Rabbi Hillel Smulowitz
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I knew that my parents’ families perished in concentration camps, but I never understood why they did not talk about it.
As I got older, through my own experiences as a rabbi and a witness to history, I came to realize how painful it was for them. “Not all victims were Jewish,” Elie Wiesel wrote, “but all Jews were victims.”
Here is something of what he meant:
At the close of World War II, U.S. and British servicemen described in graphic detail what they saw as they liberated Nazi concentration camps – rows upon rows of skin-covered skeletons who met their eyes, people starved to death, laying in their own filth.
The city of Assisi, Italy, home of St. Francis, turned itself into a place of refuge, organized by Padre Rufino Niccaci. Hundreds of Jews were hidden in towns, ancient monasteries and convents. They were given fake identity papers, sometimes rosaries, and were dressed in religious habits. Some 32,000 Italian Jews and thousands from other countries were successfully hidden by Christians.
Protestants and Catholics saved the lives of many Jews, including “hidden” children who were raised as Christians. Isidor Grunfeld, a dayan (judge) of the London Bet Din, would walk among them at Anglican schools, singing Shema, Dayeinu. Several responded to the familiar chant.
These stories are often forgotten in our day. The challenge of our generation is to overcome this amnesia.
When I was principal of the Louisville Jewish Day School, I bought textbooks and directed teachers to talk about the Holocaust in grades 6-8, but one parent objected, saying she didn’t want her child to learn about this part of Jewish history.
“Is it OK to teach about the different cultures of the world?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said.
So I said her child was learning about Jewish heritage.
One of the most beautiful poems I ever read was found scratched out on a wall where Jews were hiding:
“I believe in the sun even when it is not shining,
I believe in the love even when not feeling its embrace,
I believe in G-d even when he is silent.”
When I was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, I knew a devout Catholic, a retired helicopter pilot. We became close friends and when his wife become ill with cancer, I sent her this poem. A year later, before she passed away, she told her husband that she wanted to be buried with it.
In the 1960s, two events attracted world attention on the same day: Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin’s flight into orbit and the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. One was a space pioneer; the other, a butcher of men, women and children.
These two events represent the conflict facing humankind: light or darkness. To understand this, we need only read the first pages of the Tanakh, that man was created of the dust of the earth and was endowed with part of the soul of G-d.
All people have two conflicting elements. One pulls us down to earth, perpetuating selfish, egotistical behavior. The other – the soul – draws us to dedicate our life to the divine and help others. The cosmonaut verses Eichmann.
When I was in Israel studying for ordination, I attended the Eichmann trial twice. He sat in a bulletproof booth because of the threats to his life.
After a 12-months trial, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had three days to decide: either sentence Eichmann to life in prison, or to death. I remember listening to the news at midnight at my aunt’s home when it was announced that Eichmann had been hanged, his body cremated and his ashes scattered at sea so no Nazi followers could ever have a place to worship him.
In the 1970s, when I attended a workshop in Israel with 14 other rabbis, we met with Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Ephraim Katzir. Meir said something that has remained with me ever since: “The future of Israel is dependent on the education you give children in the diaspora.”
For me, the Holocaust has always been a part of my life, although a difficult part.
We have an obligation to ourselves, to children and to grandchildren, to teach them not to forget the Holocaust. Then we can say never again Auschwitz! Never again Dachau! Never again Treblinka!
(Rabbi Hillel Smulowitz, past principal of the Louisville Jewish Day School and a retired Army chaplain, has lectured on the Holocaust in Italy, Germany, Japan, Korea and the United States.)