More than six decades have now passed since those atrocious years, that time of the Holocaust. A war, perhaps the bloodiest ever, ravaged the Earth and took tens of millions of lives. Many were soldiers, ready to sacrifice their lives for what they believed in. Many more were civilians. Fascism, in all its horror, was poised to take over the world. Many Jews said no. They refused to be marched to their deaths, refused to watch liberty and democracy and equality and tolerance destroyed, refused to go silently, and refused to give up the struggle.(1)
Their struggle was anything but easy. Rebellion meant facing the world’s most powerful armies with a pistol and a Molotov cocktail. It meant hiding out in the woods and under cover of brush. It meant building barricades. It meant facing discrimination from other resistance fighters who said the Russian and the Pole should not fight alongside their Jewish brethren. It meant putting aside differences. It meant that Internationalists and Zionists, Socialists and liberal democrats, communist atheists and the orthodox all had to come together and stand together. Too often only the genocide is highlighted. I want to talk about the struggle. What that meant, what that means today, and what we can learn from the past to carry the struggle forward.
Warsaw 1943. Most of the city’s inhabitants have been cleared from the ghettos. Packed like cattle for slaughter, they are sent to their deaths in concentration camps. Only the strongest survive – forced to labor as slaves. On the eve of Passover, remembering the historic struggles of their people, they rise up. They defend the ghetto streets longer than the entire Polish army could. They raise their fists. They die. They send a message which echoes around the world. From Shanghai to Moscow to Amsterdam. The message they send is loud and clear: “Meer zenen do! We are here!”(2)
In the woods of Eastern Europe, another struggle is going on. Partisans, ready to fight to the end, resist against annihilation and oppression. They struggle to keep alive their culture and to protect those too young, too old, or too sick to fight. These are not men and women of war. These are farmers, workers, doctors, lawyers, writers, singers, and rabbis. These are everyday people.(3)
Today, the gap between the
rich and the poor is greater than at any time in human history. Violence
and genocide are ravaging nations from Sudan to Burma. In America, an
insufficiently progressive, even often regressive, government is
carrying out an illegal war in Iraq, fueling ethnic and religious
hatreds which will last long after America leaves. Religious intolerance
towards Muslims and xenophobic racism have gripped even the most liberal
nations of Western Europe. Unwilling to cope with no longer being
homogeneous, yet unwilling to part with the realities of a global
economy and the need for cheap labor, Germany, France, Britain, and
others are facing a resurgence of xenophobic hatred, even fascism. In
many developing nations, ethnic hatred and poverty are fueling genocides
and dictators. Religious fanatics continue to dominate many Middle
Eastern countries, where oil wealth and influence shield brutal leaders
from international scrutiny. The world is upside down.
Judaism speaks of Tsadakkah, that the wealthy should help the poor. That the successful should help the struggling is central to most societies, yet at odds with the systems most of us live in which elevate greed and ignorance. Tsadakkah means “charity” but it also means “justice”. Charity is justice. Charity undoes some of the injustice of the world. Judaism speaks too of Tikkun Olam which means “Healing the World”. It is the responsibility of a human being to struggle, to that end. Wanting to change the injustices is natural, while doing nothing is immoral. Three of the greatest prophets of the ancient world were Elijah, Amos, and Isaiah. Elijah taught the importance of charity. Amos taught that inequality is wrong and must be struggled against. Isaiah taught peace.(4) Why fight wars? The wasted money and mind and muscle could be put to making the world a better place. Jews have carried these values everywhere. They stood up to the Czars. They stood up in the labor union halls and the ghettos of the lower east side. They stood up against segregation in America. They stood up against the madness of the cold war. They stood up against what was wrong.(5)
These values are actually prevalent in all cultures and religions, and belong to no one people. However, through the lens of the Jewish tradition and Jewish history, the answer to apathy and surrender is a resounding “No!” Surely, the lessons of the Holocaust apply to us all. If we all say “No!” together, no force on Earth can stop us. As students, we bear the responsibility. We have the knowledge of the past at our fingertips. We must bring the lessons of the past to the world. We must remember, lest we repeat the past again. Indeed, the past has repeated itself, in Rwanda, Kosovo, and Darfur.
Maybe some horrors cannot be prevented. Still, we must try. We must educate. We must dedicate our time and energy, even our lives, to struggle. If we do not try, then there is not even a hope of preventing man’s inhumanity to man from manifesting itself again and again. If we do not try, then millions will have died in vain.
Go to your town halls and your schools. Speak out about the genocides. Speak out about the current wars. Speak out about food shortages. Speak out about poor working conditions. Speak out about modern day slavery. Speak against the ungodly fusion of religion, hate, and anger in both the Muslim world and the Christian world, and yes, even the Jewish world. Speak out. Ask people to remember. Ask people to have compassion. And whatever we do, as students, we must never let apathy win. To quote folk singer Phil Ochs: "It is wrong to expect a reward for your struggles. The reward is the act of struggle itself, not what you win. Even though you can't expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt. That's morality, that's religion. That's art. That's life."
1. Paul Johnson, A History
of the Jews, published by Harper Perennial 1988
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