Never Again Is Now: Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day
Most of us know Hitler’s perpetrated evil against the Jews, the Romani, the disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political adversaries, and resisters as “the Holocaust.”
The word isn’t randomly chosen: as of the mid-13th Century, the word ‘holocaust’ had come to mean “sacrifice by fire,” and “burnt offering,”
The term is rooted in the Greek word holokauston, meaning “a thing wholly burnt,” or “a thing burnt whole.”
This, of course, is precisely what happened: not things, but people were wholly burnt, and burnt whole.
The corpses of human beings—babies, even, slaughtered by gas, by gunfire, by hangings, by disease, by starvation, by experiments on their bodies, by cold, by despair—people who were just days or weeks before playing ball in the streets, selling wares in their stores, reading books by their windows, buying groceries in their town, worshipping God in their synagogues, making love in their beds, these people were fed to hungry, hot-breathed crematoria, thrown in like mere logs by other human beings who had lost their own humanity.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, 340 bodies could be burned per day at Auschwitz-Birkenau alone.
In this beyond-tragic Greek sense of the word, what occurred under Hitler’s reign—and by way of those who enabled him both by their active and their silent enabling—was, indeed a holocaust.
We want to say it is unimaginable, but it isn’t.
Someone imagined it.
Many brought the imagined into being.
And we have actual images for what should, in fact, be unimaginable.
So the horrors of those days are often referred to as ‘the Holocaust,’ this ‘sacrifice by fire.’
But the word can be troublesome here.
These humans were burnt, this is horrifyingly true, but they were no sacrifice, at least not to anything holy.
Given that, there is reason some prefer to use the term ‘Shoah,’ a Hebrew word found in Zephaniah and Job meaning “calamity,” “catastrophe,” “desolation,” and “whirlwind of chaos.”
And what occurred under Nazi rule was indisputably all of that.
Today, many English speakers call this day the “Holocaust Day of Remembrance.” But by many Jews and others, especially those in Israel, this somber day is also known, and some believe better known, as Yom Ha-Shoah, the Day of Remembrance of the Catastrophe.
On June 9, 1974, the New York Times published a column entitled “In Search of God at Auschwitz.” The author, a man named Israel Shenker, told of a seminar that had just been held with a theme of that name. Among the presenters was a philosopher, a survivor of the Shoah, Prof. Emil Fackenheim. He is quoted as saying this:
“In Judaism there are two archetypes of experience—one is the saving experience [the Red Sea], the other is the commanding experience [Sinai],” Professor Fackenheim also said. “If one tries to hear a redeeming voice at Auschwitz, there is only silence. But a commanding voice speaks to those willing to listen: A Jew is forbidden to give Hitler posthumous victory, and to consent to despair is to give that victory. The moral‐religious contradiction can be resolved only by affirmation that there can be no second Holocaust.”
In other words, Prof. Fackenheim believes that Judaism tends to see God either in events which reveal God’s salvatory, redemptive presence, or in events which reveal God’s presence via God’s expressed divine, righteous mandates for living.
Prof. Fackenheim rejects the notion that Auschwitz has any value as a redeeming moment, that God intended this desolation of humans—and of our sense of humanity—as a way of saving God’s people or the world at large.
Instead, he files the Shoah under an event which harbors a commandment of God: Never Again.
Never again shall Hitler and those who burn with such hatred burn others, and never again will Hitler and those of his ilk receive despair as compensation for their evil.
I have often referred to a rabbi’s words, though I can’t recall where I saw them nor, alas, who said them, which said, essentially, this:
Whatever you say about God has to be said in Auschwitz, with the ashes of burned Jews on your shoulders. If you can’t say what you want to say about God there, then it ought not be said.
You can’t say in Auschwitz that what occurred under Hitler was part of God’s plan, was reflective of God’s intention for God’s people, was a holy warning or a punishment or a lesson to be learned.
The Shoah and all that brought it into being and sustained it was an utter abomination against humanity and against God.
But you can say there a holy Never Again.
And you can say there that Never Again is always Now.
Now you can be aware that evil which shouldn’t even be imagined can begin to take form.
Now you can be aware that the unimaginable is on the cusp of becoming horrifically real.
Now you can be aware that you are called to refuse to cede evil a victory.
Now you can become more aware of what happened, and why, and how, so that in knowing, in remembering, it will never, ever happen again.
Because hate is on the rise across the world, and terrifyingly sharply so here in the U.S., seen in the increasing power and presence of white Christian nationalists and supremacists, please check out and share widely these resources sponsored by the Auschwitz Museum.
For those of you on Twitter, I urge you to follow @AuschwitzMuseum, which posts daily pictures and stories of those killed in the Shoah.
You are welcome to learn more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer here, Kaj Munk here, the both of them here, Martin Niemöller here, anti-Semitism here, and resisting evil here.