The Man in the Nozyk Synagogue
“Ashrei yoshvei betecha, od yehalelucha selah…”
When we arrived, the first site we visited was the Nozyk Synagogue, one of the few remaining synagogues still in operation in Poland. It is located in the neighborhood that once was the Warsaw Ghetto. As we walked in, I noticed an elderly man sitting in the corner, reading a book. I was asked to lead the group in prayer, and I began chanting the words of Mincha. The service continued, and at the end I reached the Kaddish, the prayer said by mourners in memory of a close relative. Then I noticed that man in the corner walking towards us. Without saying a word, he began saying the Kaddish, quickly, intently, and with a thick European accent. I could hear in his voice both the tradition of my ancestors and the pain this man had experienced in his life. After he finished, he quietly walked back to his chair in the corner of the room. Who was this man? What was this elderly Jew doing in a synagogue in Warsaw in 2007?
After our prayer service
was finished, our guide ushered us into an adjoining room, where he
explained to us that that man was in fact a Holocaust survivor who lived
in Warsaw before the war and survived the ghetto. He then moved to
Israel and fought in its war of independence; sometime later, he
returned to Poland where he still resides today.
Today, many people point to Holocaust denial, the importance of the State of Israel, or the ongoing genocide today in places like Darfur as reasons that the memory of the Holocaust must be perpetrated. While these things are important, there are more complex reasons that the memory of the Holocaust must be maintained. In my opinion, there are other just as important reasons to remember the Holocaust, all of which I see in the story of that man in the Nozyk Synagogue.
We must preserve memory of the Holocaust so that we remember the destroyed Jewish communities of Europe. It is important to note that the Holocaust is a very sad chapter in a very long book. The Jews of Europe lived in centuries-old, culturally rich communities. Despite intermittent anti-Semitic violence, these communities thrived. Small Jewish towns, known as shtetles, were close communities of Jews who eked out a living serving their gentile neighbors. Large cities like Warsaw and Krakow were centers of culture and religion, with thriving seminaries, theatres, and publishing houses. These centuries-old communities were destroyed in a few years by the Nazis, and nothing, not even Israel, comes close to the diversity and richness of the Jewish communities that existed in Europe before the war. It is the memory of these communities that drew the man I met at the Nozyk synagogue back to Poland, and it is their memory that must be preserved with the study of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is also a reminder of the nature of history. Like many historical events, the Holocaust is sometimes reduced to a list of events, a litany of sweeping generalizations, and tables of statistics. But, as my experience in Poland showed me, behind the generalizations and tables is the story of real people, not unlike me, who suffered through the unimaginable. Because what we today call the Holocaust consisted of many anti-Jewish actions in many different places over a period of about 15 years, each Holocaust story is unique. This is true of every historical event, but in the Holocaust it is particularly apparent because of the amount of eye-witness testimony and individual stories that have been preserved for future generations.
Finally, the memory of the Holocaust must be preserved because it contributes a great deal to the question of the existence and nature of God. While the suffering of innocent people at the hands of their fellow humans has always been a challenge to the existence of an omni-benevolent God, the Holocaust brought these questions front and center. How could God allow mass slaughter to happen in the twentieth century in what was supposed to be the most civilized part of the world? Some have concluded from the Holocaust that God is dead or never existed at all; others have suggested that God created the world and the Holocaust was not God’s doing but the result of the human ability to choose between righteousness and wickedness. But I believe the Holocaust reveals a more positive approach to God. God was not in the gas chambers; he was in the thousands of gentiles who risked their lives to protect and save Jews. God was not in the concentration camp barracks; God was in the small bits of bread that inmates gave to each other to survive. The evil came from man; the ability to respond with goodness came from God. The survivor I met in that Warsaw synagogue certainly believed in God. Despite what he suffered, he still found a way to approach God in a way that was meaningful to him.
It is these lessons about history and God that I and my generation are responsible for conveying. The implications of these lessons are clear. We must preserve the Jewish traditions so that the Nazis do not have the posthumous victory of destroying them forever. We must take care to never see history as a list of dates but as a story of real people. And we must continue to wrestle with the questions of God’s existence in light of horrible suffering.
Since the Holocaust is a story of individuals, the way to prevent further hatred is also on the individual level. As students, we must stand up, as difficult as it may be, when we hear our friends spreading stereotypes or hatred of other people. Mistrust and an exaggeration of perceived differences are the first step to genocide. If we work to stop the spread of hatred and divisiveness in our own communities, only then can we say that we have truly learned the lessons of the Holocaust.
Behrman, David. Personal interview. 17 June 2007.
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