Thoughts About the Holocaust, 2017
By Rabbi David Hartley Mark, M.A., M.Phil.
I first became aware of the Holocaust at the age of eleven, when I read Leon Uris’s “Exodus.” His descriptions both enticed me and gave me nightmares. (I have since found out that some were apocryphal.) Although two survivors—Clara and Anatole—lived down the hall of our building from our apartment, and I played with their son Paul, I knew nothing about this massive blot on human history. Clara had spent the war going deeper and deeper into Russia, ahead of the Nazi Killing Squads (See “Ordinary People,” about how cops become murderers), and Anatole had fought in the Red Army.
When my mother said, “They met in the camps,” I thought she was talking about summer camp.
With a bookworm’s diligence, I searched for anything I could find on the subject. Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird” was extremely frightening; I have not re-read it in years. In 1969, I found the late Arthur Morse’s “While Six Million Died,” which began the great discussion-controversy over whether American Jews did enough. I have since read Michael Beschloss’s “The Conquerors,” wherein FDR tells Henry Morgenthau not to press him any more about bombing the railroad tracks to Auschwitz. (This account is, again, controversial, but I believe its essence contains truth.)
From the time I was very young, my Hebrew Day School rabbis told us that we all needed to support Israel, because if Hitler ever came to the US, we American Jews would need Israel to rescue us. I taught the same to my Temple Hebrew School students in my three pulpits, for years and years. Finally, one of my little girls (she is all grown up now) went home and told her mother what I said. Her mother told her father, who was a WWII veteran. The grandfather asked,
“If Hitler comes to America, why can’t we fight him here?”
Ironically, this question has gained more significance over the past number of months.
When I taught the Holocaust, I always used a video about it, produced by the Wiesenthal Center, featuring the voices of Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles. The last number of years, I also included “Hotel Rwanda,” to show the students that there were, and continue to be, multiple holocausts worldwide. King Leopold and Hitler should share the same hell, I believe.
Some Jews may disagree, but I continue to believe that our experience throughout history must make us more sensitive to fighting, not only for our own right to survive and thrive, but for that of others. We live on a very small planet. I do not agree with those Jews who shout, “Never Again!” as though it were the only slogan our faith requires. Jewish Survival is not sufficient; all humanity must survive. Even where and when Jews are concerned, we must survive creatively. Even if you are not religious, do something with your Judaism. Read. Study music, theatre, poetry, gastronomy, psychology, history, culture. Make your Judaism many-faceted.
I grew up in a neighborhood where, if you left your own area, you had a good chance of getting beaten up by members of a different race or ethnic group. I don’t want that to happen anymore.
Every race, every ethnic group, has had its own holocaust. Because I teach English to students who are mainly African-American and Hispanic, I am truly fortunate. I can “do teshuvah”—make penance—for the way I had to live in my old neighborhood. I want my students to succeed. I will fight for their right to enjoy a share of the American Dream. And I want this country, this world, to truly become a place of freedom and equality for all.
For me, that is the lesson of the Holocaust.