Dialogika Resources

Address on Yom Hashoah


Dear brothers and sisters, survivors of the Holocaust. The first evening of Hanukkah 5704, 1943, in the prisoner’s hut in Bergen-Belsen, the Bluzhover Rebbe, Rabbi Israel Spira, recited the blessing over the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. His voice reverberated through the hut. He recited the first blessing, and the second, He then continued to the third blessing, his large audience of Jews joining him as he says: “Blessed be He, O Lord, who has kept us alive, and preserved us and enabled us to reach this moment”. I stand here on this evening of awe, in the rebuilt Jerusalem, the capital city of the State of Israel, and in the name of our valiant brothers and sisters, victims of the Shoah, and the survivors, who struggled for survival, for their Jewishness, and for their humanity. On behalf of all of them, I say: Blessed be He, who has kept us alive, and preserved us and enabled us to reach this time.” Am Yisrael Chai, the People of Israel lives.

Seventy-two years have passed since the flames of hell, of the Auschwitz crematoria, were extinguished. The more time that passes, the fewer the surviving witnesses to the horrors, the older the State of Israel, so our need to deal with how we relate to the Holocaust and to Holocaust remembrance becomes ever more crucial. Ladies and Gentlemen, over the past few decades there have developed two clear approaches to how Israeli society remembers the Shoah, and regards the lessons to be learned from it. The first, is one that deals only with the universal aspects and lessons of the Shoah. The second is one where the Shoah becomes the lens through which we view the world. The first, the universal approach, negates the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a historical event that has no parallel, that happened to us, the members of the Jewish People. According to this approach, the Shoah is just one specific occurrence of genocide, of racism, and such events have happened in the past and may happen again in the history of humankind. In the case of the Shoah, they would say, this terrible genocide attacked the Jewish People. This is a dangerous approach. It downplays the Shoah. It distorts history. It denies the program of systematic extermination that was aimed specifically at the Jewish People. It denies anti-Semitism, a malignant disease that is two thousand years old. It denies the right and the obligation of the Jewish People to a history of its own, and to a state of its own. The Shoah has always been, and will always be a program of annihilation that was planned and implemented against the Jewish People. The gas chambers were not built ‘as a crime against humanity’, they were built for the purpose of annihilating the Jewish People, and specifically that nation. There has been no previous historical event like this: extermination divorced from any [political] conflict, divorced from territorial issues, or from a struggle for dominance. It was a terrorizing process that gathered Jews from around the world, from different continents, Jews who did not know each other’s language, both the believers and non-believers, assimilated and orthodox Jews, With one goal: to exterminate them and their seed from the face of the earth. The Shoah did not happen in the ancient world, nor did it happen so long ago. It happened in the heart of Europe of enlightenment. In the heart of the Germany of Kant - the father of modern ethics. In the heart of the France of the declaration of the rights of man, the rights of the citizen. It was there, yes, there, that the greatest of horrors was planned, and was aimed at us, the members of the Jewish People. A universal approach alone is not only an historic mistake, it is also a danger in the realm of education because of the message it sends to the future generations. Studying the Shoah requires addressing the most fundamental questions of Jewish identity. We must not make do with a simplistic approach, objecting to genocide wherever it happens. Obviously, there are universal lessons to be learned from the Shoah, but denial of the unique nature of the Holocaust of the Jewish People is a historical, national, and educational error.

On the other hand, there is the second approach, whereby the Shoah becomes the lens through which we view the world. Here, the Shoah, and preventing it ever happening again, are all that is important. On this point, I had a disagreement with my mentor, Menachem Begin, of blessed memory. On the eve of the IDF’s entry into Lebanon in June 1982, Begin said to me, and I quote, “The alternative to the IDF’s entry into Lebanon, is Treblinka, and we decided that there would never be another Treblinka”. According to this approach, the justification for the existence of the State of Israel is the prevention of the next Holocaust. Every threat is a threat to survival, every Israel-hating leader is Hitler. According to this approach, the essence of our collective Jewish identity is escape from massacre by joint means. And the world is divided into two, the “Righteous among the Nations” on the one hand, and anti-Semitic Nazis on the other. And in any case, any criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism. This approach also is fundamentally wrong, and is dangerous for us a nation and as a people. No less than this, it is dangerous for the memory of the Shoah. There is no doubt that in the period since the Shoah we have stood at historic crossroads, moments when we have sensed the threat of “The Destruction of the Third Temple”, and of course, the State of Israel may find itself under threat to its very existence. However, we have a state, we have an army. This approach is dangerous to us both internally, and also dangerous externally. Internally, it obscures the richness of the Jewish existence of before the Shoah. But the Jewish People was not born in Auschwitz. It was not fear that kept us going through two thousand years of exile, it was our spiritual assets, our shared creativity. Externally, this approach damages our ability to develop relations with the nations of the world and with our critics from a safe place, appropriate for dialogue. We need to ask ourselves: Whether, when we are involved only in preventing a Shoah, are we capable of most effectively meeting the various challenges that face us? The Shoah is permanently branded in our flesh. Each of us has a number on our arm. Nevertheless, the Shoah is not the lens through which we should examine our past and our future.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Both these approaches have existed in Israeli society and among the Jewish People for a long time now. But there is also a third approach, an approach that we can trust and that stands ready. The Jewish People survived the Shoah and was privileged to witness rebirth. We shall never forget neither one nor the other. With this third approach, Holocaust remembrance and the lessons to be learned are founded on three central pillars, “We shall always undertake our own defense; the shared common Jewish destiny; “Beloved is man for he was created in God’s image” [Ethics of the Fathers, 3:14]. On the first – we shall always undertake our own defense – the State of Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust, but the Holocaust teaches us that we must take our fate in our own hands. The Jewish People has the right and the duty for a defensive force, for national independence, for sovereignty, here in our historic homeland. On the second pillar – the shared Jewish destiny, the idea that we all, all members of the Jewish People, share a history and future – we must remember our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora and our obligation to their safety and welfare. This year particularly, anti-Semitism demands that we show increased commitment to our brothers in the Diaspora. They ask us in clear terms to stand beside them at this time too. And the third pillar is – as it says “Beloved is man for he was created in God’s image” - this is the most Jewish, humane, and fundamental truth. Man is beloved, every man, created in God’s image. This is a sacred obligation that the Jewish People cannot and does not wish to evade. At all times. In every situation. So too, we cannot remain silent in face of the horrors being committed far away from us, and certainly those happening just across the border. Maintaining one’s humanity: this is the immense courage bequeathed to us by the victims – and by you, the survivors of the Shoah – in actions for the sake of others, in the cold, in hunger, in the railway carriages, in the crematoria and in the ghettoes. My dear friends, we shall always undertake our own defense; the Jewish people have a shared destiny; and “Beloved is man for he was created in God’s image”. These are the lessons we learn from the Shoah and we shall repeat them to our sons and daughters for all eternity.
Ladies and Gentlemen, On the 27th of January, 1945, the gates of hell were opened wide. The sun broke through above Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp after five years of darkness. A long line of people liberated by the Red Army left the valley of death. Among them was also little Pepíček. The smallest child in Bloc 10, the bloc for the twins and the midgets of the ‘monster’, the ‘Angel of Death’, Josef Mengele. Pepíček was the youngest survivor who left Auschwitz alive. He was in Auschwitz for eight months. The Nazis tattooed a number on his little arm, A2459. When the gates of the camp were opened Pepíček didn’t know where to go. His mother, his father, his older sister and his twin sister, had all been murdered. Pepíček was alone. He was four years and eight months old. Imagine, a child of kindergarten age. He lay down in the snow and fell asleep. A Jew who passed by adopted him and gave him his name  ̶  Peter Grünfeld. Some time passed before Pepíček discovered his true identity. Peter Josef Grünfeld Kleinmann. Pepíček got married and had children. Grandchildren were born. He made Aliyah to Israel. He became a witness. He devoted his life to Holocaust remembrance for the generations to come. This was his revenge, this was his vision. Last month Pepíček passed away. That little boy from Auschwitz-Birkenau died. He used to conclude his testimony with the following words: “I made Aliyah to Israel, and from here I never get lost.” In his name and in yours, I want to conclude with those words: “We have returned to our land, and from here we shall never get lost.” May the memory of our brothers and sisters we bound up in the bond of life. Amen.