The first time it struck me was when I read Night by Elie Wiesel. At first it was a normal reading experience; paragraph by paragraph, being directed by the author, from one instance in his life to another, a reflection here, an observation there. But then suddenly it struck me; this had really happened. Cattle wagons. Selections. Slave labour. Crematoria. A little boy with the face of an angel had been hung for stealing some bread for his father and the whole camp had been made to watch so as to learn their lesson.
I knew all of this before, the details, the statistics, the abhorrence of Nazism, the passivity of the world in the face of it. But suddenly I was reading with new eyes. How it was possible for me, us, Jews, man, to carry on living? Shouldn’t I feel revolted by thought of enjoying the world once I know of the Holocaust? The enormity overwhelmed me. Although the intensity of this feeling lessened over time, its presence remained. Paralysis, incapacitation, sheer shock that rooted us to the spot, seemed to me to be the most important lesson of the Holocaust. Or perhaps not a lesson in itself, but a necessary prior state of mind before all other lessons can be drawn.
And then one day, I came across a Talmudic passage, which comforted me and told me that I was not alone. In Bava Batra 60b there appears the following passage;
When the Second Temple was destroyed many people within Israel took upon themselves not to eat meat or to drink wine. Rabbi Yehoshua fell upon them saying; ‘My children, why are you not eating meat or drinking wine?’ They responded: ‘Should we eat the meat that was sacrificed on the altar, which now is no longer? Should we drink the wine which anointed the altar, which now is no longer?!’
Here were people, my ancestors, who, thousands of years earlier had felt even more strongly than I did at a time of similiar catastrophe. Having experienced such destruction, what justification or will could be found to warrant continued pleasure from this world? But Rabbi Yehoshua could not allow this feeling to manifest itself in action:
He replied, ‘If this were so then you should no longer eat bread for loaves of the Temple are no longer’. ‘We can eat fruit instead’ they responded. ‘Fruit you cannot eat, because the fruit offerings are no longer’ he countered. ‘We will use different fruit’, they said. ‘Water you cannot drink because the water service is no longer’. They were silent.
If you continue your line of logic, he argued, then you give up life itself and this we cannot have.
He said to them: ‘My children, let me say to you this: to not mourn at all is impossible, for the terrible decree has already been enacted. And to mourn too much is impossible for we do not decree upon the community that which most of the community cannot cope with… rather the Sages taught thus: every man should plaster his house and leave aside a small bit in memory of the Temple, a groom must place ash on his forehead… and all who mourn for Jerusalem will merit to see her in her joy’.
A very different time and a very different context, but if we replace the Temple terminology with our own concerns then we find a situation analogous to our own. The primal and basic response of many people in Israelis to simply give up the will to live. Any other response appears as desecration. But we are commanded to carry on living, and so we must. The suffering must not overwhelm and put an end to our lives but should be remembered during our most life affirming moments. For R’ Yehoshua the only way to mourn the destruction is to build houses, create families and within that context remember what has taken place.
But here we must pay careful attention to Rabbi Yehoshua’s language. He does not reject the separatists’ mourning because it is incorrect, because the Temple does not deserve such a response, but rather because, ‘we do not decree upon the community that which most of the community cannot cope with’. This is a legal statement, used in a multitude of mundane contexts to signify that although the halakha conceptually should be a certain way, in practice this would be too difficult. Rabbi Yehoshua agrees fundamentally with his interlocutors; in truth we should abstain from all the pleasures of this world in the aftermath of the destruction we have witnessed, but we have to carry on living.
And it is this distinction that makes all the difference; now as then. There is a chasm between one who is shocked and paralysed by the Holocaust, who at certain points feels that he simply cannot carry on living with the knowledge of what happened – and only from there begins to build his world again, and one, who while paying lip-service to the importance of the Holocaust, never lets it impact on his life at anything deeper than surface level.
That the above must be the case for educators and community leaders to state the obvious. What is less often appreciated is that this sort of consciousness is essential for modern politics. Although it is rarely made explicit, many of the positive development over the last half-century are a direct response to the Holocaust. A politics that privileges inviolable human rights and views genocide as the ultimate crime is a post-1945 politics. The further away we move from those years, the less imaginative purchase do they have upon our political priorities. Who can say whether in a hundred years time the memory of what has happened in the past will be strong enough to galvanise us to take action against a coming catastrophe? Whether the political will that created today’s institutions and conventions, will continue to be present, when Auschwitz has become a distant memory? If we turn our backs on the lessons of the Holocaust today, fail to feel their visceral pull on our existence, then the lessons of the Holocaust will turn their backs on us tomorrow.
Meditate that this came about:
I command these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you
From Primo Levi’s, If This Is A Man