(April 8, 2021 / JNS) I dream of a time when Holocaust Remembrance Day will see us think and talk about the Holocaust. Because for decades, we have been talking about the heroism associated with it, which is something I can no longer take.
There is no greater injustice that can be inflicted on the Holocaust than impressing onto it heroism as its more successful twin sister, the one shining bright in the darkest of skies.
After all, the vast majority of the millions who perished in the Holocaust were not heroically annihilated; they were simply annihilated. The heroes of the Holocaust are exceptional, noble individuals, whose story must be heard—and we have been hearing it for many years, every year; and it is also heard every day, echoing in the names of streets and communities nationwide. There is no dispute over the fact that the stories of those who survived the Holocaust must be heard.
Exceptional individuals, however, are exactly that—individual in numbers, few and far between—while the Holocaust was the annihilation of many.
Captivating and admirable as heroism is, it tends to sideline the hard truth of its elder, somber sibling. The hard truth of the Holocaust is the truth of death and inaction. The truth of the chilling silence of death.
Heroism is easy to talk about, but there is not much to say about the Holocaust, which is death, death and more death. The Holocaust deserves the awe of silence—not boastful tales or stories about valor that are the advocates of heroism. No one advocates for those who simply perished. But masses simply perished. They didn’t die in the name of a cause; they didn’t sacrifice themselves; they didn’t die for us, nor for a country. They were—and then they were no more. They spoke—and then they fell silent.
Nothing is more disturbing than utter silence. The silence of the Holocaust is the silence of the genocide of a Jewish people who is no more. This catastrophe is covered by words because the silence of the Holocaust is the silence of death and we cannot bear to hear it. So we covered over it with a new people, a new state, a new culture, a new language and with tales of heroism.
The chilling, eerie silence of the Holocaust screams one truth: that the heroes and those who were not heroes died just the same, side by side. The Nazis didn’t care whether a Jew was a hero or a coward, virtuous or a villain. Workers, lawyers, doctors, thieves, philanthropists, rabbis, children, infants, the elderly, the disabled, elected officials and beggars—they were all annihilated.
Remember, the Holocaust is death. There is no heroism in it, nor is there any purpose or goal. The Holocaust is the echo of an entire life—millions of lives—that pulsated, fought, betrayed, helped, laughed, cried, hurt, suffered, enraged, smiled, loved … lived. And ceased to live at once.
On Holocaust Memorial Day I think of the silence and dread the talking. And when I think of the silence, I hear a cry “of the Six Million.” They cry out to me in a language I don’t understand, but I understand the disgrace well enough.
They cry out to me about a Jewish culture that is no more, about a Jewish language that has been erased, about a Jewish civilization that has disappeared. The silence of the fathers and mothers of millions who were killed, and also of the millions of others who survived and came together in Israel and the Diaspora, but their culture and language and literature and heritage have been obliterated.
The ghosts of the Six Million still scream at us over the destruction of life, of property, of love, of families, of body, of soul, by the Nazis and their collaborators. But we are the ones responsible for the destruction of the culture, of the language, of history and heritage—and there lies our shame.
We are responsible for erasing our identity because, in this country, we have chosen to speak—to speak Hebrew, to speak of heroism, to speak of “remembering and never forgetting,” to speak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Raoul Wallenberg, Hannah Szenes and Enzo Sereni. They are worthy subjects of conversation, without a doubt—as are all those who were there and survived. But we talk about heroism so as not to hear the silence of the death that is the Holocaust.
We have spoken, and by doing so we have wronged the dead. We talk, so we have forgotten. We have forgotten who we were, what we talked about, and what we had written.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, I think of the Englishman who knows what the generations that preceded him a millennium ago wrote and spoke, as do the Italians, the Swedes, and yes, the Germans. They all reach back and find a solid hold. But what can a secular Ashkenazi Jew expect to find when he reaches back? The silence of the generations and religious rhetoric, neither of which he understands.
Ashkenazi Jews are the only ones to have hit the reboot button, erasing their culture to start anew. By doing that, they erased the identity of Sephardi Jews, for no fault of their own.
There is no greater wrong than this to those who perished in the Holocaust, the epitome of the most horrid of deaths.
The majority of the millions who perished in the Holocaust did not speak Hebrew or want to live in the land of the forefathers; nor did they want to be heroes. They wanted to live in the country where they were born, not in a forgotten, distant land. Most of them wanted to speak in their own language and not in the hybrid language created from one spoken by only a few in classrooms and synagogues.
To myself, I suggest learning who they were, what they talked about, and what they wrote about. If we know how to understand them, and get to know them and talk to them, maybe we will finally develop the kind of discourse that honors the silence of the death that is the Holocaust—like a sprout of a tree budding in wake of the blaze that consumed its parents’ forest.
Until we decide to again familiarize ourselves with our language from centuries ago, we should—at least on Holocaust Remembrance Day—opt for silence over speech. Let us sanctify the silence that only death deserves, rather than the silence of forgetting death to sanctify heroism alone. And if the chilling silence of the death and destruction that is the Holocaust becomes unbearable, let us at least talk about what we lost: the civilization that is no more.
Just please, for once, let heroism be.
Ariel Danieli is an Israeli attorney. His great-grandparents, Wolf and Regina Mehler, perished in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1943 and are memorialized on a brass stumbling stone set on the sidewalks of Berlin.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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