By Yehuda Rothstein
I grew up in an Ultra-Orthodox or haredi community in upstate New York. This community could be considered a refugee colony because it was originally a place where a disparate group of Ultra-Orthodox Holocaust survivors gathered to continue their pious pre-war European existence. None of my immediate family members experienced the Holocaust. It was only through the eyes of my friend, Aharon Simcha, that I first learned about this great tragedy.
When I was a child I learned something disturbing about my friend’s grandparents—they were always in pain and there was nothing Aharon Simcha or anyone else could do to help them. In every moment, in every action, in every joy and in every sorrow, Aharon Simcha and I could feel rigid scars etched into his grandparent’s and parent’s hearts. Aharon Simcha was born with a box full of darkness and he could not comprehend its contents.
When Aharon Simcha was a child, every night his elderly grandfather would retire to his study to be alone with God and his Torah. Some of Aharon Simcha’s warmest memories included being wrapped in the comfort of his bed listening to the soothing and soulful chant of his grandfather reciting the Talmud. But sometimes, his grandfather’s chanting turned to sobs: “To think of all the Torah study we lost…,” he would tell us, “everyone is gone, lost, and destroyed in churban Europa.”
Rabbi Berel, Aharon Simcha’s grandfather rejected the English word “Holocaust” and the Hebrew word “Shoah”—words associated with the social ills of Secularism and Zionism—to describe the mass “pogroms” of the Jews during the Second World War because he believed that it was the Zionists and the reform oriented Masklim, through their secularism, atheism and rebellion against God, that provoked the King of Kings to pour out his rage upon his special nation. Armed with this truth, Rabbi Berel, like some others in the community of my youth, instead used the word churban—a Hebrew word for destruction, loaded with theological significance, that invoked the memory of the annihilation of Jerusalem, its ancient temples, and the wrath of the exile that followed the sins of ancient Israel—to describe the horrors committed by the Nazis and their allies.
And then, as it normally happened, Ruchie, Berel’s wife, would arrive in his study and admonish her husband. “Stop it!” she would command him, her words echoing throughout their home where I lay awake in bed. “Stop crying, Bereleh! There is no time for tears!” she would say shaking him with her words. “God does not want our tears,” she would tell him before leaving him alone to his Talmud.
I never saw Ruchie cry or mourn. I only saw her build. Yet I remember sleeping near Aharon Simcha and in the darkness of the night, hearing his grandmother’s cries reverberate through the walls of her empty nest. “Nein!” she would plead in German, “Nein! Bitte!” she would beg as her daughter, Aharon Simcha’s mother, tried to calm her. Her cries frightened us but there was nothing we could do to comfort her.
Aharon Simcha’s grandmother refused to talk about her childhood and any attempt to broach the uncomfortable subject was met with stone cold failure. What was known was that each of her many children and grandchildren held the name of an exterminated family member and that each was a living memorial candle for the hopes and dreams of not only a traumatized family but an endangered people.
Theories abounded amongst Aharon Simcha’s relatives about what had happened to Ruchie during the war. Shimon Dovid, the nephew of Aharon Simcha, and a year his junior, said she had been with the partisans. Fraydie Sorah, Aharon Simcha’s aunt, said that Ruchie had been in a concentration camp and had been experimented upon. But the truth was that nobody knew for certain what had happened to Ruchie.
And yet, Ruchie would awake early each morning perfectly groomed and with a smile on her face. After Aharon Simcha would leave for school she would telephone each of her children and grandchildren inquiring of their well-being. She would plan community welfare projects and coordinate with the local Bikkur Cholim organization to visit the sick. While others slowed with age, Ruchie’s energy and desire for normalcy only increased.
It was Ruchie’s quest for normalcy, that I believe, motivated her command that her daughter make her grandson be my friend. Ruchie was a tree without roots and it was exactly the deeply rooted normalcy of my family that she wanted Aharon Simcha to experience and which motivated her to make me a “Ben Bayis” (or regular visitor to her home.) My family was not as pious, but we had living aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents, great aunts and great uncles. For Aharon Simcha’s mother and grandmother, there was something appealing, pure and rare about a family without the scars of destruction. For all the ways in which my family was different, for all the ways in which we were not as prominent, we had something that their family would never have—the lack of cross-generational trauma.
I have since left the community of my youth. I have traveled and lived in some two dozen countries on four continents. I have studied Islamic law in Cairo, Egypt and Torah in multiple Yeshivoth in Jerusalem; trekked through the dunes of the West African Sahara and strolled through the gardens of Suzhou, China. Yet for all my openness, for all the way my human spirit connected effortlessly with those I met on my journeys, there was a certain disdain that I felt towards the nation of Germany. It was not a place I cared to visit.
No grandparents of mine died in the war but my grandfather’s favorite cousin stopped returning his letters in the summer of 1941. Years later, when I visited Belarus I learned that this cousin and hundreds of our distant family members were massacred in the fields of Tolochin by the Einsatzgruppen in the Belarusian countryside. My immediate family was not directly involved in the Holocaust, but as a Jew, I shared in the collective trauma of my people. I grew up with neighbors and teachers who lost their parents, siblings and spouses during the Holocaust. The collective trauma of the Jewish people, of the experiences of Aharon Simcha, and his grandparents, although not in any manner comparable, became, and are, my personal trauma and experiences too. It is mind boggling to think that in less than a decade, one third of the Jewish people were annihilated simply for being Jews. Permanently carved deeply into my heart are Rabbi Berel’s tears and pain, and etched into my soul is the obligation to remember and honor every person that was murdered by the Nazis and their allies. I can never forget nor can I ever forgive.
My recent trip to Germany on Germany Close Up, an American Jewish Committee program, showed me a very different Germany from the one I could have imagined in my youth. There is something unforgettable about meeting young and middle-aged Germans and observing firsthand how German society has wrestled and continues to wrestle with the legacy of the Holocaust. There is something inspiring about meeting the descendents of Holocaust perpetrators who, when they came of age, revolted against their teachers, parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, asking them with shame, anger, disgust and pain, “WHAT DID YOU DO?!”
My trip to Germany reminded me of Rabbi Berel’s use of the word churban to describe the horrors of the Holocaust. Meeting with many wonderful young Germans, and seeing how German society has evolved over the past few decades, and understanding the larger implications of Nazi ideology, has reinforced in me the belief that the philosophy of churban Europa is too particularistic and limiting—not just for Jews but also for humanity. If we are to think of the Holocaust as only a churban, as only a Jewish tragedy, as only a catastrophe brought about by the follies stemming from the decline of Jewish life and observance, or by the Zionist pursuit of Jewish historical rights—then the Jewish people, and indeed the human race, are missing out on many incredible lessons.
As the world marks International Holocaust Day, a day created by the United Nations in 2005, I am reminded of some of the lessons of the Holocaust.
As a Jew, it is the lesson, that the Jewish people, like any other people, must be masters of their own destiny in their own homeland. Although Jews must remember the particularistic lessons of the Holocaust we must simultaneously remember that within these lessons there is a universal message, which we have an obligation to share with others in a universal manner. And although it is true that the Jews were the primary victims of the Holocaust, the Germans its primary perpetrators, and that Jews uniquely suffered during the Holocaust, the Holocaust is not just a German and Jewish story—it is a human story. If we make the Holocaust only a Jewish story, then we prevent the rest of humanity, and particularly the Islamic world, from appreciating its countless lessons. The Holocaust was a Jewish tragedy, noted Elie Wiesel, but one with universal implications.
As an American, and proud member of a nation which liberated Europe, I believe that the United States must never be silent in the face of genocide and totalitarian regimes advocating genocide. As the nation in which liberty was born, and which continues to strive to become an ever perfect union that is a model to the world, it is our obligation to support freedom, and to fight those that pursue genocide anywhere and everywhere. Mass murder, or the threats of mass murder, can never be ignored or tolerated. As Jews and Americans, our obligation to fight genocide, in all its forms, is only compounded.
For humanity, the Holocaust poses difficult questions about our species. The crimes of the Nazis were so extensive, systematic and unprecedented that the word genocide was created to describe it. How is it that a society evolved that could commit such horrors? How can we encourage the development of societies that embody life, liberty and freedom instead of genocide and death? If humanity is capable of beautiful creations and yet also capable of such horrible nightmares, why can we not encourage the former?
I do not have the answers to these question—but my trip to Germany has shown me that no matter where a nation might stand at a particular moment, no matter what darkness surrounds a society, something brighter and better can be part of its future. No nation is incapable of paving a better future for itself, no matter how seeped in evil it currently may be. People who live in nations with totalitarian and hateful regimes can look to Germany as an example that declares loudly that nations, with time, can reshape their destiny and society. We can make a better town, city, nation and world if we try. Nations, like people, the prophet Jonah teaches us, can do teshuvah, meaning that they can, with work, repent for their sins. Those who do teshuvah, the Jewish sages teach us, are an example to others because they have within their past sage and painful lessons on which to draw.
Part of Germany’s process of teshuvah is to take the lead in Holocaust education around the world. Germany must take more dramatic moves, politically and otherwise against Holocaust deniers and be the first nation, not the last, to respond to incidents of murder and genocide around the globe. It is precisely Germany’s past experiences which give it a moral obligation to be at the forefront of human rights leadership. If Germany wears its experiences, not as an eternal badge of shame, but rather as of sage experience; if it stands up against genocide around the world; if it defends the helpless with its entire military and economic might; if it acts for justice without consequence because it knows better than anyone else the destruction that inaction brings in the face of intolerance and hate, then perhaps Germany can one day find solace.
I have not spoken with Aharon Simcha in over a decade but I still think of him. I am certain that neither he nor his family would have ever agreed to visit Germany. There is too much pain, too much baggage associated with the German nation. But I wonder if Aaron Simcha and his family could accept the possibility that there exists a new generation of Germans who have painfully wrestled, and continue to wrestle with their past. From what I remember of Aharon Simcha, I think that he would never have visited. Aharon Simcha’s struggle, like those of his progressive German counterparts, is that of trying to wrestle with the phantom of a haunting past. The struggle of the millennium generation of Jews and gentiles, both Americans and Germans, is how to balance the importance of remembering the gross human failure of the Holocaust, within the unique and individual paradigm of its particularistic lessons, but at the same time, forge a better future guided by the countless universal lessons found within this tragedy and only made clearer by the sands of time.
Yehuda Rothstein is an attorney that works and lives in New York City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org