Yom HaShoah

Tbe-1521766167Today is Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day. As a Jew and as a rabbi I feel that I "should" have something to say, but when I look inside to discern what my heart wants to articulate, I find only tears and silence.

In this week's Torah portion, Aaron's sons are killed and Aaron himself is silent. (I wrote about that a few days ago.) I often read his silence as a kind of stunned, grief-stricken numbness.  The horror is too great: there are no words to adequately express it.

There's a resonance between that passage and how many of us relate to the Shoah. Millions of human beings rounded up like cattle, forced into hard labor, experimented-upon without anesthesia, murdered and cremated: it's unthinkable. 

The attempt to wholly eradicate the Jewish people from the face of the earth: it's unthinkable. Mass extermination also of queer people, Roma, disabled and mentally ill people: it's unthinkable. Extermination camps and gas chambers: it's unthinkable.

The mind shuts down. The heart shuts down. The spirit shuts down. Because the alternative is screaming, wailing, rending our garments, a primal and existential outcry of why and how and where were You, God, when we were led to the slaughter?

Why? The only explanation is humanity's capacity for hatred -- which persists in our day. White supremacy, hatred of Jews,  hatred of Muslims, hatred of queer / trans folks, hatred of immigrants: all are part of the same hateful dehumanization.

How? Because during a time of fear, hatred of the other became ascendant and was normalized. Which is why we have to be vigilant, and push back against fascism and xenophobia and white supremacy and hatred, wherever / whenever they appear.

Where were You, God? There are a lot of different answers to that question. My theology holds that God was with us in our suffering. God was with us in the camps and in the gas chambers. God wept with us then and God weeps with us now.

On this awful day of remembrance, may all who mourn be comforted. May the memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah be for a blessing. May the memory of the eleven million (Jews and others) murdered in the Shoah be for a blessing.

And tomorrow, when this day of remembrance is behind us, may we all reconsecrate our hearts and hands to the work of building a world in which these hatreds, and the horrors to which they led, are a thing of the past, never to be repeated.


Daily April poem: words taken from a news article


The narrow bridge of mourning
spans generations.

Overnight every dream shows
destruction. Ashes and bones.

Remembrance wells up.
Not only at the cemetery

but when planting, or
listening to the radio.

The moment of silence
lasts forever.

Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invites us to write poems using words borrowed from a newspaper article.

On the Jewish calendar today is Yom HaShoah. Most of the words in this poem came from The History of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Ha'aretz.

May the Source of Peace bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved.


A poem for today


                on  the  train
                you  had  left me
                a  message   scrawled
                across  brown  paper
                wrapping  hung  like
                an  empty  garment
                bag  hooked  in  the
                baggage  net
                overhead  it  all
                seemed  upside  down
                no  safety  from
                that  direction
                i  could  not  reach
                having  inch  by  inch
                shrunken  into
                myself  pacing
                the  moving  compartment
                upside  down
                no  safety in
                any  direction
— Gertrude Halstead


This is one of the poems we'll be reading tonight at my shul during our Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) observance. I'll be leading an evening service in which the prayers of the daily liturgy are interspersed with poems arising out of the Shoah.

Here's an interview with poet Gertrude Halstead. (Reading the interview, I just learned that apparently she is in Pittsfield, right down the road -- apparently she's now local to us.) Thank you for your poems, Gertrude. May the memory of all who endured the Shoah be a blessing.


Edited to add: here's the handout of poems we'll be using tonight, which I share in case it's helpful to any of y'all, or in case you're looking for something you can read / pray on your own today: YomHaShoahPoems [pdf]


Birkenau, Poland, Jewish women and children on the platform waiting for German orders after getting off the train, 27/05/1944. Image courtesy of the digital photo archives at Yad Vashem.


Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I want to bear witness, but the words don't want to come.

Everyone I know who is descended from Eastern European stock lost family in the Shoah. As a girl I became obsessed with Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, reading and rereading it so many times I practically had it memorized. I would lie in bed at night imagining what I would try to bring with me if we, like the Frank family, were forced to flee in the night.

Many years ago I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. Before we entered, our guide reminded us that while the photographs we were about to see were black-and-white, the reality of the Shoah was in living color. The skies over Auschwitz and Birkenau and Theresienstadt were blue. The emaciated figures in the photos weren't greyscale shadows: they were real people in three dimensions who were herded into cattle cars and into camps ravaged by disease and famine -- if they weren't gassed and burned. The old photos and jerky newsreel footage had been comfortably distancing, but those words from our guide unlocked something in me which made the unspeakable horror newly-real.

I'm not always comfortable with what's done in the name of the six million or with the ways in which their memory is used. But as Emily Hauser notes in her post Holocaust Day 2011, Yom HaShoah isn't the day to make that critique. It's a day to remember, and to mourn.

And now -- the day after that remembrance day -- it's time to once again shoulder the burden of trying to create a better world, a world in which this kind of atrocity is unthinkable...for us; for anyone.

Yom HaShoah and Darfur

Today, the 27th day of the month of Nissan, is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. We mourn the millions who perished in the Shoah: six million Jews, tens of thousands of Roma, along with gays and lesbians, disabled people, Communist sympathizers, and others the Nazis considered "inferior." Surely the attempt to destroy a people is one of the worst abominations human history can encompass.

The obligation to remember the Shoah has two components: memory, and action. If our memory of the Shoah is to have any meaning, it must impel us to act against other attempted genocides. We  respond to the Shoah with devastation, and outrage, and sorrow: and we must also respond by wiping genocide from the face of the earth. To me, that means the best way to observe Yom HaShoah is to make a donation to one of the organizations working to end the genocide happening today in Darfur, Sudan.

Sudan has become today's world capital of human pain, suffering and agony. There, one part of the population has been - and still is - subjected by another part, the dominating part, to humiliation, hunger and death. For a while, the so-called civilized world knew about it and preferred to look away. Now people know. And so they have no excuse for their passivity bordering on indifference. --Elie Wiesel

That's from a speech that Mr. Wiesel, himself a survivor of the Shoah, gave last summer. He cited the Biblical prohibition against standing idly by while the blood of a fellow human is shed, noting that the Torah uses the word reakha -- not akhikha, "your brother," but reakha, "your fellow human being." Akhikha might imply that we are bound to act if someone related to (or similar to) ourselves is suffering; reakha implies that the obligation holds firm regardless of who is victimized. Torah instructs us to act against what is happening in Darfur. And if that's not enough, our living memory of the Shoah, when we ourselves were the victims of attempted genocide, should spur us to do so.

Ruth Messinger, too, urges us, as Jews, to take action against the genocide in Darfur. So does Shoah survivor Nessie Godin. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers an alert page about the emergency in Darfur, along with a photo essay by former Marine Brian Steidle. The photos aren't easy to look at, but they're important. Also difficult, and important, are these children's drawings done by Sudanese refugee children, which you may have seen in last weekend's Sunday New York Times Magazine, and which I first encountered here at "...My Heart's in Accra".

The Holocaust Museum provides a useful list of Five Things You Can Do to help prevent genocide. But I think the simplest things we can do are 1) get informed, and 2) donate whatever we can spare. If you're commemorating the memory of those lost in the Shoah today, let your mourning move you forward. Learn about the genocide in Sudan and then do what you can to help stop it. Donate to the American Jewish World Service (you can check a box to ensure that your whole donation goes to relief efforts in Darfur.) If you prefer, you can choose another humanitarian organization to support; here's a partial list.

Today my most fervent prayer is that we will wake up; that we will take action; that the killing and suffering will cease; and that next year, when Yom HaShoah rolls around, I won't have to post about this again. Kein yehi ratzon.


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