Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Aharey Mot

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Ahare Mot 5760/2000

Holocaust Memorial Day-- May 2, 2000

Prof. Dan Michman

Department of Jewish History

The Holocaust suffered by the Jews during Nazi control of Europe cast a dark shadow over the Jewish experience of the second half of the twentieth century. In this context the words Shoah [holocaust] and Six Million are bandied about without paying much attention to the original usage of these terms and their meaning.

The word shoah appears in the Bible in various forms a handful of times, mostly in (relatively) later books: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Job, Proverbs and Psalms. In these sources the word shoah was used to denote devastation, destruction and calamity, often with the added connotation of being sudden and unforeseen. Thus in Isaiah 10:3: "What will you do on the day of punishment, when the calamity [shoah] comes from afar?" Likewise in Psalms 35:8: "Let disaster [shoah] overtake them unawares." This meaning of the word became deeply rooted over the years, and as such it first appeared in relationship to the acts of the Nazi regime at a rather early stage, even before the Germans began their systematic annihilation of the Jews, which they called "the final solution to the Jewish problem." For example, a classified report written by an emissary of the Zionist Federation, Dr. Leo Lauterbach, to the Federation's Board, after his visit to Vienna in the wake of Austria's annexation to the German Reich, said:

It must be understood that the calamity [shoah] brought upon Austrian Jewry -- the sudden changes which in the course of a few weeks fundamentally altered their economic, social and constitutional status -- was not brought about by publicly proclaimed laws, but by actions essentially taken by a variety of bodies, such as organizations of the Nazi party, the secret police (Gestapo), the SS and SA, people in uniform and private individuals.

(Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem 55/653).

Of course this "shoah" of 1938 was of relatively limited scope and severity. As the troubles became more numerous and severe, especially when murder became the main objective, the meaning of the word changed altogether, becoming "the Holocaust." Not everyone, however, adopted this term, and some preferred to refer to events as hurban, destruction (the word used in Yiddish and ultra-religious writings).

The precise number who perished in the Holocaust is not known to this day. Recent studies done in the past decade by two research teams -- one, the staff preparing the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (Hebrew edition published by Yad Va-Shem and Sifriyat Poalim), and the other, a German research team -- arrived at almost identical figures: approximately 5,800,000 Jewish victims who met their death during the Nazi era either directly or indirectly as a result of persecution (starvation, disease, etc.). What is interesting is that the figure "six million" became widespread and generally accepted only a short while after the fall of the Third Reich, before the numerical data was yet known. The first to have sensed this was the number of victims and to utter this figure was the poet Abba Kovner, a member of Ha-Shomer ha-Tzair and leader of the Vilna ghetto underground, a Partisan, and later author of the military "Order of the Day" (Ha-Daf ha-Kravi) in Israel's war of Independence, as well as the person who promoted and conceived Bet ha-Tefutsot, the Diaspora Museum. In an address to members of the Jewish Brigade (units of Jewish soldiers from the land of Israel, serving in the British army) in Italy on July 17, 1945, he said:

We, the last ones, must come united to the people, for only thus can we bring from the Jewish past our abysmal truth, our faith, our renewal, our experience. Our vast experience must not be allowed to disappear without a trace. In those days, when all was sinking, when we and our homes and our children, layer after layer, were being engulfed into the damp clay soil, we did not know if you were at all aware of what was happening to us, if our death cries were reaching you. Yet we were sure that sooner or later you would know that we were no longer, that we had been murdered, slaughtered, annihilated; for the disappearance of six million cannot remain a closely guarded secret for long. The terrible moment would come when the Jewish world would come to know the numbers. How painful the realization that you would become aware of the extent of this calamity but never of its depth.

(A. Kovner, Shelihutam shel ha-Aharonim, in Shoat Yehudei Europa, ed.

Y. Gutman and L. Reutkirchen, Jerusalem 1973, p. 478).

Abba Kovner was right not only about the estimated number of dead, but also about the ability of others who had not experienced the Shoah to understand and fully digest its magnitude. Yet even as it was taking place, without knowing how many had been killed, without actual information on what was transpiring, the Jews of Europe sensed the magnitude of the disaster. This finds expression in many writings, including prayers composed in those dark days. On the Day of Atonement (Sept. 21, 1942), the following prayer, composed by R. Maarsen, chief rabbi of the Hague, was recited in his community:

Lord of the Universe,

We come before You on this sacred and dreadful day, our eyes a fountain of tears, a pall over us as we witness the painful events constantly befalling us. Horrors annihilate us, like water engulfing us all the day. How could the light of day shine on all others, while utter darkness is over us.

Merciful Father,

From the depths of our hearts we bring before You the question of those fearful for the fate of our miserable people: Until when? Do not turn a deaf ear to our cries, for the gates of tears are not yet locked; do not turn us away empty-handed; please send us consolation in the day of our distress, setting free those imprisoned in the bottomless pit. Observe, there is no one to stand in the breach petitioning on our behalf, so now our only hope and prayer is directed to You, O Lord. Send us deliverance from Heaven, give strength to weak hands and let quaking knees be supported and upheld. We look to You in prayer, please do not shame us in our request, as it is said: "Let those who look to You, O Lord, G-d of hosts, not be disappointed on my account; let those who seek You, O G-d of Israel, not be shamed because of me" (Ps. 69:7).

Despondence, even despair, is clearly heard in these words, but along with it also the source of strength to which a Jew can turn in time of distress. As R. Y. Davis, chief rabbi of Rotterdam, put it in a missive to the Jews sent to the camps:

Thus there are three things on which you can rely wherever you may go:G-d, the Jewish community, and your own soul. All three are eternal and everlasting. "Choose life," that is the supreme Jewish command; bear up, no matter how bad the situation! Faithfully uphold your duty and purpose as a human being and Jew, with all your will and all your might! Be strong!

This message from the inferno ought still to accompany us today.

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