Remembering in Good Faith: The Future of Holocaust Remembrance for Christians and Jews

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Dr Avril Alba

Roth Lecturer in Holocaust Studies and Jewish Civilisation
University of Sydney
Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies

Yom HaShoah Ceremony

21 May 2012
Council of Christians and Jews
(NSW Division)

 

 

On the 15 February 1979 Holocaust survivor, novelist and now Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel spoke the following words at his Opening Address to the Presidents’ Commission on the Holocaust – the governing body that would oversee the development and eventual building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

 

By its scope and incommensurable magnitude, its sheer weight of numbers, by its mystery and silence, the Holocaust defies any thing the human being can conceive of or aspire to… We lack a reference point. We don’t know what to do because of the uniqueness of the event. We cannot even go back into history and learn what people used to do to commemorate such events, because there is no such event. (1)

Elie Wiesl

 

In this extraordinary statement Wiesel articulates what I would call the ‘challenge of memory’ and in particular the ‘challenge of Holocaust memory’ – what shall we, what CAN we do with this memory – a memory that is largely one of pain, cruelty, and despair?

 

This challenge comprises what I would describe as the ‘hard work’ of Holocaust memory. The victims’ tormentors intended their deaths to obliterate the meaning of their lives – to wipe out their individuality. The ultimate expression of this was, of course, the Nazis desire to leave no gravesites – to eradicate the evidence of their crimes and erase forever the identity of their victims.

 

For the terrible fact is that there are no headstones, there are no gravesites – at least not traditional sites – individualised sites that a Jewish family would usually have erected in honour of the deceased – this honour was taken from the vast majority of Holocaust victims and those who seek to remember them. There are no gravesites that are not at the same time sites of atrocity and anonymity. Those who aspire to remember the victims of the Holocaust are then are faced with the challenge of commemorating what might be called a ‘double dying’ – a physical and metaphorical void.

 

We come here together this evening to face this very challenge – to try and give a name to the unnameable, to bear witness to the unthinkable and to honour the victims of the Holocaust, victims for whom, in the words of poet/survivor Paul Celan, there were only ‘graves in the air’. Commemorations such as tonight’s are indeed noble attempts to fulfil the hope and promise of the poetic verse, ‘Unto Every Person there is a Name’. We come here together, Jews, Christians and other people of faith, to honour the memory of those for whom there was meant to be no memorial, no name, no trace left of their very existence.

 

Yet we also must recognise that as much as we come for a shared purpose we come to this purpose from different perspectives, with distinct histories and experiences. Histories and experiences that have contained times of great promise and co-existence but also times of great conflict – conflicts that have led at worst to violence and at the very least to indifference and apathy.

 

In the post war period this history of conflict has been redressed by the Church in a number of significant ways beginning with the landmark Nostra Aetate in 1965. Most recently Jewish / Christian relations were debated in a response to Cardinal Kurt Koch’s Keynote Address during the Annual Meeting of the Council of Centres on Christian-Jewish relations on October 30, 2011. In an address that provoked some controversy but also much cause for hope the issues of faith, election and covenant were addressed and have now been responded to by a variety of commentators in the most recent edition of the scholarly journal ‘Studies in Christian Jewish Relations’.

 

One respondent, Dr Adam Gregerman from the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, makes some important observations. Observations that Christian/Jewish relations have matured to the point where conversations concerning the very difficult topics of salvation, covenant and election can be discussed. Gregerman makes the point that agreement on these issues is far from practicable. Rather, what is needed is the ability to fully see and grant integrity to the other’s belief. Yet, he wonders – (rightly) – is this possible?

 

My point in raising these issues is not to launch into a complicated theological debate – although such debates are of course necessary. Rather it is to ask the question of whether it is possible to remember the victims of the Holocaust together as people of faith who do not, and perhaps will not, agree entirely upon the cornerstones of our respective faith visions. Not only do I think it is possible, but it is my conviction that Holocaust commemoration offers perhaps one of the most encouraging possibilities in this regard. Let me offer a recent example of my own experience of such possibility.

 

When Holocaust survivor George Sternfeld emailed me to ask if I would give this address tonight I was standing in Sydney airport on my way to Poland. I was to be an educator on a trip that many of you probably know about – the March of the Living. Each year, Jewish teenagers aged 16-17 from across the world gather to commemorate Yom HaShoah in Poland (in Auschwitz Birkenau) and then continue their journey to celebrate Yom Ha-atzmaut in Israel. The journey in Poland is as difficult as it is profound. We spend a week travelling the country not only visiting the sites of the countless ghettos and the infamous concentration and death camps but also sites of enormous significance to pre war life. We begin in Gensia, the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw – and in that space I ask the students what are the three names that Jews give to cemeteries. They answer:

 

Beit Hakever (House of Graves), Beit HaOlam (House of Eternity) and Beit Hahayim (House of Life). It the last that is most significant – a cemetery is a Beit Hahyim because while its pragmatic purpose may be the internment of the dead, its profound meaning lies in the fact that it is also a celebration of their lives. And as we walk through metre upon metre of tangled trees and crumbling headstones we begin to feel the tragedy of the loss of a community of such life – a community of such extraordinary cultural, religious, artistic and scientific merit. We see the graves of authors such as I.L Peretz the great Yiddish writer whose fame in Warsaw was such that an estimated 100,000 people came to his funeral and of Esther Rachel Kamińska, the ‘mother’ of Yiddish theatre.

 

And then we came to the mass grave – the grave where there were no names but simply a field of grass surrounded by small, plain stones. On these headstones there are no names. In this small field are buried perhaps thousands of bodies. As hunger and disease gripped the Warsaw ghetto in epic proportions there was simply no way that individual burials could still be undertaken. At a certain point Jews were forbidden from entering the cemetery at all – they simply brought the piles of bodies to the gate and from there others would inter the bodies directly into the mass grave. This was the students’ first confrontation with the nihilism of the Holocaust. A graveyard, a Beit Hahayim can inspire wonder – wonder at the lives that were led, curiosity as to the individuals commemorated and the community they built. A mass grave allows for none of these possibilities. Indeed, what can one say in the face of such utter obliteration?

 

And yet, we gather for our first ceremony as a group around the mass grave. Slowly, we begin to speak. One student reads the testimony of her grandmother – a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto. Another reads the names of her extended family that perished. Together we intone the words of the El Ma-aleh Rachamim and the Kaddish and finally, in what was once the heart of Yiddish culture in Europe we sang the partisans hymn with a survivor and Bund member leading our chorus. Over the next week we would intone these prayers and sing these songs at every mass grave and concentration or death camp to follow – and yet in doing so we knew we could never say enough to remember each life, never would there be enough testimony, never enough prayers to fill the void that the Holocaust had wreaked. In those moments I thought of the words of Eli Wiesel with which I began my address this evening and felt the truth of them. We do not yet know how to do this and yet do this we must.

 

So I come back to my original question – how do we do the hard work of Holocaust commemoration and how do we, as Christians and Jews do this work together when so much still separates our respective faith traditions? I would like to try and address these question through returning to the most significant part of our trip – our days in Krakov and in particular our participation in Yom HaShoah in Auschwitz Birkenau. Yet it is not the events per se that I wish to focus on. It was how and with whom we undertook these commemorations that will comprise the core of my comments.

 

We arrived into Krakov in the evening – late, as we had been travelling from Belzec and the roads and conditions were not good. We knew we were late but there was not much we could do about it. We felt badly because we knew that waiting for us in the hotel were a group of Polish, non-Jewish students. Students who had volunteered to come and spend time with us in Krakov and walk with us in the silent march from Auschwitz one to Birkenau – the central component of the March of the Living activities on Yom Hashoah. These students who waited patiently for us in the hotel lobby had driven overnight from the Baltic sea to be with us. They had come of their own accord, completely voluntarily and having had to raise money in order to join us and there they were – smiling, warm, welcoming. Some were practising Christians, other not. Among them a young Polish priest.

 

We spend the evening with them, getting to know them in a series of light-hearted games that our madrichim (youth leaders) had developed. In the morning we piled on the buses together for Yom HaShoah in Auschwitz Birkenau. The climbed aboard with us and they stayed with us for the rest of the day. It was my task to address the students before we give them time to walk through the barracks of Auschwitz one. I must also tell them something about Birkenau for there will be no time once we are marching and then once we arrive into the death camp the international ceremony will begin. Again, I am lost for words. But I must begin: So I tell them about the history of the camp, its evolution from Auschwitz one – a POW camp for mainly Polish prisoners, to Buna Monowitz, a forced labour camp and to Birkenau – the largest extermination camp in the Nazi machinery of death. They stare at me blankly – they can’t comprehend. I can’t comprehend. Finally I just speak from my heart. ‘Why did we bring you here today,’ I ask (myself as much as them)? There is nothing constructive to be learned from this place. This place has nothing redemptive about it, nothing worth taking from it. This is a place of absolute horror, cruelty and despair. We do not, we should not, bring you to learn about horror. There is nothing meaningful to be learned about that.’

 

Finally, I realise that all I can say to them in good faith is the following: ‘The only thing that is meaningful about this place is YOUR presence in it – you, all of you, coming together, today, in this place to remember is what makes it significant and possibly, maybe, your act of remembrance can be considered redemptive.’ And so, together, we entered the camp and we took our place with the thousands of others from across the globe. At the sound of the shofar we marched slowly and silently to Birkenau. And, indeed, my abiding image of the time we had together was of turning back at one point in Birkenau, once we had entered the camp and watching as our Jewish students, together with the Polish Catholic students walked together in silence, stood together in silence, lit candles together in silence, looked out together in silence across the vast ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Each alone with his or her thoughts but also together, with the shared purpose of remembrance. I hope I will never forget that image. It is the closest I have ever felt to answering, or at least beginning to answer Eli Wiesel’s question of how we are to commemorate this most horrific of events.

 

And with this image in mind I return to Cardinal Koch’s speech and the theological problems we encounter as Christians and Jews. They are real problems and they are not easily solved. Indeed, they are issues of such importance that it is, I would suggest, vital that they are not easily resolved. Bodies such as this Council and scholars such as those who gathered in Boston to hear Cardinal Koch speak will spend years, possibly more years than we would like to imagine, in attempting to come to reconciliation or at least an accommodation that does theological justice to each of our respective faith traditions. These are questions that will be struggled over again and again and rightly so – they are weighty and profound questions and they are questions that address the core values that we hold as Christians and Jews, as people of faith.

 

But despite these differences Holocaust remembrance, not yet fully formed as Wiesel reminds us and perhaps never able to fully comprehend nor address the violence that the genocide of European Jewry wreaked upon its victims, may provide one platform for interfaith understanding. For while our theological issues may still divide us, the strength of our desire to begin to learn how to commemorate this event – an event that was at once a crime against the Jewish people and a crime against humanity – can unite us. For as those Polish students walked next to us in silence, their arms linked with ours, we felt their solidarity and their earnest desire to understand. We began to forge a relationship. To forge what I will refer to as a ‘covenant of remembrance’.

 

For both Jews and Christians are covenant-focussed peoples. Yes, we disagree on what our covenants are and perhaps we will never agree. Perhaps that is the point. But I think we can agree on the nature of covenant itself – that covenant is about relationship. As we struggle to find words to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, to find rituals worthy of their memory and to give them back the honour of a Beit HaHayim, to give them back their names, we do so together – in relationship – in covenant. We come together in a shared belief in a relational God that relies upon us to bring God’s presence into the world, to witness both the beauty of this world but also its horrors and to acknowledge with as much honesty as possible our responsibilities in the face both.

 

If we can share this vision of covenant, then I do believe that we can achieve something together – the ‘hard work’ of Holocaust memory in the present and what is more, the continuation of Holocaust memory for the future – beyond the generation of the survivors. In this task our faith traditions, I believe, can be of benefit to us, can help us to modify old rituals and help us to forge new ones, such as the March of the Living and the service we are undertaking tonight. But they can also help us through reminding us of what covenant is – a relationship – one that can only be achieved through the active participation of individuals and communities and, indeed, of generations.

 

The victims’ graves will always, in some way, remain ‘graves in the air’ but in these moments of shared commemoration, in coming together to begin to give the dead back their names, to create Betei Hayim (Houses of Life) where no houses exist, we begin to make sense of Wiesel’s challenge to confront and commemorate the painful legacy of the Shoah. We do so aware of our differences but also our commonalities. Through drawing together in relationship, in covenant, we begin to give meaning to the lives of the victims and to our own.

 

(1) Proceedings: President's Commission on the Holocaust, February 15, 1979, Opening Statement,
USHMM Institutional Archives, Records of the Chairperson.
Elie Wiesel, 1978-86, Box 17. Accession no 1997-013.

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