Searle Mitnick, a Wexner Heritage alumnus from Baltimore, is Chair of the Jewish Federation’s Hillel Council and a board member of JESNA. A real estate and business attorney, he is the former president of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and Beth Tfiloh Congregation. He can be reached at email@example.com
The Parsha for this coming Shabbat is Emor. In this Parsha, all of the biblical holidays are enumerated and described. In the Jewish calendar, we are in the midst of S’firah, the period between Exodus and Revelation during which we count the Omer, a sad time according to tradition.
Also according to the Jewish calendar, we find ourselves between the two most significant modern days of Jewish observance, Yom HaShoah and Yom Haatzmaut. When one contemplates what is being perpetuated by these two commemorations, one is inevitably required to confront the reality of the fact that Jewish history is replete with very high moments (the founding of the State of Israel sharing the high ground with Sinai and the Exodus) and horrific low ones (the Shoah unique to itself). A recent exceptional opportunity has put me in touch with these events in a way that I had not experienced them before.
In early April, I was privileged to participate in a trip to Poland and Hungary sponsored by the Wexner Foundation for alumni of its programs for lay and professional leaders in North America and for Israeli public officials. Despite the excellence of our scholars and the strength that I drew from my fellow participants, the trip was rigorous and difficult. No matter how much I had read about and watched movies of the Shoah, no matter how many museums I had visited, no matter how many first-person accounts I had heard from survivors, the impact of seeing it for myself was profound and enduring. One of the points that kept screaming out to me is how powerless the victims were to fight back.
On the first day of our trip, we visited the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was just a week before the 65th anniversary of the uprising. The area is dominated by a magnificent memorial sculpture by Nathan Rappaport to the memory of the heroes of the resistance. This monument greatly affected me, and in a sense, it symbolizes the polar conflicting emotions evoked by Yom HaShoah and Yom Haatzmaut. The back of the sculpture depicts Jews marching to their inevitable doom in the death camps (see photo). The all-too-human victims are sometimes referred to as sheep on their way to slaughter. This is the paradigmatic portrayal of Jewish powerlessness.
Contrast the scene above with the one on the front of the monument (see photo). Here one sees the muscular fighting heroes of the Ghetto uprising. On first impression, this seems to be the antithesis of powerlessness. Indeed, Mordecai Anielewicz and his valiant band of fighters held out for almost a month! It took the Nazis longer to subdue the Warsaw Ghetto than it did to defeat the Polish army in September, 1939. But in the end, despite the absolute morality of their struggle and despite their phenomenal courage, the Jewish fighters had no material weapons with which to resist. Although they succeeded in killing some of their tormentors, with few exceptions, they met the same tragic fate as their compatriots depicted on the back of the monument. In the end they were all victims because they lacked support from around the world and the physical means to defeat the evil that consumed them.
We saw the dramatic results of that vulnerability on the second day of our trip when we visited the Majdanek death camp in Lublin, Poland. In the crematorium, our exceptional scholar, Deborah Lipstadt, told us something almost unfathomable. It seems that the Nazis were dissatisfied with how long it took to dispose of the bodies of the victims of the gas chambers. They wanted a more efficient system that would force multiple bodies to burn faster in the ovens. Deborah told us that Topf, the manufacturer of crematoria for the Nazis, had actually filed an application for a patent with the German patent office for the “new and improved” model. (This is also recounted in Deborah’s book, History on Trial). What could the company executive have been thinking when he decided to seek patent protection? What could the clerk or secretary who typed the application have been thinking? How does one explain an evil that at the same time is so banal (cf Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt) and so monstrously perverse?
Attempting to explain this evil is surely futile. Instead, the focus must be to ensure that it is never repeated. Today, no one should feel comfortable with the rising tide of anti-Semitism that has taken root in many places around the world. We were in Budapest shortly after the anti-semitic burning of a business perceived to be Jewish-owned.
On May 4, 2008, I attended a conference entitled “Defending Truth: Legal and Moral Imperatives of Holocaust Denial, at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Among several outstanding presenters was Prof. Devin Pendas of Boston College. He addressed the motives of the Holocaust deniers. He said that they deny the reality of the Holocaust to justify the intention of the Holocaust. In other words, these anti-Semites minimize the scope of the Shoah and the number of its victims, while at the same time arguing that the Jews are miserable but powerful economic parasites who deserved whatever happened to them.
When we say “never again,” it has to mean that we will never allow ourselves to become powerless again. All Jews must be educated, informed and aggressive in refuting Holocaust deniers and other anti-Semites. Our brothers and sisters in Israel know how to defend themselves, but they must have the passionate and vocal support of Jews everywhere. As Israel observes its 60th birthday this week (tempered by the pain of Yom Hazikaron the day before), we can be confident that the Jewish people will not merely survive but will also thrive and flourish so as to fulfill our destiny as a light unto the nations. The image that needs to become reality is the one of the front of the Warsaw Ghetto memorial of powerful men and women willing to fight the forces of darkness, but this time and forever empowered with the support and resources to prevail.
So let it be. Am Yisrael Chai!!