Now I know why…
Last night – with my family – I watched and listened to six elderly Jews in flickering torchlight recounting the horrors of a ruptured and terminated childhood.
It was the annual service at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum marking the beginning of Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial Day here in Israel.
The mouths on those six, pain-gouged faces (one for each of the Six Million) were trying to describe the indescribable. As small children they had had everything torn from them – their parents, brothers and sisters consumed by the flames, the security of family and home forever gone, each was brought to the very edge of death themselves.
They may have been very little when this happened, and it may have been 70 years ago, but one after another, their frames stooped and hands shaking, their faces crumpled and they briefly lost control as they recalled the last time they saw their moms and dads, sisters and brothers – some sent stumbling off towards the gas chambers, quickly disappearing among those selected for death, others machine-gunned in front of their terrified, six-year-old eyes.
This day, this ceremony, these testimonies – always hit me at the deepest level. I know none of these survivors – and will likely never meet them in this life – but their words wring tears from the heart.
The fact that, at the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the majority of its new citizens had lost a first-degree family member in the Shoah (Holocaust), forcefully accentuates the pangs of the nation’s agonizing rebirth.
“Look left, look right,” I often say to my groups on the way to Yad Vashem. “Imagine that all of you on this bus were Jews in Hitler’s Europe. Two thirds of you would no longer be here. Think about that.”
For a long time I have wondered at the way the Jews of Israel submerse themselves, year after year, in the pain-laced vat of Holocaust memories and remembrance. In the week leading to this day, movies and articles and lectures fill the newspaper and internet columns and flood the airwaves – turning every Jew’s thoughts to this darkest moment in the history of their people.
Why? Why fixate on something so dreadful and so full of grief?
I have wondered why, every time Israel’s prime minister speaks to the press – about Iran or the Palestinian Arabs or relations with Europe – he in some way invokes the Holocaust.
I have wondered at Israel’s insistent expectation that heads of state visiting for the first time at least lay a wreath in the place where the eternal flame shimmers over the names of the camps of death.
Last night, as cameras panned the solemn faces of the hundreds gathered for the service, and as I tried to push down the lid on my mounting emotions, the thought came vividly to me:
“‘Now I know why.”
I listened to the words of the grim-faced Benjamin Netanyahu, who sternly warned the world of the danger to his people posed by an Iran that is preparing to carry out another holocaust.
Before him, Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke of his own family, burned to death in the Holocaust. Israel’s existence today, he said, is the deterrence against the perpetration of another mass genocidal act upon the Jewish people.
I listened, I looked, and I thought: “I know exactly why. I’ve known it for a long time, even as I’ve wondered.
The reason, the fundamental reason why there is a need to ensure that the Jews never forget and – perhaps more importantly – that they never allow the world to forget what happened in modern, enlightened and progressive Europe ‘just the other day,’ is that if the
Jews disassociate themselves from their Holocaust pain, if the world is allowed to develop amnesia about that terrible time, the way will be opened for it to occur again.
For most of us in the rest of the world, if the Holocaust comes to mind at all it is only once or twice a year. The thought usually needs an external trigger – a book or a movie or something, and it is gone as quickly as it came.
For this nation – the Jews – the Shoah is ever before them. It stays fresh in their minds – they still see it, hear it, smell it.
Horribly – it has to be. It cannot be allowed to fade and be confined to the pages of history books and exhibitions in museums.
And now I know another reason why.
As I looked across the ranks of the Jews standing at Yad Vashem – and as I contemplated how they would stand today, literally in their millions, across the land while sirens sound for two-minutes in memory of those dead – I understood something else.
I understood it last night. I understand it today. It is a fundamental truth about the nature of the Jewish psyche.
I understand why American presidents and secretaries of state will spin themselves around in frustration and try repeatedly without success to push Israel to the brink of self-destruction with their diplomatic schemes and initiatives, and their appeals to Israel to take risks for peace.
I know why Benjamin Netanyahu has sought and found ways (although he will never admit to them) to prevent his country from being pushed over the edge of the precipice of a false peace.
And I know why Israel will not allow the Iranians to attain and use the means they are pursuing to kill the six million Jews living in Israel today, and to dismember their national home.
Some say the majority of the Jews of Europe went to their deaths like lambs to the slaughter. Others strongly dispute this.
But I know Israel will not go like a lamb.
They won’t. They never will.
At Yad Vashem the service comes to an end. A rabbi prays the prayer for the dead. The Jews and their guests rise – some unsteadily – to their feet.
Here in our living room we stand with them, tears again squeezed out of the heart.
And they sing Hatikvah – The Hope – the national anthem of the physically resurrected and flourishing Jewish people back in their own land. The words go up into the night sky, a declaration of faith from those who should have lost all reason to hope. They have hope. Greater hope than most of them even know.
Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,” says the Lord.’” (Ezekiel 37:11-14)