Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust remembrance’


I have seen many movies that have drawn their stories out of the Holocaust. I am the child of two German/Jewish immigrants, one of whom is classified, at least by Spielberg, as a survivor. I have grown up living and reliving, telling and retelling the stories. It is deep in my DNA. Often, I no longer want to go to Holocaust inspired movies. When I do go, I can appreciate them intellectually, I can appreciate good story telling. But other than “Schindler’s List” I cannot remember the last time I had an emotional reaction to a Holocaust related film. Often I feel detached. Often I am numb to yet one more rehashing of Jewish tragedy. I always say the best way to counter the Nazi attempt to destroy us is to build vibrant Jewish life – whenever and wherever we can.

I just saw “Woman in Gold.” Fifteen minutes into the movie I knew something was different. I felt a different reaction to this film than to almost any other film drawn from the legacy of the Holocaust. I can identify the minute the movie changed for me – when Maria Altmann engaged Randol Schoenberg to be her lawyer. She knew his family. She remembered him as a little boy. His family was part of her family’s extended circle. She even made him a strudel. At the scene when Schoenberg and Altmann were about to leave Vienna and stopped and the Holocaust memorial, I knew the movie was touching a deep emotional chord in me. When the decision was announced that the paintings were hers, I began to feel myself breaking down. In the last scenes, as she walks through her old home, now converted into offices, she sees scenes of her childhood, her family gathered in these rooms – I was sobbing like a baby.

Why? It does not seem logical. The depictions of Nazi oppression were very mild compared to so many other Holocaust movies. This was a story about recovered art, not saved lives. It was a story about an elite Jewish family in Vienna many of whom escaped. They had their own SS officer, a man in black, assigned to them to prevent their escape. As stories of Holocaust suffering go, theirs was much less tragic than many I have seen. Yet I felt this movie so deeply.

In my office is a photograph of a stairway in Brooklyn leading to a store of Jewish sacred books and ritual objects. The title given the photograph is “Stairway to Heaven?” The photographer is Teddy Tobar, who was my father’s close friend, dating to their childhood in Cologne, Germany. Teddy, like a good number of dad’s Jewish community in Cologne, found a way to make it to America. I remember him as a funny, engaging man who everyone in the German Jewish community in New York seemed to know. His apartment, in the late 1940’s, was a center of social gatherings for German Jews. In fact, at one party, my dad almost ran into a cousin he did not even know existed. She and I put this fact together when I first met her years after dad died.

I used to spend a lot of time with my mom’s parents in the Bronx, my Oma and Opa. They were also part of a German Jewish community that was deeply interconnected. People knew each other, often from their years in Germany. If they did not know each other in Germany, they had common friends or even cousins that formed a connection. We often kid about Jewish geography, but German Jewish geography was intimate in a way not found in most of the Jewish world. As a child I went to Chanukah parties – gatherings of the German Jewish cohort. I knew the grandchildren of Oma’s and Opa’s friends. Some of their friends had children in America after the war. They were my sitters during the stretches I lived with my grandparents. In a few weeks we will gather to celebrate my mom’s 85th birthday. My parent’s longest and closest friends will be there. The husband was my dad’s friend in Cologne as children. Their daughter has been my friend since I was 4 years old. If I were to meet someone whose parents or grandparents were German Jews, we would quickly be able to find family connections. We would be tied together as no other Jews are tied together.

All of this sense of community – and community lost by the way – I felt in the movie the moment Maria served Randol a piece of strudel. It all came flooding back. I imagine the survivors of the Viennese Jewish community had the same kinds of connections as my family’s German Jewish community did. As Randol discovered why this case was about so much more than money, as he felt the deep connection to his own family’s history, I relived my own journey with my family history. When Maria looked at the portrait of her aunt for the first time since before the war, but in a museum in Vienna; I relived the moment I found the photograph of my Uncle Richard, standing in the doorway of his bedding store, defying the Nazis, hanging in the Jewish museum in Berlin. It is a moment filled with the flooding of memories – of love, of celebrations and even of sickness and death.

Finally, as she won the arbitration case, wiping the smarmy, smug smiles off the faces of the Austrian officials, I felt the same pride in triumph that I felt when I remember Uncle Richard’s war heroics against the Nazis in World War II. Then, as she visits her old home, reliving her last moment with her father, who asks of her one thing – to remember him – my memory leaps not just to Uncle Richard, but to my Oma and Opa, and all of their friends, to Teddy Tobar and all of Dad’s friends from Cologne. I become connected to a chain of moments reaching all the way to the 1930’s, well before I was born. Because just like I was at Sinai with all Jews, I was also at that doorway in Cologne, protesting with Uncle Richard. So I wept.

From our parashah, Leviticus, 23:15, “You shall count for yourselves, from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Sabbaths shall be complete.” The Hebrew is profound, usfartem lachem, “you will count for yourselves.” This is the period of the Omer, which we are counting right now. It runs from Pesach to Shavuot. It connects the holiday of liberation to the holiday of covenant. The Omer is a reminder that all of time is connected. We tend to see each holiday in its own moment, distinct and unique. But we are wrong. Every moment on our calendar is deeply connected to what has come before it as well as to what comes after it. We live in a Jewish cycle of time that spirals back into ancient times. We often forget our place in the chain. We often forget our connection to all that was before and will be after.

And why are the words “you shall count for yourselves” so important? Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that the beginning of the Omer marks the time that the creation of independent, thinking beings, who could serve God, was complete. Pesach, the moment of liberation, humans who would eventually learn teshuvah, who could work to improve the world, began their journey. Their instruction manual for doing that would be received on Shavuot. The command to count for themselves was a demonstration of their ability to be thinking, reasoning beings. The accounting for life was no longer in God’s hands, it was in theirs. Now it is in ours.

The Hebrew word for counting is the same root as for story, and telling a story. How profound. The beginning of accounting for our responsibilities in life, for understanding who we are and how we fit into the flow of the world begins with the accounting of our stories. Our memories, our stories, can inspire deeds of bravery, deeds of intelligence, deeds of caring, deeds of holiness. Each of us tries to retrieve our “Woman in Gold” while defying the “man in black.” May we recover our treasures of the past. May our counting and our story telling be filled with holiness, for now, for always. Amen.

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Earlier this week we commemorated Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. In our community, there was the requisite lighting of the memorial candles in memory of the 6 million lost, a bit of poetry from Holocaust victims, the chanting of Ani Ma’amim and Eil Malei Rachamim. A speaker talked about anti-Semitism, how it still exists (see recent events in Overland Park, KS and the Ukraine). It is, appropriately, a day of sadness.

I feel the sadness as well. Yes, I am the child of a survivor (not of the camps but of Nazi oppression) and yes we lost a lot of family in the Shoah. But the real, deep sadness I feel at these events is not so much about the Jews that have been lost, but about the Jews who are living today, and the kind of Judaism they seem to be embracing. I find it sad that too many Jews base their entire Jewish identity on the Holocaust. American Jews are obsessed with the Holocaust. They are obsessed with anti-Semitism. Most American Jews will exclaim “Never again” with more religious fervor than Sh’ma Yisra’el. The Holocaust has become a central element of being an American Jew – even for those who have no connection to family lost in that time.

This is born out by the results in the Pew survey on American Jewish life released last October. When asked the question “What is essential to being Jewish?” the number one response, by 73% of all Jews was, “Remembering the Holocaust.” This came before “Leading an ethical and moral life” (69%) and well above “Working for justice and equality” (56%). Way, way down on the list were “Being part of a Jewish community” (28%) and “Observing Jewish law” (19%). Forgive me this piece of blasphemy, but from my perspective that list is pretty much upside down – although if I could use my own wording I would place “embracing life by repairing the world” as the most essential piece of being Jewish closely followed by morality, learning and observing some Jewish tradition and law, and being part of a community. Of all these values, “Remembering the Holocaust” would be last.

Of course you will ask me, “Isn’t remembering the Holocaust important?” To which I would reply – absolutely – just not as important as engaging in those Jewish activities that build a vibrant Jewish life. While we engage in our mourning over the victims, we too often forget that the Shoah is not just an individual tragedy. It is not just the end of 6 million lives because they were Jewish. It is also, equally, the loss of so many vibrant Jewish communities and institutions throughout Europe. It is the destruction of Jewish spiritual and intellectual life. Despite the return of some Jews to Europe, the richness of Jewish life will never be anything close to what was lost. So the sad words we speak on Yom HaShoah are nice, and appropriate. But they are almost meaningless if not followed by something much more – and different.

The best response to the losses incurred by our people during the Shoah, whether it is the loss of people or communities, is to build vibrant, joyful, meaningful Jewish communities here – in America, in Florida, in Tallahassee. It is NOT enough to mourn and remember. We must live as Jews, spiritually, intellectually, morally. That means being engaged in living Jewish life as well as translating Jewish values into how we conduct our everyday lives. It means building vibrant Jewish institutions that serve as centers of kedushah (holiness), Torah (learning), and ma’asim tovim (good works).   It means infusing Judaism into our lives every day, every week. It means not letting morbid fascination oppression define our Jewishness.

This week’s Torah portion gives us a basic outline on how to do that through the description of the sacred times we are to mark throughout the year. Shabbat, of course, is every week. The festivals dot 3 key moments in the agricultural cycle of the year and we are told in the Talmud to celebrate them with joy. Yes, Yom Kippur is a time of serious work on atonement and forgiveness, but it is not morose, just a recognition that the work to repair human relations is important and must include both individual and communal elements. We are to note the new moons each month and from Pesach to Shavuot we countdown the journey from freedom to a covenant of responsibility by the counting of the Omer. To these Torah mandated times we add Purim, Chanukah, and Tu b’Shevat, just to name a few.

The point is, it is just as important to enjoy the silliness of a Purim schpiel as it is to mourn the losses of the Shoah. It is just as important to celebrate with friends and family at a Passover seder as it is to attend a Yom Hashaoah service. It is just as important to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah as it is to watch any Holocaust inspired movie. Indeed, all of these things are more important than any Holocaust related activity. All are joyful expressions of our Judaism. Yet, sadly, they are ignored by too many Jews. Which means that the Judaism being passed to the next generation is about victimhood, death, and remembering the suffering. Is that really the only Judaism we want our children to receive? Can anyone believe that is a Judaism that can survive?

Yet, I am not without hope. On Wednesday night I had my usual session with this year’s Confirmation students – all 15 and 16 years old. It was our wrap up discussion for the year, as now we will organize their service that occurs in a few weeks. I asked them to share the most significant Jewish lesson they had learned over the course of their years in Hebrew school. I loved their answers. One said it was how Judaism encourages questioning everything – even God. One said it was about working for justice. But my favorite, the one which gave me real hope about the young Jews in our community was this: the value of forgiveness and repentance. This came from a young woman I have known since she was two. She said that in 5th grade they learned how important it is to go to people you might have hurt to admit you were wrong and apologize. She said that she and her friend, ever since they learned that Yom Kippur lesson, sit down with each other every year right before Yom Kippur, and talk about any problems they had with each other the previous year. She said this process has made them closer friends.

When I heard how this young woman and her friend (also in our congregation) had integrated a piece of Jewish observance into their lives, I left class that night smiling and filled with hope. For theirs will be a Judaism of life, not of death.

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