Some years ago, when I was a young assistant rabbi in a large congregation, I was having dinner with a man who had been widowed recently. He and his late wife were both Holocaust survivors. His son — who was away attending university — was interested in applying to the rabbinic seminary from which I had graduated a few months earlier.
"I understand you have to write a thesis in order to graduate," the man said. "Tell me, what was yours about?" "Holocaust literature," I replied. "Oh?" he said, "And what did you learn?" "Well," I said, "I now understand what happened, how and why." "You must tell me then," he said, "because I was there, and I still don’t understand."
As you can well imagine, the silence was awkward. The ink was barely dry on my smicha (rabbinic ordination); my thesis — freshly bound — had been placed on the seminary library’s shelf but weeks earlier. And in that silence, suddenly, I was aware that I knew absolutely nothing.
My thesis was simple. Forty years ago most Jewish religious thinkers were mute when it came to talking about the Holocaust. But the imaginative writers were not. And, while Elie Wiesel was the best known, there were others. Their works were published here, in Israel, and elsewhere in the world. Just as the response to the churban could be found in writings — particularly Eichah Rabbah — my thought was that the response to the Shoah could be found in the novels, poetry, and drama of imaginative writers, many of whom were survivors. Just as theological notions about the churban could be gleaned from a Midrash like Eichah Rabbah, I thought that theological ideas about the meaning of the Shoah could be gleaned from Holocaust literature. It was as simple as that.
As I looked over my old thesis recently, I came to a startling realization. I don’t think I proved my thesis. In an epilogue I wrote, "We know what happened. We are beginning to learn how it happened. We do not know — we may never know — why it happened."
The English Jewish writer Lionel Davidson wrote a novel entitled "Making Good Again" — a literal translation of the German word "Wiedergutmachung," a term applied to reparations paid by Germany to survivors and to the state of Israel. The protagonist, Grunwald, an Orthodox Jew, is an attorney working on behalf of survivors. In trying to make some sense out of what happened, he reflects in a soliloquy: "Were six million people murdered over some years with the world looking on, many of them helping, as part of some accident? Perhaps. Perhaps everything is an accident. Perhaps, God forbid, God doesn’t exist. Perhaps He exists and He’s tired of His work. Even if it were so, what would it mean? Only that we would have to do the work for Him. . . . We would have to act as if carrying out the original purpose, and if there were no purpose, we would have to make a purpose. The world, at least, exists! . . . There has got to be some sanction for the activities in it. But I believe He does exist, and I believe that Creation didn’t end on the sixth day, or whichever period you prefer, and that we have a role, and that there’s meaning here."
Grunwald has faith that one day we will be able to find meaning — theological meaning — in the Shoah. But for many, still to this day, it is difficult to find meaning, or even to be convinced that meaning can be found.
Yehuda Amichai, zichrono liv’racha, was best known for his poetry. But in a novel, "Lo Me-kahn, Lo Me-achshav" ("Not of This Time, Not of This Place") he searches out the meaning of the Holocaust. The protagonist, Joel, a German-born Israeli like Amichai himself, goes back to Europe to search out people and places. On his journey he befriends a young man from India. Not a Jew, not a Christian, not a Muslim, not a European, his Indian friend reflects, imagining the future:
"Our memory tells us that the Nazis had murdered so-and-so many Jews and that the city was destroyed by the American army. Crime and punishment. History will describe the events otherwise. It will say, ‘So-and-so many Jews and Germans were killed in the great war.’ Here will be a balancing and equalizing of oppressed and oppressors. More distant history, which has to embrace many generations and wars, will say: ‘In the middle of the ‘0th century a great war raged and so-and-so many people perished in it.’ Archaeology of times to come will define the event as follows: ‘It appears that toward the end of the second millennium of the Christian era a great catastrophe occurred marked by many conflagrations. This is proved by a black, fire-scorched layer and numerous broken iron objects that have been uncovered. The city appears to have been rebuilt.’"
At least among our own people our history has remained more than a footnote. We Jews have been a literary people — a people whose literature has preserved documentary material as well as literary and religious responses to the events chronicled in the documentary accounts. And so, lest the ironic prediction of Amichai’s Indian character be realized, we have at least one lesson to learn from the Shoah. And that is, not to forget.
Grunwald, Davidson’s character in "Making Good Again," is touring Dachau with another lawyer working on reparations claims. As they complete their tour of the grim museum, they enter a garden: "It was a small garden, screened by hedges, with a narrow entrance — a private place, very quiet in the heat of the afternoon. A few begonias grew in a circular bed in the middle of it. A candelabrum of granite stood on a granite Shield of David, which, in turn, stood on a single tombstone. There were no records and no explanations. A single line of lettering cut in the stone carried a simple message: VERGISS NICHT, it said in German; LOH TISHKACH, it said in Hebrew; DO NOT FORGET, it said in English.
It is the very least one can do.
This essay is adapted from remarks Rabbi Bruce Block of Temple Sinai in Tenafly was scheduled to give last night at the Yom HaShoah Community Holocaust Remembrance at Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood. The event is being sponsored by Ahavath Torah, East Hill Synagogue, Kehillat Kesher, Kol HaNeshamah, all of Englewood, and Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly.