The Holocaust: Who Is Guilty?
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This past week we observed Yom HaShoah, the day that is dedicated to remembrance of the Holocaust. This tragic event is arguably the worst calamity in all of Jewish history. It is also the darkest chapter in the history of mankind. The Jews are not the only people who have suffered unspeakable afflictions at the hands of their fellow “humans.” Many others have been enslaved, tormented, and tortured by evil beasts masquerading as people.
Yet, in my opinion, the Holocaust is unique. Never before was there such a systematic program, using the most sophisticated tools of advanced technology, aimed at the liquidation of an entire people for no other reason than that they were Jewish.
Every shred of mercy was eliminated; every sadistic tendency was magnified and glorified. The Nazis took particular delight in heaping degradation and torture on the most defenseless of their victims, especially children. No one was more brutalized in this horrific endeavor than the little children. Therefore, the Holocaust occupies a unique place in the annals of infamy.
The Torah commands us to “remember what Amalek did to you.” The actual historical nation of Amalek no longer exists. However, the Rabbis have ruled that the title of Amalek applies to any nation that seeks to destroy the Jews, because we are the people of G-d. The Nazis clearly qualify for this infamous designation.
However, it would be wrong to limit this label of opprobrium only to the Nazis. Let us remember that Hitler did not come to power in a vacuum. He was elected to leadership by the German people, who were fully aware of his anti-Semitic intentions, which was a prominent part of his appeal. Hitler also had many non-German enthusiastic participants in the Final Solution.
In virtually every country he conquered, there were abundant fellow Fascists who were eager to join the genocide. Indeed, ordinary citizens who had lived side by side with the Jews for many centuries turned a blind eye to their suffering and inwardly rejoiced as they were carted off, leaving all their property and treasure behind. The hatred was so virulent that it did not subside when the Germans were defeated, and the surviving remnant returned. In Poland, many Jews who came home were persecuted and even murdered. All this needs to be remembered.
The Holocaust is not only the story of the cruel Nazi killers and their willing conspirators across Europe. It is also the tale of the icy indifference of the Western nations who should have been actively involved in forestalling the extermination and rescuing as many victims as possible.
What is morally more egregious, the crimes of the murderers or the callousness of the bystanders? The Torah commands, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother.” The United States, England, and other Western countries regard themselves as being on an elevated moral plane. They officially condemn any and all forms of racism and bigotry, certainly the wanton killing of innocents. Yet, when intervention could have made a difference, when lives could have been saved, they chose the path of cruel passivity.
The gates, as well as the hearts, of America were locked. No one could enter. Even the passengers on the St. Louis, who managed to arrive at our shores, were turned away. No country would accept them, and eventually they were brought back to Europe, where many were killed in the Nazi onslaught.
There is enough blame to go around, but we should not focus exclusively on the culpability of others. We should be cognizant of human wickedness, but must also look within. Judaism teaches that the foremost reaction we must have to events such as this is introspection and repentance.
Rabbi Soloveitchik has said that the Jewish communities in the U.S. and other free countries did not rise to the occasion and agitate day and night to arouse the sympathy of the people and the concern of the government. He said that we must do teshuva for our lethargic response to the plight of our brethren in distress. Indeed, he suggested that on Yom Kippur, we should add an extra Al Chet (confession) to the long list of sins we recount. He even pointed to a verse in the Torah that aptly summarizes the particular character of our failing.
When the sons of Jacob journeyed to Egypt because of the severe famine that plagued Canaan, they were dealt with very harshly by the Egyptian ruler whom they did not realize was their long-lost brother Joseph. Joseph was subjecting them to unusually severe harassment to stimulate pangs of regret. The ruse worked, as the brothers began to look within and contemplate their past deeds. Finally, they said, “Indeed, we are guilty with regard to our brother, for we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us and we did not listen. Therefore has this calamity come upon us.”
That, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, applies to us as well. We did not listen to the terrible pleas of our our doomed brethren. We have to include this among the many lessons of the Holocaust that we need to internalize. We must always be sensitive and responsive to the cries of our beleaguered brothers and sisters, wherever they may be.
In remembrance of the 6 million kedoshim (holy ones), let us dedicate ourselves to being a more compassionate, wise, and holy nation.