often went back to Germany to give concerts. People would ask him, understandably, how, given what the Germans did, he could go back and sing. Carlebach responded, “I only have one soul. If I had two souls, I would gladly devote one of them to hating the Germans full time. I don’t. I only have one soul, and I’m not going to waste it on hating.” (Alan Lew, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, p. 231). What differentiates this chapter from the next chapter of Holocaust memory? A little less hate.
And as sure as I am that in the coming seventy years we must loosen our hold on intergenerational hatreds, I am equally sure that we must redouble our efforts to remember the lessons of the Nazi rise to power. We are presently living in an era of democratic backsliding. The rise of antisemitism from the left and right is one expression of the illiberalism of our time, but it is not the only one. The political violence of Charlottesville, of January 6, the rise of conspiracy theories on social media, the fierce opposition to immigration, the renewed racism, the refusal to accept election outcomes, the sharp identity politics and toxic polarization of our time – these are all alarm bells, all warning signs. They are all the preconditions for the rise of authoritarianism and the failure of democracies. It is happening around the world – in China, Russia, and Europe – and it is happening here in our own backyard.
The question need not be as charged as whether another Holocaust can happen. The question can merely be whether we are that different from Weimar Germany, and whether here and now, we too are bearing witness to the erosion of our democracy. By a certain telling, the trauma of the Holocaust extended western democracies a seventy-plus year window that kept our demons in check, demons that I fear are now being let loose. If nothing else, to study the Holocaust is an object lesson in what happens when societies fail to educate citizens on the importance of democracy. The Holocaust is a case study spotlighting the shameful tendency of the world to stand idly by in the face of persecution – seventy years ago against the Jews, and in our time against the Rohingya, the Uighurs, Afghan women, and so many others. Elie Wiesel taught that though the Holocaust was a unique and uniquely Jewish event, its implications are universal. We dare not, now or in the future, engage in competitive suffering, as if the enormity of our own suffering should preclude a lesson that would save other’s lives. Just the opposite! As we write this next chapter, let the agonies of our past teach the world today. Let our people’s sufferings be leveraged towards compassion for others; let the moral vacuum of humanity’s past inaction impel present humanity into action! There is much, so much, that the memory of the Holocaust can still teach the world, a curriculum whose importance increases in urgency with every passing day.
It is not just the rest of world that needs to reconsider the lessons of the Holocaust. We the Jewish people must reintegrate the message of the Holocaust into our own self-understanding. For many years now, I have argued that while I, and perhaps you, were part of a generation raised to believe that one must live Jewishly so as not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory, that is a rationale that has long since run its course. Remember, yes – always. But if the argument for Jewish living is derived solely from Holocaust remembrance, then Judaism does not deserve preservation. The Judaism we will teach, preach, and practice at Park Avenue Synagogue – to live passion-filled Jewish lives – will never be independent of the Holocaust, but neither will it ever be dependent upon the Holocaust.
But it is more than that. As a people we must be vigilant against any attempts from within our fold to instrumentalize the Holocaust towards justifying any aspect of our people’s agenda. I understand why, in decades past, so much of Israel education was focused on the Holocaust: March of the Living trips with Israeli flags draped over our shoulders and trips to Yad Vashem ending with the singing of “Hatikvah.” Not only do I understand such efforts, I led them! Now, moving forward, we must resist the urge to link Zionism too closely to the Holocaust. We must resist because it is historically inaccurate to link the establishment of Israel with the Holocaust: Zionism long preceded the rise of Nazism. We must resist because it is a linkage that plays directly into the arguments of our enemies who would have the world believe that if not for the trauma of the Holocaust, there would be no Israel, a specious argument that will become stronger, not weaker, in the years ahead as the living testimony of the survivors fades. Arguments for Jewish life and arguments for a sovereign Jewish state must stand independent of the Holocaust, even if – if not especially if – it means rethinking the use of Holocaust memory in both Jewish and public discourse. It is dangerous, dishonest, and a dishonor to the victims of the Holocaust to weaponize our memory of them for present political purposes. To say the “borders of 1967 are the borders of Auschwitz,” to say, “the year is 1939 and Iran is Germany,” to say or do anything invoking the memory of the Holocaust as some sort of moral shield for present policy in America or in Israel is historically incoherent, morally repugnant, and a sign of deep collective failure. Remember, yes. But to instrumentalize that memory to cover up our own lapses, or – even worse – to justify them, that is an abuse of Holocaust memory to which we must never descend.
No different than leaving Egypt, no different than standing at Sinai, for as long as there are Jews, we will never forget; we will always be defined by Auschwitz. But it is a memory that must be a prompt for kindness, compassion, civility, and action. As former Park Avenue Synagogue president Menachem Rosensaft of the World Jewish Congress, himself the child of survivors, shared with me, it is not the dehumanization that took place that we remember; rather, we must remember the defiant spirit of Jews facing death who refused who refused to become like animals, who refused to allow themselves to be dehumanized by their oppressors. We identify with the victims but do not wallow in victimization. We swear never to forget even as we loosen our grip on generational resentments, never leveraging our past pain to justify present cruelty or ethnonational chauvinisms of any kind.
To be defined by Auschwitz is to remember the Jewish inmate who shared their meager rations of what passed for food with a friend or a stranger who was more hungry; the inmate who used her medical training to save the lives of Jewish women and children even after her own child had been murdered in a gas chamber; the Jewish inmate who sang a song or told a joke to lift the spirits of their barrack mates. The inmates who in praying to God or refusing to pray to God were manifesting a determination to remain Jewish and thereby human in the face of the ruthless phalanx whose goal was to destroy both their Jewishness and their humanity.
Today and every day, we remember. We remember the Six Million, just as one day soon we will remember the survivors who I think would want to be remembered – as Gabe would – not for dwelling on death but for rebuilding life. For their resilience, for their courage, for their strength, and for their capacity for hope. For their ability, even in the darkest of nights, to call on God – trustful and unafraid. Eftah v’lo efhad. Their lives are reminders not so much of remarkable people but of just how remarkable people – and by extension all of us – can be. (Helmreich). Thus may the Six Million, thus may the survivors, and thus may we here today prove ourselves worthy to be zokhreinu l’hayim, remembered for life.
Helmreich, William, “Don't Look Back: Holocaust Survivors in the U.S.” Jerusalem Letters of Lasting Interest, JL:123, 1 October 1991(23 Tishrei 5752).
Horn, Dara, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2021)
Lew, Alan, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003)