Yom Hashoah: We will remember them…
Often, when we have a yahrzeit to observe, we are able to picture our loved ones, on that night, as with the eye of memory. As we prepare for the recitation of the Kaddish, we often can visualize our beloved dead, at a particular point in their life. Perhaps we hear the tone and vocal quality of their voice. Perhaps we can feel their touch, or perhaps we can remember and feel our touching them. They, for a while, are with us. And, we mourn their loss, sharply, or softened by time. Yet, we remember.
And, there is a Yahrzeit observance that every living Jew, shares. It is a time that we cannot forget. Here, the Kaddish becomes our affirmation to remember the six million of our people who were slaughtered in the Holocaust. But how can we remember at once all of these whose lives were snuffed out in that Kingdom of Darkness? It is beyond human ken to do so. So, how do we proceed?
On Yom Hashoah, I first remember relatives who were murdered. Then, I turn to images I have seen of photos of our people I have seen in books or in an exhibit at one of the Holocaust Museums. One sees brothers and sisters with terror in their eyes and therefore in their being. Or, one remembers a photo of one of our enslaved that has lost hope. These are those with dead eyes.
However, my attempt to properly say Kaddish inevitably goes back to a giant photograph I saw displayed in the exhibit hall at Auschwitz. It returns to me, not only on Holocaust Memorial Day, but it is often with me. There are hundreds of children, it appears, between the ages of four to six. They are behind barbed wire. They are in a space enclosed by barbed wire on either side of them. Clearly they have been told to display their tattoos to the photographer, as they all extend their arms aloft, pulling their sleeves back to show their tattoos. What a monstrosity. These poor babies. And so, we take them into our hearts with our own loved owns.
And along with saying Kaddish we can each take an oath. Because of their loss, we take an oath never to forget. Because of their slaughter, we pledge to do whatever we can to strengthen Judaism and Jewish life. We will not slip into the anonymity of assimilation ignoring our heritage. Because of their loss, we can, in our own way strengthen the State of Israel. Perhaps they would not have died if the State of Israel had then existed. The State of Israel has absorbed millions of our refugees in our own time. Strengthening Israel is a form of remembering our victims.
I think of a poem by Abraham Shlonsky that is displayed in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. I voted to have this poem included in the Reform Haggadah as translated from the Yiddish by Rabbi Herbert Bronstein. Here, Shlonsky was remembering our victims when he wrote, in part:
In the presence of eyes
Which witnessed the slaughter
Which saw the oppression
The heart could not bear
And as witness the heart
Until days came to pass
That crushed human feeling
I have taken an oath to remember it all
To remember, not once to forget…
And so, when we say Kaddish for a loved one, we do so with the eye and heart of memory. We make our silent pledges to them over the gulf of the grave. And so, as we recall those lost in the Shoah, during Holocaust Memorial Day, this year on April 8, 2021 and at our services on April 9, 2021, we recommit ourselves to our Jewish Faith, for which they died. We recommit ourselves to say, Never Again! And we look forward to observing Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the celebration of the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. This too, we will mark at our Shabbat Service. Sadness and joy are intermingled in this same week. Destruction and Hope, both pull at our heartstrings, and both request from us our personal answer. And, we take an oath to remember.
Rabbi Fred Pomerantz