My wife and I left South Africa for a trip to Israel on Tuesday. As we were going through the security checks at the El Al departure area, we suddenly heard the soft hum of a siren. There and then, in middle of the busy Johannesburg International Airport, a moment of silence was observed for Yom HaShoah by Jewish staff and travelers alike. Heads were bowed in reverence and memory before we got back to the business at hand. I found it a particularly moving moment.
We Jews are somewhat obsessed with remembering. Memories are profoundly important to us. But there are many who challenge this Jewish preoccupation with memory. They accuse us of being obsessed with the Holocaust: “What about all the other people who have suffered? Why is the Holocaust being singled out?”
Many people, including South Africans—who are victims of the terrible and painful apartheid past—ask ma nishtana halayla hazeh mikol haleilot? Why is the long, dark night of the Holocaust different from other long, dark nights in history? Why is this suffering different from all other sufferings?
People challenge us, saying, “Why are the Jews always winging and whining?” I myself was once confronted by a well-known public figure on South African national television, who said, “Why do you Jews think you have a monopoly on suffering? Do you think you have the copyright on pain?”
Well, let it be clearly stated that Auschwitz was different. As much as the Jewish people relate to the sufferings of others, and contribute to relief and charity for all peoples of the world, Auschwitz was different. The word “Holocaust” should not be used flippantly.
And if the world won’t trust a rabbi, then listen to the words of the late Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who at the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz said to the U.N. General Assembly, “The tragedy of the Jewish people was unique. The camps were not mere concentration camps. Let us not use the ‘euphemism’ of those who built them. Their purpose was not to concentrate a group in one particular place so as to keep an eye on them. It was to exterminate an entire people.”
Auschwitz was not a concentration camp or a work camp, it was a death camp with gas chambers to kill the victims and crematoria to burn their dead bodies. The Holocaust was not only an act of genocide. It was a network of genocide factories, designed to bring to fruition the evil designs of Hitler and his henchmen (yemach shemom vzichrom). This plan had a name: The Final Solution. It was to be the final solution to the “Jewish question,” to the nuisance and irritant known as the Jews. It sought to get rid of the Jews once and for all, and this time to do it properly. There was to be not one single Jewish human being left on the face of the earth. The Jews were to have gone up in smoke without a trace.
Well, there was to be a small trace. Hitler had planned to build a Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race in Prague. It would contain artifacts of our faith: Torahs, mezuzahs, kiddush cups and seder plates. That was the plan: to create an “extinct Jewish race.”
Yes, it is a cruel world. Many peoples and nations have suffered untold misery—South Africa, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and now Ukraine. Jewish hearts suffer with them and feel their pain. Jews are always involved in trying to help the unfortunates of this world. But even those who have suffered mass murder and genocide have not been singled out for total annihilation. No other people in history has ever been earmarked for complete and utter destruction.
Yom HaShoah recalls the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Believe it or not, there too Jews managed to hold a Passover seder. Did they have matzah? I don’t know. Wine? I doubt it. Meat and matzah balls? Definitely not. But the Haggadah was recited. One son, after he asked his father the traditional Four Questions, carried on and said, “Father I have another question. Will you be alive next Pesach to listen to my questions? Will I be alive next year to ask these questions? Will there be a single Jew alive next year when Pesach comes?”
In a choking voice, his father replied, “Will I be alive my son? I honestly don’t know. And as much as it breaks my heart to say this: Even you my child, I don’t know if you will be alive. But one thing I do know: The Jewish people will be alive. And somewhere, somehow, Jews will always ask these questions at their seder tables. We may die, but our people will live forever!”
I am the son of a survivor. My father, Shimon Goldman, was born in Shedlitz, Poland in 1925. As a teenager, he fled through Vilna, Moscow, Vladivostok and Kobe, Japan. Eventually, he spent most of the war in Shanghai. He managed to escape Europe courtesy of the legendary Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara’s transit visas. Finally, he made it to New York as the one and only surviving member of his family.
My father observed one day of the year, the 12th of Elul, as a yahrzeit for his entire family. He would light one single candle for his father, mother, brothers and sisters. A large family was remembered on one day, with one candle. He hardly ever spoke about these things over the years we were growing up. Thank God, he eventually opened up and we were able to help him publish his life story in a book called From Shedlitz to Safety. Now his grandchildren and great-grandchildren know his story.
Hitler’s plan for the Final Solution failed, which means all of us are actually survivors. It is our job and sacred duty not only to remember, but also to rebuild. Ultimately, the only way to negate the Nazi plan is to raise Jewish families, teach Jewish children and guarantee that our sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will continue to ask Jewish questions.
Only when we do that, when we respond correctly to the spiritual challenge of our generation in Israel and the Diaspora, will we live on as a people, forever.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.
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