Yom ha-Shoah

Today, April 21, 2009 (Nissan 5769), at sundown marks the end of Yom ha-Shoah, the Jewish holiday that memorializes the Holocaust. It is a topic I have studied very much. I have no words. My words are and will always be inadequate when faced with the reality of this event. But I have always felt a certain power and vitality in the words of the survivors, as well as in the accounts preserved of those who did not survive. It is their words I wish to share here, as we all reflect, and say . . . never again.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which turned my life into on elong night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
—Elie Wiesel, Night, 32

“I witnessed other hangings. I never saw a single one of the victims weep. For a long time those dried-up bodies had forgotten the bitter taste of tears. Except once [ . . . ] One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all round us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains–and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel. The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. [ . . . ] The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. ‘Long live liberty!’ cried the two adults. But the child was silent. ‘Where is God? Where is He?’ someone behind me asked. At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. ‘Bare your heads!’ yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. ‘Cover your heads!’ Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving, being so light, the child was still alive. . . . For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still read, his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘Where is God now?’ and I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is–He is hanging here on this gallows . . . ‘ That night the soup tasted of corpses.”
—Elie Wiesel, Night, 60-62

“Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand. They crowdy my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen. If the drowned have no story, and single and broad is the path to perdition, the paths to salvation are many, difficult and improbable.”
—Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, 90

“I’m not alive. People believe memories grow vague, are erased by time, since nothing endures against the passage of time. That’s the difference; time does not pass over me, over us. It doesn’t erase anything, doesn’t undo it. I’m not a live. I died in Auschwitz but no one knows it.”
—Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After, 267

And while he was never a prisoner in the camps, the words of Rabbi Irving Greenberg are as true today as when he first uttered them. It is an important caution of which we must all be aware:

“No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”
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