Yom Hashoa 2012: a disturbing tale of contrast

Last night, as is traditional, we attended the Yom Hashoa Commemoration at Robert Blackwood Hall. My parents, both survivors, together with more than 15 of their offspring, sat in a row on the ground floor. Compared with my youthful recollections of the memorial, the last ten years have been exemplary. Representation from Jewish Schools in choir or prayer, together with witness testimonies typically dominate the program. This year commenced with a similar motif. Simply listening to a testimony is riveting, humbling and often a highly emotional experience. There is no need or place for theatrics, props or fancy multi-media. The barren figure of an elderly survivor speaking from a podium is a most powerful image. In some years, organisers have employed the recitation of poetry or similar artistic device. Those devices do nothing for me, personally. I am overly grounded and, although I am a musician, alternative displays of artistry do not add to my night.

But last night was different.

The testimony from Sarah was extraordinary. Speaking eloquently and without notes, Sarah took us through the moment she was separated from her parents in the Ghetto to the present day. She described her odyssey, her pain, and her haunting memories. Around me, the gasping and incredulity was palpable. I felt like an indiscriminate ant in the cosmos of surreality and struggled to hold back tears.

Over the last 40 years that I have attended commemorations, there has always been the recitation of Tehillim, in both Hebrew and Yiddish, by two representatives of Yeshivah College. This year, for an unknown reason, they were replaced by two girls from Beth Rivkah College (which had already been represented by their primary girls choir). Thinking the worst, I suspected that Yeshivah had pulled out of the event. I fired off an email and, that evening, received an immediate answer from Jerusalem. Unbelievably, Yeshivah had received a letter which stated that their services would not be required. I am flummoxed. Why would the organisers allow such a circumstance? What type of enfranchisement are they seeking to foment?

The removal of Yeshivah College was, however, not the greatest disappointment for me and many others. A new uber-modern style presentation had seemingly been incorporated to capture the “relevance” of the Holocaust to modern times and the “youth of today”. Icons of Facebook and the like were displayed in case we didn’t know which apps the “youth of today” were using. Seemingly wearing no Kippa, a young gentleman with a South African accent got off on the wrong foot. A casual style of presentation, together with ubiquitous hand motions one sees when a salesperson is selling their wares, greeted us. It was almost like we had been transported from the Holocaust to board room of an advertising agency. This was style, though and not substance, so we overlook those things and move on. Establishing his credentials, the gentleman, whose name escapes me, informed us that he had been on many “march of the living” trips, and was an active educator, with abundant experience relaying the message of the Holocaust to Jewish kids. We saw pictures which “proved” that he had been there, standing in front of the memorial at Majdanek. I was getting fidgety. Okay, I thought:

Please now tell us what your contribution to the evening will be. Enough about you and what you do. What are you going to contribute this evening that will help us commemorate the memory of the Kedoshim. How will you transport us back in time and help us experience and remember the enormity of the calamity to our people that was the Holocaust. Will you take us on a virtual tour of a Shtetl? Will you transport us into the bosom of a Ghetto or Concentration Camp? Will you struggle with the theological spider web induced by the moral turpitude of the human race?

Unfortunately, the presentation had little to do with these issues—the issues  we were seated in the hall to solemnly remember. Instead, we were served an agenda more readily apparent in left-wing circles. Lectured to remember that the world is still depraved and that we should be actively fighting against atrocities in Darfur, Sudan and the like, we were informed of useful meetings with leaders of the Sudanese community to help them deal with multiculturalism in Melbourne. We were, perhaps, meant to feel proud that they had enjoyed the attendance of the president of the JCCV.

Enough!

At this point, I and many others, were quietly seething. We didn’t need to be lectured on morality; certainly not tonight. The Holocaust was the worst tragedy in human terms that has occurred in our Jewish history. We were well aware of our place in the world. The most remote suggestion that to find “meaning” in the Holocaust today is to translate the miracle of our survival into a “Tikun Olam” style agenda where our role in this depraved and hypocritical world is to help poor people facing mass killings in their own countries, is downright facile. Did he think that had the Holocaust not have happened, our moral fibre would not be as strong? Did he think that the history of the Holocaust was a bizarre motivational prop to be utilised for the creation of a new, public and morally inclined, “Jewish identity”. Were we sitting in sadness in order to induce an inclusive Jewish moral spine into society at large?

No, sir, this was the night where people say Kaddish for our murdered. We remember our Kedoshim. This was a night where we commemorate our cataclysmic event. This was a night where we struggle to understand. Nobody can help us understand the enormity of our sadness. A lack of understanding is not healed or helped by those who distribute Jewish Aid to non-Jews. This is not a night for neo-moralistic tikun olam-style lectures.

Nobody put it better though than the Rav, in a letter he wrote on April 4, 1953, to the then president of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Theodore Adams. The Rav was addressing a joint religious/secular proposal to include a new liturgical paragraph into the Hagada, in order to commemorate the Shoah.

” The whole wording is reminiscent of many creations of a similar strain which try to substitute a mundane metaphysics of the historico-national experience for the great religious metaphysics of the God-experience, and following this tendency have replaced the traditional time-honoured and by-Jewish-martyrdom-sanctified phrases of kiddush Hashem and gevurotav shel ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu which express the transcendental meta-historical consciousness of our people with ultra-modern terms as gevurat yisrael and kiddush shem yisrael. Such a philosophy is rampant in all the literary manifestoes of the Mapai and Mapam ideologies, which let nationalistic “mystical” faith take the place of the faith in the God of Israel.”

Last night, I witnessed an incarnation of the self-same philosophy that, perhaps unintentionally, substitutes our specific historico-Judaic experience with a humanistically-inspired tikun olam dogma.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

11 thoughts on “Yom Hashoa 2012: a disturbing tale of contrast”

  1. well said, I wanted to write a guest post about it but I see you have beat me to the ‘post.’
    His name was Gary Samowitz by the way, and I was very upset at the end of the evening. I didn’t leave the event with memories of Sara’s eloquent speach, or the partisan song which I often hum on the way home, I left feeling disappointed and extremely upset and saddened by what was said. I was deeply offended for my grandparents who survived the Nazi atrocities to have to sit there through such a speech that basically pushed aside the experiences, feelings and memories which they had come to the evening to commemorate.
    I was so ‘inspired’ by Gary’s speech that I almost want to make my own commemoration next year, if this is what the future holds for Yom Hashoa commemorative events.

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  2. I was not able to attend last night but I would be seething if I had. What chutzpah?!
    Are there no survivors involved in organising this event? Are there no advisory committees to run things by?

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  3. Isaac – I wasn’t there (I’m in Prague essentially doing what you did in Rawa) but I have heard much of the to-ing and fro-ing that’s been happening today. I’ll start with the one thing upon which we can agree. Sara was by every single account extraordinary. What an amazing, inspirational woman. The flood of positive feedback about her is unparalleled.

    Now, onto the “other” stuff. Perhaps you should do a little digging before going off half cocked. Yeshivah have been disingenuous about the process and their so-called “exclusion”. From my understanding, they were invited to participate if they promised to actually attend rehearsals (which they did not in previous years, thereby making it an organisational nightmare). Furthermore, they were asked to respond by a particular date to confirm their participation and did not. Nor did they respond at any stage leading up to the event protesting their “exclusion” or asking to be involved. They are now clearly back peddling.

    Secondly, I think Gary’s speech was very important and was supposed to give a similar vibe to the closing part of Nicky’s Story. To me, as a member of the third generation I think one of the most crucial lessons of the Holocaust is the importance of people outside a persecuted group refusing to stand by and letting genocide occur. I feel that as Jews it is our responsibility to stand up and fight for those who are now the victims of genocide, and we should do so in honour of our grandparents who were abandoned by the world at that terrible time. Far from “pushing aside the feelings, experiences and memories” as Talya suggests such a speech did, I would contend that it actually pays them the ultimate honour. Gary, as CEO of Jewish Aid, heads the one group that makes the biggest difference in this area. It is the reason JA has grown to become one of the most popular and well-respected community groups in our country. Whether he is a ‘public speaker’, I guess that’s a conclusion everyone is entitled to reach on their own.

    As usual, I don’t expect us to agree on these things, but I thought I might offer a slightly different perspective.

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    1. Bram, I was wondering why I was getting hits in Czechoslovakia. Mind you, it could have been worse. If I’d had hits from Hungary, I’d suspect a virus or spam bot. Remind me to speak to Debbie about your lineage.

      On the Yeshivah matter, let me note, that if they didn’t respond that’s not right. That being said, there is absolutely no need to rehearse saying a Kapitel Tehillim. It should have been sorted out in a short phone call. This is modern logistical theory gone mad. Let me also note, that despite the uber-strict dictum on the need to rehearse, for the first time that I can ever recall, we had to wait for Mr Skovron to extricate himself from the backstage bowels of blackwood to grace us with his presence while the excellent Adam Yee waited uncomfortably on stage with his singers for what seemed an eternity.

      The commemoration of the Holocaust, and I stress the word commemoration is not and ought not be redefined by a potential cornucopia of moral stances and actions. These ought to be pursued of course, although I haven’t got my mind around the concept of “Jewish” Aid needing to be separated, organised, and marketed as such. Without getting into that philosophical argument, I am confident Jewish Aid performs lots of Chesed and constitutes a massive Kiddush Hashem. This night, however, is different to all other nights … It is a night of commemoration. It is a night of reliving. It is a night of para-experientialism. It is a night where we weep and are sombre as we reflect on what was, and what could have been. As a member of the second generation, one of the ways we cope with the vicissitudes born from the Holocaust is to put the pain and suffering out of our minds. Some psychologists recommend this approach; others say deal with it. Whatever the case, this night is the night of dealing with it, so to speak.

      I would hope and pray that the third generation, like Talya, is able to internalise the sadness of that evening without the need to market the “good things we do” on this night.

      Au contraire, בכל דור ודור, עומדים עלינו לכלותינו even if you don’t continue with the end of that verse.

      PS. Please remember to de-czeq before you return, otherwise Patch will go mad(der) and I’ll get no sleep 🙂

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  4. Bram, I don’t have a problem with what Gary does and I’m all for helping out others who are going through or have gone through their own ‘holocaust.’ I just feel that the Yom Hashoa commemoration was not the place to speak about it.

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  5. I guess it is just a matter of having different approaches, each of which has the potential to upset or offend the other. Personally I find inspiration and consequent action to be the strongest forms of commemoration. As such. Gary’s message ought to have served as a powerful postscript to Sara’s testimony. You and Talya et al obviously do not share my view. However, I’d suggest that both of our approaches/views are held by many people in the community and are equally legitimate.

    As for rehearsing, it isn’t about the substance but about the logistics. As a performer, you would be aware of how difficult it is to make a show run smoothly. The fewer variables left to chance the better. But in the case of Yeshivah, irrespective of reasons etc, they were invited to participate and apparently elected not to. Otherwise they would have responded by the due date or at any point leading up to the ceremony. Thankfully, the Beth Rivkah girls were there to represent the Chabad community and do it proud!

    PS off the topic, you’ll be glad to hear I’m heading to Poland next week on a road trip from Prague to Auschwitz. Alas, I shan’t be passing through Rawa.

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  6. Pitputim, thank you for this piece. It is so easy for us (non-Jews) to forget the unique victimhood and memory of those who suffered during the Shoah. Writing from an Irish perspective in Ireland it stands out as a sharp contradiction that when we tell our ‘Irish’ history it is of colonisation and oppression at the hands of England, the suppression of ‘our’ language and culture, to the end that we are encouraged to form and sustain an Irishness unique to this island and this people. Yet at the same time our media deny the right of Jews to be so ‘self indulgent’ of their memory and pain, with special regard to the people of Palestine.

    Your post has reminded me that the murder of so many, and the trauma of the survivors and their children is a Jewish history and not one which the world-at-large has the right to infuse with a non-Jewish agenda. Again, from the exterior, this must be seen only as another colonisation. I am greatly encouraged by this statement you have made. Any how, I must stop writing before I offend you or your readers by tapping away into the beginning of Shabbat.

    Shabbat shalom.

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