The first commandment for any survivor, and their survivors, is: “Zachor, Gedenk, Remember!”
Though I do not literally remember the Holocaust, since I was born, to two of its survivors, years later, it remains the most important event of my life.
I do not remember Pearl Harbor for the same reasons, but in contrast, had never given it much thought. Consequently, as my family boarded the Arizona, the Pearl Harbor memorial in Honolulu, I did not expect to be moved.
Any student of history however, must appreciate Pearl Harbor’s significance. It was to its generation what 9/11 was to ours. They were both such seminal events that anyone who lived through either can remember in precise detail where they were when they occurred. The only other event like that in my lifetime was President Kennedy's assassination.
Yet, despite their emotional similarity, in reality, Pearl Harbor makes 9/11 pale in comparison. 9/11 traumatized us; Pearl Harbor not only traumatized us, but it also threatened our very existence. Though remarkably, almost the same number of us was murdered in the two cataclysms almost exactly seven decades apart, the practical loss was dramatically different.
On 9/11, we lost an iconic skyscraper and a single airplane; at Pearl Harbor, we lost the majority of our Pacific Fleet and 188 airplanes. President Roosevelt's immortal words "we have nothing to fear, but fear itself" were no longer accurate; we had everything to fear.
The Japanese had dealt our military a body blow so devastating few contemporaneous objective observers expected us to be able to compete with them, much less vanquish them. Not coincidently, the following day, Japan declared war on us. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on us.
Pearl Harbor, a halcyon Hawaiian body of water that few had heard of before December 6, 1941 became synonymous with a treacherous ambush. More importantly, "Remember Pearl Harbor!" became a rallying cry as unforgettable as "Remember the Alamo!" or "Zachor Amalek!"
Pearl Harbor changed everything. Prior to it, prominent powerful isolationist forces had persuaded us it wasn't in our interest to side with Britain against Germany. Our national hero Charles Lindbergh claimed the Germans were our traditional friends whereas we had fought the British, our natural enemy, twice in the past 150 years. The popular, nationally broadcast Father Coughlin preached that only the Jews wanted to drag us into this war and that we should therefore punish them so severely that they would beg to return to Hitler. Similarly, representing the State Department, Joseph Kennedy, ironically President Kennedy's father, trekked to Hollywood by propeller plane to personally meet with Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and the other Jewish studio heads to threaten them if they did not immediately cease demonizing the Nazis in their films, they would be deported back to Europe. They heard him; they immediately stopped.
Adolph Hitler himself had no desire to drag us into the war. His goal was to defeat the Russians, as well as the British, to complete absolute control of Europe, thus establishing an invulnerable Third Reich that would endure for centuries, If not forever.
If not for December 6, 1941, there would not have been a D-Day on June 6, 1944, 912 days later. If we had not been involuntarily dragged into World War II, even if Britain and Russia had managed to resist the Nazi onslaught, Hitler would have retained sovereignty over Western Europe. The final solution would have been completed. The death camps would never have been liberated.
The vast majority of my 1963 Yeshiva Rabbi Moses Soloveichik class would have never been born, as would have been the case with many of my 1967 MTA classmates. The same would be true of that era of BTA, YCQ, Breuer’s, Dov Revel, Flatbush, Salanter, RJJ, HILI, JEC and Ramaz students, as well.
It is probable that many of those schools would never have existed in the first place. It is definite that my parents would never have survived Auschwitz and that my children and I would never have been born.
We receive an enigmatic directive in how to celebrate Purim. We are told to imbibe so excessively that we can't distinguish between the heroic Mordecai and the treacherous Haman. That's not only crazy, but also dangerous. One would have to be comatose to confuse such a hero with such a villain.
Yet, it was the treacherous Hideki Tojo, not the heroic Winston Churchill who saved the lives of every survivor who occupied Washington Heights, the Lower East Side, Boro Park, Flatbush and Forest Hills. It was Tojo's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that precipitated the United States joining the allies, not Churchill's eloquent entreaties. That is a sobering thought.
I did not expect to be moved aboard the Arizona. It isn't Yad Veshem or some other Holocaust Memorial. It is not in the least bit Jewish. It was designed so that viewed from above it forms a perfect cross.
I quietly, assiduously, read the commemorative plaque. Inexplicably, the final line was from our Birchat Cohanim: "May God's face shine upon you and bring you peace."
This was the very line with which my father blessed me every Yom Kippur while he was alive. This was the very line with which I have blessed each of my children every Yom Kippur that they have been alive.
I looked at them and thought of the three generations of my family who would not have lived but for the sacrifice of the thousands of soldiers whose watery graves lay beneath my feet.
Ironically surrounded by Japanese tourists, I cried unabashedly.
Zachor, Gedenk, Remember Pearl Harbor.
Dr. Herschkopf, a practicing psychiatrist and President of the NYU Bellevue Psychiatric Alumni, is a frequent contributor to these pages.