From sea to shining sea and all points in between, including the Capitol in Washington and in communities around the world, the Holocaust will be remembered next week.
Perhaps it is a more poignant time than ever, as Holocaust survivors age and die and the last eyewitnesses rush to give their testimony in memoirs, on tape, in classrooms and at commemorations. How painful it is for them to hear and see what is in the news daily threats against Israel by Holocaust deniers and Israel’s being labeled the country of ‘1st-century Nazis as they fight personal battles for their health and, in many cases, some form of restitution.
As we struggle to understand and teach the Holocaust, we ask ourselves what we have accomplished with our efforts to remember over the last 30 years. When people first wanted to "legitimize" Holocaust remembrance, it came at a time after survivors had been put through the mill. Few outsiders understood them as they were told to put those memories behind them, to get with the program, to move on. The memories, in many families, stayed bitterly buried and took their toll.
Then, in the late 1970s, as a result of anti-Semitism once again rearing its head during the gasoline shortage, when bumper stickers read "Burn Jews, not oil," that the Holocaust again took center stage. For years, TV shows like "Star Trek" and "The Twilight Zone" had done episodes about the Holocaust, but then the eponymous docudrama aired in 1978. Soon scholars were producing more books, memoirs were made available, and remembrance programs began. Second Generation groups began to form as well, and survivors and their families formed a power base in the Jewish community, pressing for Holocaust education in Jewish and non-Jewish schools.
One of the most rented classroom tools was a ‘8-minute film called "Nacht und Nebel" (Night and Fog), a documentary made from spliced films of deportations and atrocities, which today some educators call, not without reason, Holocaust porn. Even I was guilty of using this film. Twice and never again. The film so overwhelmed students that there was nothing to discuss. Then I realized that the Disney movie "Dumbo" would do a much better job of getting people to understand the real lessons of the Holocaust.
After all, what are the lessons we want to teach? No matter what you tell teens today, it rarely makes them care about Jews. Perhaps it makes more sense to teach about what happens when political systems fall apart and hatred is used as a political tool whether it is Nazi Germany, Iran, or even the United States. Perhaps it makes more sense to use the Character Counts program in early childhood to teach about caring and responsibility because by the time public schools get around to teaching the Holocaust, it is too little, too late, and usually means just watching a screening of "Schindler’s List."
Jewishly, we need to canonize a service for our 6 million. They are our 6 million, but they are not the reason for our children to be Jewish.
Do we want to teach Jewish children that the only reason to be Jewish is to spite your enemies? That is a terrible reason to be Jewish, because Judaism is a religion of reason and joy. It is not a religion with an angry God who slaughters 1.5 million babies and 4.5 million adults. That is a distortion of Judaism that comes from the notion that the Holocaust was a punishment on the Jews for the Enlightenment, for Zionism, for becoming Communists a notion that is taught in certain Jewish schools as Midas HaDin (a measure of justice). That teaching infuriates survivors and is contrary to the Torah. (Who dares proclaim they know what was in God’s mind?) Jewish children should be Jewish because Judaism teaches morality and ethics, because it has intrinsic worth not out of spite.
There is one lesson for all of mankind from the Holocaust. One. And this is it: Men and women perpetrated the Holocaust no one was actually wearing horns and a tail or spitting fire. They were human beings suffering from the denial and/or absence of God who destroyed good people. Evil was ascendant over the good.
Fighting evil is humankind’s job when you see it, act against it. Period.
And that is the lesson of the Holocaust that needs to be taught. That is what we must remember, by telling the story, one life at a time.