Embracing Auschwitz
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Embracing Auschwitz

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

As a rabbi, I’ve long felt that the Holocaust took up far too much Jewish bandwidth, smothering our joy and replacing it with resentment. It posed questions that were unanswerable, eclipsed centuries of achievement, gave us a pretext to hate others and gave our children the excuse to opt out of this Debbie Downer of a religion altogether.

But recently I’ve come around to a very different perspective, one validated by the pending release, on Nov. 3, of a video game. Not just any video game, but “Call of Duty: WW2,” the long-awaited next installment of a series that has sold 30 million units worldwide. What makes this one different is that it will depict the Holocaust, a topic avoided in prior WW2 video games, and the creators indicate that the subject is being handled authentically and truthfully.

“We didn’t want to shy away from history,” creative director Bret Robbins told Mashable. “We wanted to be very respectful of it. Some very, very dark things happened during this conflict, and it felt wrong for us to ignore that.”

As a response to the recent surge of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust is increasingly being brought into the mainstream of popular culture. Aside from “Call of Duty,” this year’s hit conventional board game is called “Secret Hitler,” which simulates the rise of fascism. The subject has become so prevalent in social and political conversation that a rule was created, Godwin’s Law, asserting that if any discussion goes on long enough, eventually someone or something will be compared to Hitler.   

The Holocaust is everywhere.

Back in the 1970s, Elie Wiesel disparaged the lowbrow TV mini-series “Holocaust” as “untrue and offensive.” But the series was seen by 20 million West Germans, half the country’s population, which led to massive reforms in the German educational system. Hopefully after the release of “Call of Duty,” millions of fans will convert their gamer’s rush into a strengthened commitment never to let such evil prevail again.

Wiesel also said that anyone who hears the account of a witness becomes a witness. With Wiesel gone and the survivor generation dwindling, it is time for Jews to embrace Auschwitz and to fully assimilate the power of its narrative into our collective story. I believe Jews are finally ready to do just that — and that Judaism itself is adapting to prepare us for that role.

In the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews, what stood out most was the response to the question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Leading the way by a large margin was “remembering the Holocaust,” at 73 percent. If there is a core to the Jewish self-image, a consensus narrative, that story is far more likely to revolve around what occurred at Auschwitz than at Sinai.

Jews, like all people, crave to live lives of joy, love, acceptance, community and faith. After seven decades of going through various stages of grief, we are at last recognizing the potency of the Holocaust message and its potential to help us check those positive boxes. What used to evoke only guilt and vulnerability is becoming a source of vitality and inspiration. While the narrative remains utterly shattering, sparks of hope are beginning to emerge.

In a series of sermons over the recent High Holidays, I demonstrated how classical Judaism is now being interpreted anew through the prism of this epochal event, and a “Torah of Auschwitz” is emerging.

Keep in mind that I use the term “Torah” with some deliberate irony — it is intended to provoke thought, not to show disrespect. For in the broadest sense, the word means “sacred teaching,” and as a verb it connotes an ongoing, evolving process of discovery. I contend that such a “Torah”- like process of sacred discovery has been dramatically aroused by the epochal events of 70 years ago.

For example, in Leviticus 19:14, the Torah of Sinai says that we should not place a stumbling block before the blind. In Germany today, there are memorial plates in the ground for Jewish victims — “Stolpersteine,” or stumble stones, they are called, because when you stumble over them you have to notice. As of last January, there are 56,000 Stolpersteine throughout the country. So the “Torah of Auschwitz” offers this corollary to Leviticus: “Yes, you should place these stumble stones everywhere a victim lived, to remove blinders from the eyes of those who try to forget their suffering.” 

Or take Deuteronomy 17:19, the commandment to remember what Amalek did to Israel in the wilderness, attacking the meek and innocent.  For centuries, this has been interpreted as a call for vigilance in the face of evil. But in light of Auschwitz, this commandment has been reinterpreted, not as a call to punish the villains, but rather to remember the victims and to ensure that never again should a cry from the depths of despair, danger and loneliness, from anywhere and anyone, go unheeded. 

Sinai’s Torah also calls upon Israel to love the stranger — no fewer than 36 times — “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Egypt was a living hell for the Israelites, as was Auschwitz for Jews. But in Egypt, save for Pharaoh’s daughter’s rescue of baby Moses, there were no Raoul Wallenbergs or Oskar Schindlers to buck the genocidal trend. 

In stark contrast, Yad Vashem has honored at least 26,120 Righteous Among the Nations from 51 countries. So, the “Torah of Auschwitz” states “Love the stranger,” because not only do you know how it feels to be a stranger who was hated, but you also know how it feels to be a stranger who was, occasionally and inexplicably, loved.

Just as the evil perpetrated by the Nazis has no historical parallel, so does the courage of that era dwarf anything we see in the Bible. As the decades pass, selfless supernovas like Janusz Korczac, Mordechai Anielewicz and Hannah Senesh will further brighten the midnight sky as their stories merge into the collective, sacred narrative.

Jews need to embrace this story with love, conviction and overflowing pride at the unfathomable fact that somehow we survived this genocidal onslaught. And we survived with one mission only: to tell the tale. As the release of “Call of Duty: WW2” demonstrates, the world has never been more receptive to, and in need of, that message.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.

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