by Art Katz
As men, our integrity and eternal destiny are going to be measured and determined by the nature of the questions we ask. Despite countless volumes of study and speculation, despite the assaults of human wisdom and moral exertion, I believe the Holocaust has remained an unresolved mystery precisely because we have not raised the deepest and truest questions.
Perhaps this is so because in our hearts we already sense that were we ever to commit ourselves to finding the deepest roots of our Jewish calamities, our lives would be forever altered. Perhaps we have perceived in our hearts that the truth of the Holocaust and of Jewish existence is going to cost much, and therefore we prefer to examine and speculate about the Holocaust rather than confront its haunting and unsettling enormity, and ask, “why has this happened to us?” Nevertheless, the Holocaust, so vast in its dimensions, so all-encompassing in its implications, demands a correspondingly total and complete response from us. To ask less than an all-embracing “why?” and to throw less than one’s whole being into searching that question out, regardless of the cost, are not to make a meaningful response at all.
In Dachau, Germany, the concentration camp used in the Nazi era can still be found. The gruesome reality has become a museum, and seems to be a witness to a sincere commitment to truth, regardless of how painful and incriminating it may be. Or does it? What if it is a picture of our Jewish relationship to the Holocaust, costly and provocative, but seeming to stop short of that final and total confrontation and meaning which alone constitute truth?
The screams and shrieks that once permeated the air of Dachau have been muted, entombed behind glass windows. A barrack has been built to exact specifications, a perfect replica of the original, but it is antiseptic and clean, utterly devoid of the stench of death, untouched by the indelible stain of human torment and degradation. The museum, with its manicured grounds and memorial plaque, has submerged the reality of the Holocaust, blunting its true magnitude and impact far more effectively than could bulldozers and asphalt.
At Dachau today, the Holocaust has been reduced to manageable proportions, to dimensions which can still be contained within the limits of our understanding and emotions. The museum and its apparent candor is a relatively small price for the Germans to pay for the privilege of considering the Holocaust a past event, a momentary aberration of history, which, for all of its horror, is being explained in a sense, but only within the limits of our humanistic assumptions, thereby allowing our human optimism to remain intact. The shame and remorse evoked at Dachau are relatively easy alternatives to the unbounded shock and consternation which the Holocaust, untainted by human cosmetics, must inevitably produce.
As Jews, we may actually have been unsuspecting accomplices with our German brothers. Content to let remorse suffice, we are as unwilling as they to allow our perennial, human optimism and deep self-assurance to be brought into question. Even our own Holocaust memorials have served to insulate us from the full impact and deepest implications of our tragedy. The indignation and grief that Dachau evokes in the Jewish heart are preferable to, and far easier to live with, than the shock and total dislocation of mind and spirit which the Holocaust should, of itself, induce in us. We have acquiesced to explanations born of our own wisdom, weaving of them a cloak beneath which the impassioned “why us?” burning in our hearts has been smothered and suppressed. That question continues to burn, unquenched by our wisdom, just as the flames of the Holocaust continue to burn, though suppressed and hidden by the thin layer of civilization and culture stretched over the surface of our modern world. We have appeared willing to reckon with the Holocaust, to ponder it, but the truth is, we have not yet truly faced it.
One writer, reflecting upon the establishment of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw observed that “the calamitous march of events shook many pious Jews from their traditional moorings.” With few exceptions, we have drifted back to the traditional moorings of Judaism; we have drifted back to our humanistic optimism, to faith in human progress and to those religious traditions and practices that have come to characterize Jewish life. Today, as in the past, there are multitudes of false prophets among us, crying “peace, peace!” They are no longer found standing in the streets of Jerusalem, but in universities, in government offices and behind pulpits in synagogues. Their popularity with us today is as great as that of their predecessors. Yet, the truth is, there is no peace. We are only superficially healed. Most of us remain tied to our traditional moorings, content to believe in the optimistic words of our chosen “prophets.”
Let there be those who will risk being torn loose from those moorings by the impact of the questions raised by the Holocaust in just the same way as their fathers in Warsaw and Dachau were torn loose and set adrift by the actual events. Let there be those who will have the courage to dig deeper than the statistics of those horrors, deeper than the ashes and charred bones, deeper than the veneer of culture and civilization, for whom the comforts and securities of this present life are as transparent and cruel a deception as were the showerheads and bath-house fixtures of the death camp gas chambers. Let there be those who will come to acknowledge the still-burning fires of the Holocaust, mirrored in their own hearts as the burning question of “why?”
If we are still tied to our traditional moorings, then we have not yet recognized the reality of the Holocaust, for it is the very essence of the Holocaust to defy and undo our insistent optimism, to shatter all our illusions, to strip naked, to remove every prop and support, and leave us lost men “drifting through a fog-enshrouded world searching for light.” To experience the Holocaust as ultimate calamity is to be delivered from every illusion of security, from our country clubs and suburban homes, from our professions and bank accounts, and from our pious repetition of religious clichés; and then to be cast out into a storm of bewilderment and anguish from which alone the true cry of the heart can issue forth: “Why? What have we done to deserve it?”
Few have a heart for such questions. It is far easier to enter into intellectual speculations than to confront the Holocaust as a direct challenge to all our conceptions of what life means in general and for us Jews in particular. How is it that we have so long avoided those questions? How have we been able to go on in our customary ways while the Holocaust has only been superficially explained? Why have we not been gripped, compelled to risk all, to commit all of our passion and energy with an unrelenting urgency to find the answer to the deeper questions raised by the Holocaust?
The museum at Dachau is visually accessible for analysis; it is there to be questioned, but for many it remains submissive to their preconceived ideas. The real Dachau is not so submissive; rather, it is calculated to assault and refute every valued category we have held about the Holocaust. The man confronting the true Dachau must be prepared to have his moral systems shattered, his accommodations with his own peculiar circumstances utterly wrecked, and his uneasy peace with life irremediably disturbed. For such a man, the answer to “why?” must become a consuming passion.
As moderns, are we prepared to confront that reality today? This is no rhetorical question; the Holocaust is no mere historical event, but rather the most recent and devastating expression of the continuing state of Jewish existence. Like a malignant tumor, the Holocaust is but the dramatic and visible revelation of a cancer that is spread throughout the entire body. The whole logic of our history is calculated to disturb us, to jar us out of every secure peace with the world. Jewish history has been little more than a series of jarrings and proddings designed to force us to question our assumptions about our Jewishness and ourselves. In this respect, the Jew is the quintessential man. Life’s unprecedented calamities have cornered us, thrusting agonizing questions in our way.
Are we willing to ask why we have so long been a people in exile, scattered over the earth? Are we willing to ask why we have remained a foreign substance in the body of every nation in which we find ourselves? Or why it is that we have been preserved over the centuries, yet never delivered from our chronic alienation, predicament and vulnerability? From biblical times we have been haunted by our separateness, seeking to be like the nations around us, yet forever scorned and kept apart. Our being chosen of God as a light to all nations is evidenced by the inescapability of its implications.
Our suffering has been too great to comprehend, and our preservation too uncanny to explain in terms of chance, or in terms of our own perseverance. We are a people trapped in an eternal predicament, never far from perplexity, chosen and yet seemingly forsaken by God. The question of the Holocaust is but an expression of a greater question, the enduring mystery and enigma of all of Jewish existence. To question the Holocaust is to question everything about ourselves and our purpose for being.
The Holocaust is essentially the daily reality of Jewish existence writ large to compel our acknowledgment; its torments, its insecurities and its fears are no more than the eruptions of the torments, insecurities and fears that underlie our life as a people. On the one hand, the Holocaust is the conspicuous evidence of our exile, even our inevitable predicament; on the other, the countless insults and humiliations of daily life are there to remind us that we are yet vulnerable and alone.
The Holocaust has had repeated rehearsals preceding it in Jewish history. From even before the conquest of Judea by the armies of Babylon in 597 BC, out history has been punctuated by a repeating refrain of destruction and suffering. As a people in exile, we have endured the murderous riots of Alexandria in 38 AD, the leveling of Jerusalem and the dismemberment of the nation by Rome in 70 AD, the humiliation of the yellow badge begun in 1215, expulsion from England in 1290, the Spanish Inquisition and the exile from Spain in 1492. The herding ignites and the countless pogroms all preceded and foreshadowed the great nightmare that swept across a “civilized” Europe in our own lifetime.
It is as if the Holocaust has always loomed inevitable in the life of the children of Israel, a great black dread and portent permeating our past, dimming and contradicting all hope for the future. We are a diverse people, yet one thing alone unites us, transcending every boundary of time, geography and culture, and this one thing is stamped upon our consciousness as the indelible mark of Jewish identity, namely, the sense of inexplicable and inescapable alienation and pursuit, a mark which no amount of reason, effort or assimilation can ever erase. This mark is our common bond, our common and inescapable heritage. The Holocaust is the permanent and pervasive condition of our lives.
The conflagrations, of which the Holocaust is the greatest, have been intermittent, but the fire from which they have sprung has been incessant. While our physical bodies are no longer being thrown into ovens, we are being subjected without ceasing to the warping and corrosions, the slow demoralizing and dehumanizing inner burnings of that same unquenchable flame. So many centuries of so tortuous an existence have left a permanent and visible mark on our lives. The psychological casualties far outnumber the physical. We have been stunted and compressed; our ulcers and heart conditions, our dependence upon tranquilizers and psychiatrists, our addiction to the amusements of the world and our ceaseless string and activity are all agonizing testimony of our unrelieved distress. We are a driven people, either pursuing an explanation and a solution to our condition with an unrequited passion, or else engaged in a frenzied effort to escape or deny it. But if our pursuit after success and wealth and acceptance has failed to deaden the awareness of our condition, neither has our pursuit after knowledge gained foe us any deliverance. We have attained whatever superficial relief that advantageous circumstances have allow us, but we have not arrives at any permanent cure or relief.
The pattern of Jewish existence has not been broken. For secularized and religious Jew alike, the land of Israel has long been the last hope and ultimate dream of deliverance. Yet, recent history has proven that Israel, far from reversing the pattern of Jewish life, has revealed it all the more plainly and painfully.
In a country that has frequently been accused (even by its friends) of having a paranoid “Massada complex,” the sense of discontent is all pervaisive. Almost like a biblical plague, the Arab attack on Yom Kippur in 1973 swept away the sweet, fat, confident years that followed the 1967 war. (Time Magazine 12/2/74)
Professor Ammon Rubinstein, then Dean of the Tel Aviv Law School, make this comment shortly after the Yom Kippur War of 1973:
I am pessimistic like everyone today. It feels like we’re back where we began – a small weak country facing a much greater power with the odds against us. In many ways we’re worse off now that in 1948. We’re back to square one as Israelis and also as Jews. The pro-Jewish sentiment that followed World War II has disappeared and many people today feel that 30 years is time enough for atonement. Arafat’s appearance at the U.N. awakened in me memories of films of Hitler’s speeches. The feeling is one of being totally alone and not realizing why or what we have done to deserve it. It is a return to the Jewish predicament.
A return to the Jewish predicament is to be surrounded and compressed by a great power without, while feeling vulnerable, alienated and perplexed within. The circumstances of Israel have not changed since those melancholy words were spoken. In the intervening years, the grip of the Jewish predicament has only tightened. The identity of the enemy changes; the political and economic circumstances alter, but the essential pattern of Jewish existence remains the same. So inevitable in its reappearance, so immune to space and time, the pattern of our life compels us to look beyond the range of our normal vision. It evoke a cosmic question. The current predicament of the state of Israel, like the current state of our lives as Jews, testifies to the fact that we have not yet fathomed the meaning of the Holocaust, and we stand, therefore, in jeopardy of having it repeated.
As a people, Jews have sown the abundance of the creative energy and genius into the cultural soil of every nation in which they have found themselves, only to reap, all too frequently, persecution and rejection. We have been the builders of cultures and civilizations, the architects of ideologies and philosophies, only to later find ourselves confined in the enslaving ghettos built from the very products of our own labor. A German civilization, invigorated by nearly 2000 years of Jewish life, brought European Jewry to near extinction. Regardless of what we sow, we reap only exile and death. Whatever the answer may cost us, we are compelled to ask “why?”. Whatever the answer may cost us, the cost of failing to ask is bound to be far greater.
The Holocaust is not so much a historical event as a present accusation, penetrating irresistible towards the very center of our lives. The power of this assault, the sting which pierces the heart and fastens the whole unbearable weight of our suffering is the realization that all this was allowed by the God of Israel.
“Characteristic is the rebellion against God, against heaven, which is noticeable among many Jews who no longer wish to declare God’s judgement right.” That status made about the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, but it is applicable to all, regardless of time and place, who awaken to discover themselves walled in and compressed, confined within the narrow limits of the Jewish predicament. Perennially confident of the favor of God, we, like the Jews of Warsaw, are confronted by God’s silence and abandonment in the hour of our extremity. The Holocaust is present to us today, inducing in our hearts the same crisis as was induced in Warsaw. The Holocaust continues, a fire of mockery and scorn, consuming our pious platitudes and evaporating every false and convenient idea of God. The whole of our history is but the accumulated weight of contradiction and frustration, the accrued substance of shrieks and cries, wails and laments, directed toward a God who seemingly did not answer us in our every crisis.
How many of us stand in jeopardy of becoming hypocrites, continuing to profess a religious faith, persisting in religious traditions, while harboring in our hearts as unspoken accusation against the God who allows six million Jews to perish in the Nazi era? We pay a religious service to God without our lips, while doubts and charges fester and ferment into bitterness and rage. In our hearts we judge and condemn Him, secretly agreeing with those in the Warsaw ghetto who no longer desire to declare God’s judgement right. And are we any less the hypocrites who have spurned faith and railed against God without ever earnestly questioning either Him or ourselves?
To truly confront the Holocaust, then, is to truly confront God and ourselves. Indeed, few men are disposed to ask such ultimate and supremely costly questions. Do we have the courage to stand in identification with the Jews of Dachau and Warsaw, to have our whole world demolished, our souls thrust into anguish and perplexity by the awesome silence of God?
For many, the Holocaust has been the ultimate ground for rejecting God. But the truth is just the opposite. The Holocaust is the fire that burns and consumes everything that we have placed between God and ourselves. Our Jewish way of life, our Yiddishkeit, our philanthropies and our Zionism have permitted us to avoid facing the reality of our condition, namely, our utter and total alienation from the God of Israel.
Ponder the great shout of praise, so filled with the assurance of the presence of God, that brought the mighty walls of Jericho tumbling down; and contrast it with the result upon the fortress of Jewish life and culture by our silent shudder in the seeming absence of God from Dachau, Auschwitz and Warsaw.
The silence of God, superficially considered, will provoke accusations and judgements against Him, but the silence of God reckoned with in the depths of the heart, and allowed to sound and reverberated throughout our secret and guarded chambers, will shatter and wreck, will humble and strip bare, will call out into the light all secret apprehensions and fears, and will compel us to cry out “why?” and “where was God?” How many of us have a heart for such questions?
Until such questions are asked, our very piety and Jewishness will constitute a willful self-deceit. And no less is true of the seemingly bold humanism and secular idealism that have become so characteristic of our life. Thought we talk about an abstract, impersonal “force” behind the universe, our humanistic values, far from being the last resting place of a mind fatigues and disappointed after earnestly searching for the Author of biblical record, are rather the first resort and hiding place of the heart which will not rush all for the sake of finding Him.
Humility and honesty require of us the admission that while scorning belief in a living God, and while regarding His silence as final proof of His impotence and irrelevance, we have never earnestly sought Him nor truly desired to meet such a One. Our indignation and rejection are in essence just as much as means of insulating ourselves from the deeper issues raised by the Holocaust as has been our continuing religious piety. The place of true confrontation is not attractive to many, and requires the laying aside of our hopes that mankind will over time improve itself, which was so powerfully refuted in the ashes of the Holocaust, a refutation as irrevocable and complete as the contradiction of traditional religious piety write in those same ashes.
The silence of God demands the forsaking of cynicism as much as the abandonment of our supposed piety. it requires the shedding of the prosecutors robes as much as the laying aside of the defendoer’s cloak. Ultimately, it will require the laying aside of the difficult issues of our suffering if we are ever to respond to the question that God’s silence has raised. Our pain and lament must be set aside lest they too become a shield and barrier between ourselves and the God with whom we have to do. let neither our atheism, not our piety, be factors in our failing to perceive that in His silence God has spoken.
In His silence, God has contradicted our conceptions both of Him and of ourselves. In His silence, He has wrecked our traditional moorings and invited us to come seeking after Him, naked and in truth. The terrible inadequacy of our ideas of His has been uncovered and displayed by the grit of our historical experiences. This unyielding, impenetrable silence is the true meaning of the Holocaust. It lies at the heart of our lives, both as a people and individually; it is the substance of the Jewish predicament. God’s silence makes disquieting claims on all our categories and theories; it assaults our confidence and assurance; it contradicts our faith in ourselves. We can deny it; we can sink from its challenge in despair, but we can never truly escape it. Who has the courage sufficient to answer such a challenge? Who will stand in utter nakedness? Who will allow himself to be divested of all tradition, stripped of all intellectual and moral preconceptions and presumptions? Who, in the deepest and truest sense, is Jewish enough to encounter such a God?
In the hour of crisis, and delivers unjustly to the fiery furnace, three Jewish men, Shadrach, Mechash and Abednego, discovered God amidst the flames. God stood with them in the furnace, and delivered them without a burn, without even the smell of smoke. Where was the God of Daniel’s companions when six million of Israel’s people were being cast into the flames of the Holocaust? If His presence in the one furnace speaks to us, what, we are bound to ask, does His absence from the other say?
By the hand of God, Job was a man delivered over to inexplicable suffering, stripped of everything, all his security and reason confounded. He was a man brought down to the dust, reduced to his “naked existence” without explanation, invited to “curse God and die,” (Job 2:9) to transmute his anguish and perplexity into bitterness and despair. But Job refused, and asked instead, “Let me know why You contend with me. Is it right for You indeed to oppress, to reject the labor of Your hands, and to look favorable on the schemes of the wicked?” (Job 10:3)
Like Job, have we asked why God might be contending with us? Are we not rather without explanation for our plight, with both our enlightened humanism and our traditional religious understanding of God and of ourselves failing to provide an adequate answer? How do we understand a sovereign and contending God?
“But I would speak to the Almighty, and desire to argue with God.” (Job 13:3) This is not the impious and blasphemous cry of a self-righteous man but the only true response of a heart, in anguished search for truth, being thrust nakedly beyond all limits of pride and extremities of pain, into the presence of God.