Thursday, April 21, 2016

On the Plenitude of Holocaust Memorials in South Florida: Do We Really Need Another?

On the Plenitude of Holocaust Memorials in South Florida

By David Hartley Mark

            Pesach, the Passover, our time-honored Festival of Liberation from Slavery, begins tomorrow night. Holocaust Memorial Day, with its lamentations, speeches, black drapery, and yellow Yizkor Memorial candles, will fall one week from now.

            Yesterday, online, I engaged in a lively disagreement with two semi-Orthodox twenty-somethings. They were making off-color jokes about Hitler, may his name and memory be erased—yemach sh’mo v’zichrono, as we used to say in Yeshiva. I objected to their Mel-Brooks-like attitudes, saying that we ought not to engage in humor when speaking of such a horrific villain.

            “This is our way of dealing with him,” one replied, “It’s a generational thing. We are much younger than you; we were born farther away from the Holocaust. Your ‘erasing his memory’ style seems to us, to be putting him on a pedestal.”

            I replied that I always believed, contrary to the current emphasis on Shoah remembrances and frantic memorial constructions concurrent with the ongoing passings of the victims, that, eventually, taking the Long View of Jewish History, the Holocaust would take its place along with the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Chmielnicki Massacres, the Black Hundreds, the pogroms, and all other atrocities committed against our people. What makes the Holocaust sadly unique is that the Nazis employed technology to destroy people, after first dehumanizing them. And humanity has not lost its yen to destroy one another, as a glance at news on the Web or in print will reveal. (There may even be a direct line from the anonymity of the gas chambers to today’s drone killings.)

            “I just didn’t believe the historical shift would happen this quickly,” I typed, and left the online thread, disappointed and gloomy.

I count, have counted, Holocaust survivors among my dearest friends. I recall being invited to the annual luncheon sponsored by our local chapter of the Kindertransport, by a close friend and congregant (now deceased) who, with her younger sister, had, luckily, participated, leaving Vienna for England. At the tender age of thirteen, she was one of the older children in her train car. As the whistle blew, steam hissed, and parents waved frantically from the station platform, a young mother raced up to the train and thrust a large wicker basket at Ilsa (not her real name), through the open coach window.

            It was twin babies; Ilsa was responsible for them throughout the entire rail trip. There were a few adult women on the train, as well, but they disembarked in Belgium, the final Continental leg of the trip. The Nazis had warned them that if they stayed on the train, their remaining families, held hostage at home, would be murdered by the Gestapo.

            Yes, this story is crucial, and needs to be told. Also crucial is one of the remarks made by another Kindertransport survivor who spoke at the luncheon: “We have nothing to be ashamed of, we Kindertransport survivors. None of us ever went to jail or caused a burden to society. On the contrary, we have all of us contributed to benefit the countries where we settled. We include doctors, lawyers, business executives, scientists, and more. We have every right to be proud.”

            I, too, was immensely proud to be there, in the company of heroes.

            But what of this latest news report, from the 4/20/16 issue of The Sun-Sentinel of Broward County, Florida?

“Florida is about to get its sixth Holocaust memorial, though it will be the first in the state's capital.

Gov. Rick Scott came to the Jewish Federation of Broward County on Monday afternoon to ceremonially sign a bill creating the memorial in Tallahassee. He officially signed the legislation on April 6, and it will take effect at the beginning of the fiscal year, July 1.

The state Legislature also included $100,000 in this year's budget for work to begin.
‘The Holocaust stands as a stark reminder that evil exists in the world,’ Scott said” (Sweeney, 2016, April 21).

            Why does Florida need a sixth Holocaust Memorial, and, more importantly, why is the State Legislature apportioning $100,000 towards it? Years ago, back in the late 1980s, there was a massive onslaught of American Jewish Holocaust-Memorial-building. At the same time, nationwide, rabbis like me were decrying widespread Jewish ignorance and the reluctance of parents to place their children in temple religious schools. The temple I then served was the only one in town, the larger of two serving the entire New Hampshire Seacoast, and yet, we knew we serviced but a fraction of the families and children in the area.
Yet, the memorial-building continued apace, as if remembering a dead European past were of far greater weight and significance than insuring a knowledgeable Jewish future for our people. This was long before computers and cellphones; it was all very primitive by modern standards today. What helped urge on the memorializing was a key event in television, which had a far stronger hold on the American imagination then than now. It was a three-night miniseries called, appropriately, Holocaust. The plotline was thin, but effective: it traced the fates of various, stereotyped European Jewish characters, both before and during the Nazi onslaught against our people.
The melodrama’s combined effects of destruction, finality, and suffering hit the fatalistic American Jewish nerve a crucial blow, and thousands altered their schedules to sit before the TV, nightly, to follow the series. What concerned me, as it did all rabbis, was the sad effect, the blowback really, that this caused to our religious educational efforts. One infamous story had the father of a temple Confirmation student, a boy in his mid-teens—significant years indeed!—calling the senior rabbi who taught the class, and saying,
“Rabbi, tell Stevie that I’m on my way to temple to pick him up. That TV show, ‘Holocaust,’ is going on in a half-hour, and I really want him to watch it.”
“But, he’s in my Confirmation Class,” protested the rabbi, “Don’t you think he would do better to learn about his Judaism than to see his people being tortured and killed for the crime of being Jewish?”
“Rabbi,” the father answered stubbornly, “you have your values, and I have mine. Tell Steve that I’m coming to pick him up. This program is more important than your class!”
See what I mean? Faced with similar circumstances, I wrote for advice to a West Coast rabbi I had long admired, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of blessed memory, whose renown among colleagues and laypeople alike was well-known. I poured out my heart to him, asking whether memorials to a Dead Jewish Past should take precedence over our educational efforts to insure a Bright Jewish Future.

I was gratified to receive a letter (Remember personal mail, long before email took over?) from him, which said, in the rabbi’s words, which I paraphrase: “Any Holocaust Memorial which does not contain an Educational Component (capital letters mine) is hardly worth the bricks-and-mortar used to build it. If we do not educate against hatred and anti-semitism—indeed, against racism of all kinds—other Holocausts will recur. Certainly, they are happening as I write.”

Because of Rabbi Schulweis’s advice, when I taught my Holocaust unit to my Seventh-Graders in Hebrew School, I made a point of showing them, not only the Oscar-winning documentary “Holocaust,” produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but also “Hotel Rwanda,” which depicted tragically the mid-1990s intertribal massacre in that country.
That is my objection to (yet another) Holocaust Memorial. That $100,000 should go to the schoolchildren of Florida.

More: just as certain misguided states in our American Deep South have passed misguided bills which discriminate against LGBTQ minorities, there will surely be lawsuits held against them. Who will end up paying the court costs? The hard-beset taxpayers of those same, poverty-stricken states, including the youngest and weakest—their schoolchildren. These little ones do not need a monument against hatred or racism; they need money for education.

Furthermore, during this election season, I read that various whites-only racist groups have become emboldened by the hate rhetoric of certain politicians, and are coming out of their lairs. They are preaching segregation, that lethal American poison, again, only giving it a new, euphemistic name. It’s the same old muck, in a brand-new box. Will a monument deter them? No: only education. Ignorance thrives on darkness. The sunlight of learning destroys it.

Again: no more heaps of stone and mortar, commemorating hatreds long past. If our dearly venerated Holocaust survivors are slowly passing to their Eternal Rest, their good deeds will forever be their monuments. As for their littlest survivors, our American (and world) children of all colors, races, ethnic groupings, beliefs or lack thereof, and differences—let more money go for education. Let our little children, born pure and without racism, show us the way to a better world of peace, progress, and love.

Sweeney, D. (2016, April 21). Scott supports Holocaust memorial in Tallahassee. The Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved from