Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Yizkor, 75 Years Later: A Lesson of Hope

It is my custom, for the Yizkor before Yom HaShoah, to talk about the Holocaust.

I do so in part because there are many who say Yizkor for members of their family who were lost during the war, and for members of their family who were survivors of the Holocaust.

And I do so because in the Yizkor before Yom HaShoah, it is everyone’s responsibility to remember the 6 million, even 75 years later.

But why is it so important to remember? We do so for three reasons.

The first is never again: we have a responsibility to ensure that a catastrophe like this never happens again.

This promise is seen as a responsibility of the international community and institutions like the United Nations. Unfortunately, it is often a hollow promise. In Rwanda, Darfur and most recently in Syria, the wholesale massacre of civilians has gone on without any response from the international community.

However, this idea is deeply rooted in Jewish thought. The very story of the Exodus is meant to warn us about the power of tyrants. Indeed Torah goes out of its way to limit the power of kings and limit the institution of slavery. After Egypt, the Torah tells the Jewish people never again; do not let the values of Egypt become your own.

The second reason is never forget. Entire families, even entire villages were destroyed without a single living remnant.

There is an ethical responsibility for us to ensure that the memories of those whose lives were taken away live on. The ritual of Shiva, and prayers  of Yizkor and Kaddish, all articulate the same idea: we must continue to remember those whom we love. A loving family and a caring community must remember, and make sure that those who perished did not die in vain.

The third reason, which is more important today than ever, is: we will outlive them.

This line comes from a powerful story related by the Holocaust historian Moshe Prager. When the Nazis entered Lublin, a Commander by the name of Glovoznik took a group of Jewish men into a field, and for his sport, ordered them to dance and sing. The men, improvising on the words of a popular song, came up with the following lyric:

"Mir veln zey iberlebn, Ovinu shebashomayim,” “We will outlive them, our Father in heaven.”

When the Nazi commander recognized that they were singing in defiance, he ordered his men to beat the Jews. The Jews continued to sing anyway.

We will outlive them has been part of the Jewish spirit for the last 75 years.

William Helmreich z”l, who passed away 2 weeks ago, published a book in 1992 entitled: Against all Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America.

Helmreich conducted 170 in depth interviews with survivors, and went through tens of thousands of pages of archives from relief organizations that brought the survivors to America. He tells a remarkable story of people whose lives were shattered, and through the sheer force of will, rebuilt in a new country.

These survivors truly outlived their adversaries.

But how? This capacity for hope is remarkable. Elie Wiesel, in an interview with the New York Times that appeared on June 7, 1987 said this:

"I must confess that, of all the mysteries that characterize the Jewish people, its capacity for hope is the one that strikes me most forcibly. How can we think of the past without foundering in the abyss? How can we recall the victims of fire and sword without drowning in our own tears?"

And yet these survivors found hope after staring into the abyss. And this powerful hope is so much a part of what it means to be a Jew.

In the Haftarah that is read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach, we are told about Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones; these bones are resurrected by God's call. The dry bones represent the Jewish people, who will be brought back to life, even after many years in exile. And the keyword of this entire text is the word רוח, spirit, because the secret to the endurance of the Jewish people  is their spirit and soul.

It is this spirit of endless hope that propelled the survivors. Helmreich, at the end of the book, lists 10 traits of survivors that allowed them to rebuild. They include a sense of community and a search for meaning, as well as courage, optimism, tenacity, and flexibility. These survivors had a sense of destiny, that whatever might happen, they would be able to overcome.

Helmreich quotes from the memoir of Luba Bat, who tells about a group of young women being marched to the gas chamber and Auschwitz. As these young women are walking to their deaths, they break out in the singing of Hatikvah, the Zionist national anthem. In the last moments of their life, they sang a song whose name literally means hope, and expressed hope for a better future for all of us.

Such is the spirit of those who hold on to hope even when everything seems hopeless. Such is the spirit of a people who can say  Mir veln zey iberlebn, we will outlive them.

Today we find ourselves facing a challenge of our own. The coronavirus which took William Helmreich's life threatens us all.

But it is in the stories of these survivors that we can find hope 75 years later. Helmreich ends his book with the following words:

The story of the survivors is one of courage and strength, of people who are living proof of the indomitable will of human beings to survive and of their tremendous capacity for hope. It is not a story of remarkable people. It is a story of just how remarkable people can be.

Let me repeat those words: It is not a story of remarkable people. It is a story of just how remarkable people can be.

This is our lesson as we say Yizkor. We come today  to remember those who continued to hold on to hope in the most hopeless times.

May we be inspired by their legacies each and every day.

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