From a Ridgewood interfaith service to Treblinka

From a Ridgewood interfaith service to Treblinka

Local rabbi reflects on the Holocaust and divisive current events

Rabbi Noam E. Marans of Teaneck is the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations.

From left, Dr. Zvi Marans, Nina Kampler, Rabbi Amy Roth, and Rabbi Noam
Marans stand outside the gates of the Treblinka death camp in Poland.
From left, Dr. Zvi Marans, Nina Kampler, Rabbi Amy Roth, and Rabbi Noam Marans stand outside the gates of the Treblinka death camp in Poland.

This is the talk Rabbi Noam Marans gave for Yom HaShoah at the West Side Presbyterian Church on May 1. 

The Holocaust was unprecedented and unimaginable. Its magnitude and vileness defy any comparisons.

But when a Jew — Lori Gilbert-Kaye, of blessed memory — is murdered and others are injured by yet another violent white supremacist as they attend services in Poway, near San Diego, a few days before Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is impossible not to think that this is how it all started, more than 80 years ago. As the Poway congregation’s heroic rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, said, “It was just 70 years ago during the Holocaust [when] we were gunned down like this.”

But we are not in Germany. This is not the 1930s. Then, nearly all governments were complicit. Today, nearly all governments react responsibly. Then, civil society and religious leadership stayed quiet or worse. Today, they can be counted upon to speak out. Then, Jews were not easily able to defend themselves. Today, a cornerstone of Jewish identity is “never again.” Never again will we be powerless. There is a Jewish State of Israel and we are still living in the most hospitable place for Jews in all of diaspora Jewish history, the United States of America.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise, not only in Europe but here as well. There are more hate crimes against Jews than against any other faith group. The frequency of assaults against Jews simply because they are Jews is now at a frightening level. Jews on college campuses are feeling vulnerable. Since we met to remember the Holocaust last year on this sacred day, the worst attack against Jews in American history took place at a Pittsburgh synagogue, leaving 11 murdered Jews and an indelibly rattled American Jewish community, with armed guards at services and public events.

And yet we are sitting here together for the thirty-third time, at the incomparable Ridgewood Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Service. Christians, Jews, and other faith-adherents collectively asserting that we have an obligation to observe Deuteronomy’s call — “Zakhor, lo tishkakh” — remember, never forget. We are living in an age when Christianity is no longer overwhelmingly silent as it was during the Holocaust, an age when the most visible religious leader on the planet, Pope Francis, regularly describes anti-Semitism as a sin. In March, when the organization I represent, the American Jewish Committee, AJC, met with the pontiff, he said, “I stress that for a Christian any form of anti-Semitism is a rejection of one’s own origins, a complete contradiction.”

On Saturday evening, hours after the attack on Jews at prayer in Poway, it was a local Presbyterian Church that hosted the first of many vigils in recent days, a heartfelt outreach demonstrating that many have learned the lessons of history. Just yesterday, the secretary general of the Muslim World League, Dr. Mohammad Abdulkarim Al-Issa, visited AJC to announce an AJC-Muslim World League partnership that will include his January 2020 visit to Auschwitz with AJC on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of that infamous Nazi death camp. Al-Issa will be the most senior Islamic leader to visit Auschwitz. He said, “The heinous attacks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in Christchurch, New Zealand, and most recently in Sri Lanka compel us all to unite and stand up against those who want to divide us.”

This is how a survivor, Vera Laska, described the Auschwitz the pope will visit in her book, “Women in the Resistance and the Holocaust,”:

“The crown of perverted imagination, the feather in the cap of the master builders bound on efficient extermination, with an assembly line leading from freight trains through gas chambers, to crematoria going full blast night and day, in sun and fog…. The fires of the crematoria soared without letup twenty-four hours a day. At times, the chimneys cracked from overheating and had to be reinforced with steel bands. Inside, their walls were covered with human fat, inches deep. When the gas chambers and crematoria could not handle the volume, people had to dig their own graves, undress … and be machine-gunned; or their bodies were tossed from gas chambers into ditches and incinerated on pyres in the open air, permeating our nostrils with the stench of burning flesh and bones.”

Rabbi Noam Marans, right, and his brother Zvi stand by one of the stones memorializing the grave of a Holocaust victim in Bialystok, Poland.

As a Jew who came of age in the shadow of the Holocaust, I have regularly visited Holocaust sites, those simultaneously desecrated and holy places where my people were murdered. Four months ago, my brother Zvi and I and our wives — that’s Zvi’s wife, Nina Kampler, and my wife, Rabbi Amy Roth — visited Bialystok, Poland, where many of my father’s family were born and flourished. After arriving in Warsaw, we stopped at the Treblinka death camp. Treblinka is a horrific place where tens of thousands visit annually, but on December 26, 2018, it was just the four of us alone in the snow-covered vastness, adding to the emotional power of this horrific place where three quarters of a million Jews were exterminated between July 1942 and October 1943.

Before the Soviets liberated Treblinka, the Nazis tried to destroy all incriminating evidence and bulldozed the gas chambers, crematoria, and camp. In its place today is a very meaningful memorial with 17,000 stones of different sizes. Seven hundred of the stones bear the names of Jewish communities. One of the larger stones has the name Bialystok, where my family once thrived. I have visited Treblinka three times, and that Bialystok stone, my stone, brings me to tears again and again. We chanted the El Malei Rachamim, the traditional Jewish memorial prayer for the dead, the four of us, alone with the souls of our people.

About 90 minutes later we were in Bialystok, a once vibrant exemplary Jewish community that today is a Jewish ghost town, like so many in Eastern Europe. At its peak, Bialystok was 75 percent Jewish. Tens of thousands from Bialystok were murdered in Treblinka and other camps. Many others were murdered in mass killings in and around Bialystok.

My father’s aunt, three first cousins, and an infant son of one of the cousins were murdered when a former employer revealed their hiding place outside Bialystok. That murdered infant had the same Hebrew name as my father, Avraham Dov. They were named for the same ancestor, my father’s grandfather Avraham Dov Marans, the infant’s great grandfather. To this day, my 90-year-old father regularly reminds us that he carries that name, and that someday there will be new Avraham Dov Maranses, carrying on the same name and the same legacy.

Today there are only five Jews left in Bialystok, but there are many memorialized Jewish sites and cemeteries. The largest of those cemeteries once had more than 30,000 tombstones, including those marking the resting places of my father’s grandparents, Avraham Dov and Sarah Chenke Marans. Due to desecration and neglect only 3,000 stones remain, and even fewer stand in their original location.

Remarkably, one of the standing stones memorializes the grave of one of my great uncles. With the help of multiple scholars of Jewish cemeteries, we found it, the grave of my father’s Uncle Yankel Marans. We will never forget and will always be inspired and sustained by our visit to this lone identified ancestral grave that recalls so much that was lost and moves us to continue on.

A Jew cannot be in Poland without experiencing overwhelming sadness. In 1939, Poland was 10 percent Jewish. Ninety percent of Polish Jewry was murdered during the Holocaust, three million souls, approximately one-sixth of world Jewry. Half of European Jewry and one third of world Jewry perished in the Holocaust. Polish Jewish civilization, one of the greatest in Jewish history, was destroyed.

This Holocaust requires a response. And you have created and sustained one of the most unique and powerful responses to the Holocaust here in Ridgewood. This Ridgewood response to the Holocaust is inseparable from the history and transformation of this community and is also inseparable from the history of this church, West Side Presbyterian Church, within which we remember and vow tonight, “Never again, not for my people, not for any people.”

For me, this is deeply personal. In 1987, the local Ridgewood United Methodist minister convinced an initially reluctant me and the Roman Catholic monsignor to inaugurate this interfaith Holocaust remembrance service. There were more survivors then, and understandably, not all of them were supportive. It was very hard for some, especially survivors, to process the idea that we would memorialize the six million in a church every other year, as has been the practice for this service, since its founding — every other year at the synagogue and every other year at a church.

This was not an easy path. After all, Christianity’s collective negative attitude toward Jews and Judaism was a primary cause for anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism over two millennia, leading to violence, pogroms, blood libels, destruction, and mass murder perpetrated against Jews. Could a church possibly be an appropriate place for Holocaust remembrance?

The grave of Yankel Marans, the uncle of Rabbi Marans’ father.

It is true that Christianity had become self-reflective since the Holocaust, acknowledging the role Christian ideology had played in setting the stage for the Holocaust and the acceptance of the destruction of European Jewry by too many Christians who were perpetrators or passive bystanders. The inauguration of this service here in Ridgewood required courage from many people, a courage that has lasted and taught us for more than three decades. It is based on a simple but profound premise: If we are to create a world where the Holocaust and other genocides are to be prevented, we must do so not only as Jews but also as Christians, Muslims, people of all faiths, believers, and non-believers. And we must do it not only in a synagogue but also in a church.

Here in Ridgewood there is added poignancy to interfaith Holocaust remembrance because here we personally experience two important truths beyond the horror of the six million murdered Jews: 1) Not all the victims of the Nazis were Jews. 2) Many risked their lives to save Jews.

As many of you know well, this was the home church of Ridgewood’s famous Varian Fry, the first American and one of 27,000 worldwide honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center, as Righteous Among the Nations. Varian Fry was one of the rare human beings who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust. Sent by the Emergency Rescue Committee to France, Fry assisted approximately four-thousand people; one-thousand of them were smuggled out of France in various ways. Among the Jews Fry helped to save were several well-known figures, such as Hanna Arendt and Marc Chagall. In this context, I also want to remember a Temple Israel member, the late Catherine Taub, who spearheaded proper recognition of Varian Fry in this community.

This is also the home church of Frank Schott, who often lights the seventh candle in memory of the many other victims of the Nazis, beyond the six million Jews. Frank and I met during the early years of this service. Frank’s life is a story of the indiscriminateness of hate and the power of a human being to survive and flourish. Hate is an equal opportunity offender. If you hate Jews, your hate will not stop there. And if you hate other groups, you eventually will hate Jews. Frank was born to a Jewish father and Christian mother and he was raised as a Christian in Germany, but he and his family members were demonized, pilloried, enslaved, and even murdered as Jews. Frank is here, as he often is at this service, testament to his commitment as Ridgewood’s living Christian witness.

Our greatest challenge in Holocaust remembrance is the inevitable disappearance of the survivors, the eyewitnesses. Thankfully, many of their stories have been captured in oral histories, like the powerful videos that are continuously screened at the Holocaust Museum in Washington and elsewhere. When this service was inaugurated, all the candle lighters were survivors themselves. Today it is mostly the children and grandchildren of survivors, who carry their own burdens from this diabolical history. We will have to work harder and harder to sustain Holocaust remembrance now that the survivors are relatively few in number.

As we move further from the Holocaust our responsibility only grows, our responsibility to make history come alive, so that the lessons of the Holocaust are not forgotten.

On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must acknowledge that we are living in the most divisive moment of our lives here in America. We have been inundated with attacks on houses of worship and the murder of parishioners around the corner and around the world — synagogues, churches, mosques, gurdwaras, and others. Loose tongues and social media have unleashed aberrant destructive ideologies. Hate, as it always does, has led to violence.

We have a responsibility as people of faith. As human beings. If our society has a disease, we need to be its cure. These words on the outside wall of the entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Museum echo that sentiment: “Here we will learn that each of us bears responsibility for our actions and for our failure to act. Here we will learn that we must intervene when we see evil rise.” We must intervene when we see evil rise. That is my prayer for all of us this evening. It is the least we can do in remembrance of the victims we mourn today. Yehi zikhram barukh. May their memory be for a blessing.

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