Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Tisha B'Av and Owning the Holocaust

Mass grave in Bergen-Belsen
One of the things that greatly disturbs me is when someone publicly desecrates Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in Israel.  That is the day in the Hebrew month of Nissan (shortly following Pesach), that Israel commemorates the tragedies of the Holocaust. Most commonly it is desecrated by ignoring the sirens that are sounded for two minutes.

Israel comes to a standstill. People stop in their tracks with their heads bowed until the sound of the siren ends. Ever since that day was established in 1953, there are some people who consider it their duty to ignore it and go about they were doing. The reasons they do that is because of the controversy of picking that date. The Month of Nissan there are not supposed to be any signs of mourning.

While their arguments may or may not have some merit, the fact that they thumb their noses at it in some sort of ‘holy’ defiance is anything but holy. It is in fact an insult to any remaining survivor and their children… and a huge Chilul HaShem!

But what do you expect from people who are willing to insult, vilify, and injure anyone wearing an IDF uniform – even if they are clearly Charedi. I am therefore not surprised, but no less disturbed.

I of course completely condemn their outrageous public display of callousness towards survivors, and think the people who display this kind of behavior ought to be put into a state of Nidui by their own Beis Din  - shunned by all Jews and barred from all religious institutions including Shuls; and prevented from participating in any way with the rest of Klal Yisroel.

That said, my own personal preference for remembering the Holocaust is today, the day of Tisha B’Av. This is where my mind tends to go on this day.

As Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveichik points out, Judaism sees the concept of time differently than do philosophers like Kant. Kant saw time as something a clock measures - with no particular significance attached to any portion of it. Judaism  believes that there are certain times in a year that are vested with significance. Tisha B’Av is understood to be a time of great tragedy. It is inherent in that day. Tisha B’Av is not merely a date on a calendar. It is a day vested with sadness and tragedy. It is the day God chooses tragedies to happen. Jewish history is replete with tragedies that happened on that day. It is not merely a coincidence. 

Aside from the fact that both Temples were destroyed other tragedies befell the Jewish people on that date as well. The Meraglim that Moshe sent to spy out the land of Israel returned on that day to speak evil about the land of Israel. The first crusade began on that date in 1096. The Jewish people were expelled from England on that date in 1290.; from France in 1306; from Spain in 1492. Himmler received his instructions for the final solution on that date in 1941; and mass deportation of Warsaw Ghetto Jews to Treblinka began on that date in 1942.

It is more than appropriate to focus on the Holocaust on this day. The atrocities that befell the Jewish people during the destruction of the Second Temple were virtually repeated during the Holocaust. If one reads the Kinos composed by Rabbi Elazar HaKalir that we recite today we can see parallels.  Rav Soloveitchik in his commentary to Kinos cites several examples of this – one of which was experienced by one of his own relatives.  

Just as a Midrash in Eicha Rabba (1:14) tells the story of Miriam Bas Baytos who the Roman invaders tied to the tail of a horse and dragged to her death when the horse was induced to gallop. So too was the Rav’s cousin whose mother was the daughter of R’ Chaim Briskser dragged to his death by being tied to a car which then sped of resulting in his gruesome death. They did this to his wife too at the same time, tying her to another car which sped off.

Although the tragedy of losing the Beis HaMikdash is the essence of Tisha B’Av, the atrocities that accompanied it were equaled and perhaps even surpassed by what the Nazis  did to us during the Holocaust. 6 million Jews were slaughtered, most of them systematically in one way or another until the final solution made it as efficient as possible. And if mass murder – genocide – were not enough we had to endure what can best be described as the Tochecha. That is the curse the Jewish people were promised twice in the Torah by God is we did not follow His will as explained in the laws of the Torah. 

The Tochecha  goes into great detail about the kind of torturous atrocities we will endure. Many of them were fulfilled at the time of destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and during the Holocaust.  Atrocities that are permanently seared into the minds of survivors who either witnessed them or experienced them. Among them were the following:

The concentration camps; the forced labor; the rape or our women; the mass graves that Jews were forced to dig for themselves before they were shot and killed, some surviving to be buried alive; the medical experiments; the actual Nazi philosophy that Jews are not really human and should be wiped of the face of the earth; the indoctrination of the Nazi SS to learn how to not listen to the shrieks of the victims as they are about to be killed or as they watched others being killed... 

The packed cattle cars transporting Jews to their deaths; children watching their parents get shot... and then getting shot themselves; the conditions of disease, starvation, and death in the ghettos and the concentration camps; the ultimate systematic march into the gas chambers that were disguised as showers for purposes of delousing; the crematoria... all to an indifferent world who did little to save any of us (with some very notable exceptions).

And all of this only scratches the surface. Go to Yad Vashem or the Holocaust Museum to see more. (And even THAT only scratches the surface!)

The use of the word Holocaust to describe other horrific events in the world has become more commonplace. And frankly I do not accept that. It is a blasphemy in my view for anyone to co-opt that term for their own agenda… even if their cause is  a just one. There is nothing that can compare to what happened in Europe between 1939 and 1945 to a single people just because they were Jewish.  

I particularly resent it when anyone else uses the term Holocaust for their own purposes... even if they have good reasons to do so. The Holocaust was unique in so many different ways that it defies comparison to anything else. Certainly not to chickens as used by PETA or even by pro-life activists when referring to abortions. 

 As far as I am concerned yes, we unfortunately DO own the term Holocaust. And in my view no one else has a right to use that term for any other purpose.