I’ve been thinking about this since Pesach. Now, as the sun sets on Holocaust remembrance day, it seems a good time to write about it.
My great-uncle, a ninety-year-old holocaust survivor, was at our second seder this year. He mostly sat and listened, although as we progressed through the story of the Israelites’ enslavement he began to grumble to his son. Said son interrupted the story to share the conversation with us. He commented that his dad felt the Israelites’ suffering was nothing compared to what he and his family suffered during the Holocaust, not to mention the fact that it was thousands of years ago, so why should we care? He wanted to know what merited so much fanfare about our long-ago foray into slavery.
Many people at the seder listed reasons why it should be so: the slavery was the backstory to the exodus, an event which forged the Jewish nation; we need to remember that this evil has existed in many generations (actually, the haggadah says “in every generation”); the exodus is a magnificent event in its own right and deserves not to be eclipsed by other events. Needless to say, Uncle was unimpressed.
Frankly, the whole conversation annoyed me. Why the fanfare about the exodus? Because it’s PASSOVER, for pete’s sake! We’re not talking about Haman’s evil plan, or the oppression by the ancient Greeks, or the pogroms in eastern Europe. We’re talking about the events that gave us Pesach. Must the Holocaust colour and overshadow even the joyous parts of being a Jew?
Later on I sat with Uncle while the others were finishing up dessert. He began to expound on his theme again. “Pharaoh was nothing compared to Hitler. Pain? Suffering? He did nothing like what the Nazis did to our women, our innocent children… who cares that God rescued us from the Egyptians? Where was God in Birkenau? He wasn’t there. There are no miracles anymore.”
I really didn’t, and still don’t, know what to do or how to respond to that anger. I wasn’t in the Holocaust. I didn’t suffer. He did. I wanted to tell him, but didn’t, that the slavery in Egypt was 400 years of suffering, that the Egyptians drowned our male babies, that husbands and wives were forcibly separated. Maybe it seems so much milder because it’s not in living memory anymore. We can’t go and listen to Hebrew slave testimonies the way we can hear Holocaust survivors. But I didn’t tell him any of those things. I don’t feel I have the right.
There’s a motto, or a mantra perhaps, related to the Holocaust: “Never forgive, Never forget”. But we know, or can see when looking closely at survivors and their families, that following this advice can cause problems above and beyond the trauma inflicted on the survivors themselves. I don’t feel that I can tell the story of my cousins who are affected by the Holocaust, but I’m sure if you ask any survivor, or their children or grandchildren, you can get a decent idea of the kind of thing I’m talking about.
Back to Passover for a minute. After the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were supposed to go straight (more or less) to the promised land. But their behaviour showed God that they weren’t ready to be free people. They were still slaves, mentally and emotionally. And so God decreed that the Jews would not enter Canaan until the last of the slaves had died. Only the free-born Israelites would enter the promised land.
Maybe the story will be similar with Holocaust remembrance as well. In a few years the survivors will be gone. We must still remember, just as God commanded us to remember the Exodus, but those of us remembering won’t be reliving a personal torture. We will be removed enough from the experience to take lessons from the Holocaust and to grow, personally and collectively, as a result. We can’t – or won’t – tell the survivors that God did liberate them (through the Allied forces), or that this can teach us that we must confront evil, or that we can learn that even in a liberal democracy things can take a turn for the worse (or even the worst). Their grief and pain is too raw to be able to move past it… and I would wager that God understands this. Maybe given another forty years we will be able to remember and draw from the lessons of the Holocaust without anger. As we were not personally wronged, forgiveness is not ours to grant – so we will never forgive. And we will never forget.