Does the Holocaust Still Matter?
Crucial lessons for humanity to remember always.
One rule of thumb by which to measure the significance of the Holocaust is that it clearly matters to the enemies of the Jewish people – so much so that many would like to blot out its memory entirely.
They are impatient with us: Why do you Jews dwell on the Holocaust? Why not forget it and go forward? The very same mindset that was not disturbed while six million were butchered now resents our remembering those same six million. Forget about it, they say, and move on. What good does it do to keep remembering it?
There are a number of reasons for these attempts to blot out and even to deny the Holocaust:
- Its memory gives spiritual strength to the Jewish people.
- It undergirds the existence of the State of Israel.
- It creates sympathy for the Jewish people.
- It makes heroes of the Jewish people who were able to live through such tragedy and not only survive but flourish.
- Because the deniers refuse to face the dark potential that lies within mankind and within themselves.
- And, perhaps primarily, because once the Holocaust is forgotten, their own complicity in it – at the very least by their silent acquiescence – will also be forgotten, and they will feel exonerated.
But the Holocaust matters very much because of the many lessons that are derived from this black period in history.
Man is not born good. He becomes good by learning there is another beside him and an Other above him.
Among these lessons is the fact that evil and unwarranted hatred are a reality that exists in our world. The human being has an infinite capacity for evil that, left unchecked, can destroy the world. The view that goodness is a built-in and natural quality in mankind is not only Pollyannaish, it is dangerous and untrue.
The Torah itself tells us that the "impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen 8:21). Man is not born good. He has to become good – by forging his character, by bending his baser instincts, by learning that there is another beside him and an Other above him.
The Holocaust shows what can become of human beings when they permit the beast within them to control them.
It teaches us that we must be alert to the existence of evil, both in others and in our own selves. Once we are aware of its reality, we can work to uproot it. The mitzvot of the Torah are designed to help the spiritual qualities within us dominate the beast within.
Further, we learn from this tragedy that to be silent in the face of evil is to acquiesce in it, encourage it, and help it grow strong. History teaches us that evil triumphs when good people remain silent. But when good people rise up against evil, evil will ultimately perish and the good will prevail.
Never doubt the evil intentions of tyrants.
By appeasing Nazi Germany in the 1930's, by turning a blind eye toward its policies of discrimination, hatred, and ultimately the wholesale murder of Jews, the so-called free world encouraged the Nazis to continue their evil ways – with the result that not only were six million Jews brutally killed, but countless others destroyed, and untold human suffering engendered. We made the mistake of not believing what they were saying. Early on, they stated precisely what their plans were. The world should not have been surprised.
One should never doubt the evil intentions of tyrants. Today, when we hear talk about destroying Israel and driving her people into the sea, it would be folly to discount it.
From the Holocaust we also learn that evil, hatred, and anti-Semitism are not always the result of ignorance, but that even a highly educated, cultured, and sophisticated society can fall under the sway of evil. Germany was a leader in science, art, education, literature, philosophy, music – but none of this cultural superiority was a guarantee against the cruelty and bestiality that marked its behavior. The guards at Auschwitz listened to Bach while their victims were gassed to death.
The Holocaust underscores a curious fact: whenever we find great evil in the world, it is invariably directed against the Jewish people. The worst tyrants in history have one goal in common: to destroy the Jews. Stalin and Hitler of the last century are only the most recent entries in the endless exhibition of virulent anti-Jewishness. Somehow, the enemies of freedom, peace, love, goodness, and morality have also been the enemies of the Jews.
Why do tyrants unleash their fury against the Jews? Because there is within Judaism a certain sense of sanctity and Godliness whose very existence is a challenge to the very essence of tyranny. Hatred of the Jew is actually hatred of God and the morality, ethics and self-discipline that He – through the Torah – has tried to introduce into the world.
A people is judged not by its friends but by its enemies. Though it is most painful, the Jews bear the enmity of the world's tyrants with pride and courage. For this enmity only demonstrates that the Jew represents a different scale of values in the universe, and constitutes a formidable challenge to the dominion of evil.
Thus the Holocaust matters very much. Remembering it not only honors the martyrs who fell in the cause of the Jewish people, it also underscores the awareness that despite its ravages, we still flourish as a dynamic people. And this fortifies us and strengthens our faith in God's promises about the eternity of the Jewish people.
Memory is an integral aspect of being alive, the glue of one's self-identity. Memory is also an integral element in the life of a people, for a people that forgets its past has no future.
How much more so is this true of the Jews, who for most of history had no land, no flag, no armies, no protection. We had only our Torah, our God – and our national memory.
Because the Jews are a people that remembers, we never forgot our origins. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand fail..." says King David (Psalms 137:5). We never forgot Jerusalem, we never forgot our history. Had we forgotten, we would long ago have ceased to exist as a people. Wherever we wandered in our exile, our prayers have been directed towards Jerusalem. We do not forget, and even at the moments of our greatest joy – at our weddings – we shatter a glass to remind ourselves that as long as our Temple is not rebuilt and restored, our happiness is incomplete.
Even today, when we approach the remaining vestige of our ancient Temple, we rend our garments like those in mourning. And we have special days of fasting to mark the various stages of Jerusalem's destruction – not because we wish to dwell on our past sadness, but because we know what happens when a people forgets its past. It is the Jewish national memory that partially explains the mysterious survival of our people despite all odds against it. That memory is an integral part of Jewish existence is seen by the frequency of its use in the Bible. The term zikaron, "remembrance", appears over 20 times in the Five Books of Moses, and there are over 300 variations of the term zachor, "remember," in the Bible.
The Holocaust reminds us of certain truths that, if forgotten, can destroy civilization.
So vital is it not to forget evil, that of the many commandments dealing with remembering, one of the most emphatic is the requirement to remember the tribe of Amalek who tried to destroy Israel in its wanderings in the Wilderness.
Why is it so crucial not to forget Amalek and to blot out its memory? Because Amalek represents the epitome of evil, the force that seeks to destroy every vestige of God in the universe, including the carriers of God's teachings, the Jewish people. We are bidden never to forget this and to battle against it in every generation (Exod. 17: 14-16; Deut. 25:17). The spirit of Amalek still lives, and it was certainly its spirit that gave strength to the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust reminds us of certain truths that, if forgotten, can destroy civilization. And it reminds Jews that the purpose of the Torah is to change man from a beast and transform him into a human being, and that only in connecting with God can evil be pre-empted in the world.
We forget it at our peril.
For more articles, visit Aish.com's Holocaust Studies section.