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.
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.