Sunday, June 28, 2009

Hans Eichner's Kahn and Engelmann

One of the reasons I read enjoy reading so much, I think, is because of the freedom I allow myself in moving forward from book to book and author to author without sticking to a preconceived plan. In other words, I always have something in mind to read next—there are times when my night table could use its own night table to cover the overflow—but I try not to feel imprisoned by my own intentions and, as I hear about interesting books for the first time, I sometimes just move off in that direction and promise myself that I’ll get back some other time to whatever it was I had previously been planning to read next. Sometimes I even do get back to Plan A. Sometimes not. What can you do? My life is regimented enough in every other way!

So far this summer, I’ve read Junot Diaz’ book, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and liked it very much. And I read Zev Jabotinsky’s novel, The Five, which was a huge surprise to me—the author not as fiery, Betar-style Zionist, but as serious Russian novelist far more in the style of Turgenev or even Chekhov than anyone else who came to mind. It’s an exceptional book too, and this one you can feel free to tell people your rabbi recommended! But then, almost as soon as I had embarked on my self-imposed regimen of summer reading, I departed from it to read President Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father. That’s not the book I want to write to you about today, but I can’t recommend the president’s book to you highly enough. Your personal view of politics won’t matter here—the man is the president of the United States and this book is a true window into his soul, into the way he views the world. The whole story is there (or at least the whole story up until the mid-1990s) including long episodes in Indonesia, Hawaii, Chicago, and Kenya and it is not just fascinating, but at least in parts truly riveting. It’s a wonderful book—frank, insightful, reflective without being even remotely solipsistic—and one I think all citizens of our country should be very interested in reading. The author, our president, would have probably chosen to soft-pedal certain aspects of his story had he known when he was at work on the book that he was going to end up in the White House (and he would probably have chosen to express himself differently in at least some passages), but that too is part of the book’s charm. As I said, I really can’t recommend it strongly enough.

But the book I want to write about to you today—Hans Eichner’s semi-autobiographical novel, Kahn and Engelmann—is not one you’re likely to have heard of. Eichner, who was a professor at the University of Toronto for many years before his death earlier this year, was born in Vienna in 1921 and his book is one of the richest, most interesting, and most moving accounts of Jewish life in Hungary and Austria I’ve ever read. (The family starts out in a tiny village in Hungary called Tapolca but moves early on to Vienna, arriving just at the turn of the century and settling in the Leopoldstadt section of the city, Vienna’s most Jewish neighborhood. So the book is about the narrator’s family, but also about Vienna itself and the lives of the Jews who lived and flourished there during the first decades of the twentieth century.) Along the way, we read about the narrator’s father’s suicide, about his brothers’ and sisters’ successes and failures both in business and in love, and about the author/narrator’s own life. We read about his escape from Vienna first to Belgium and then to England, his interment in England during the war as a foreign national (the English appear in this book to have been incapable of distinguishing German-speaking Jews from German-speaking Nazis or Nazi sympathizers), his “relocation” to Australia, and then his subsequent re-relocation back to England. At this point in the narrative, the author and the narrator part company: the “real” author moved to Canada at that point and established himself as a professor of German literature first at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and then at the University of Toronto, while the narrator in the book elects instead to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine and then, moving to Israel, ends up in Haifa. And, of course, we also see the beginning of the end for the Jews of Vienna, as the harrowing story of their fate in the years leading up to and following the Anschluss of 1938 that made Austria part of Greater Germany is told in a series of vignettes that recount the stories of individuals whose entire social and commercial structure crumbled almost overnight. Fittingly, the book ends at Auschwitz.

Eichner waited until he retired from teaching to write his thinly-disguised autobiographical novel, but he waited just a bit too long. The book came out in Austria in 2000 in a very small edition, then subsequently was picked up by the large German publisher Rowohlt and was a huge success both in Austria and in Germany. Interest developed in an English-language edition and one was prepared—and, I should say, excellently well done—by a woman named Jean Snook, then published…but Eichner himself died just three days before the book finally came out. So he told his story in German and lived to know that it would be published in English as well, but he never held the bound book now offered for sale by Biblioasis, a small Canadian literary press. There’s a certain poignancy in that thought, I think, but also a certain challenge in it: the man himself is gone from the world, but his story remains…if people take the time to buy his book and read all about it.

As we approach the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War this September 1, we need, all of us, to consider what we are doing to preserve these first-person accounts of Jewish survival. The survivors among us need to ask how exactly they are going to go about bequeathing their personal stories to future generations. The children of survivors in our midst need to ask themselves what they are doing to make sure that their parents’ stories outlive their years on earth…and to remember that the sacred slogan “Never Again!” is predicated on the supposition that the people hearing it know what it is that we are imploring them to prevent from happening again, a supposition that in turn rests on the availability of first-person narratives that can serve as eye-witness testimony to events that the naysayers and deniers of the world feel free to insist never actually happened. Those of us, like myself, who are neither survivors nor direct descendants of survivors need to ask what it is we ourselves are doing to guarantee that the survivors’ stories—and, by extension, the stories of so many millions who did not survive—are available permanently to all who wish to know the truth about the Shoah. What we can do—what I myself do—is to exert ourselves maximally to make sure a market exists for these books, to buy them automatically when they come out, thus encouraging the publication of more of them by publishers concerned more with the bottom line than with the legacy of the Jewish people. We need to talk about these books too, and encourage others to buy them and to talk about them. Together, we can create a commercial climate in which the success of these projects fosters more such undertakings in the future. And, of course, we need to encourage the survivors in our midst to strike while the iron is still hot by finding an appropriate avenue of self-expression and then devoting the time necessary to committing their memories to paper.

Watching Iran

Like all of you, I’m sure, I have been following the events in Iran this last week with the oddest mixture of confused emotions: satisfaction that the most potentially dastardly of our enemies has been humiliated in public by having been shown up as the kind of “leader” who has no choice but to steal votes in order to remain in office, dismay that there are no signs that the election results will be set aside any time soon and that the incumbent will therefore probably remain in office, worry about the implications of the election results for Israel and of the ongoing unrest for the Jews of Iran, and a general sense of ill ease regarding the future of the Middle East with an volatile and unstable nuclear Iran (which I find even more unsettling than the ill ease I general feel about the future of the Middle East with a relatively stable, non-chaotic nuclear Iran.)

Mostly, though, I feel chastened: after all these many months of thinking of Iran as the ultimate rogue state—the one whose leader openly calls for the eradication of Israel (as opposed to those less forthright world leaders who feel just the same way but who for some reason forebear to say so openly in public),the one whose leaders not only don’t condemn Holocaust denial but who shamelessly support the idea and run conferences devoted to “proving” the concept that the story of the Shoah is mere Zionist propaganda, the one whose possibly inevitable success in acquiring nuclear weapons could conceivably be the single most important development in Jewish history since Hitler came to power—after months, if not years, of thinking of Iran in those terms, I am now reminded that no one is as oppressed by the leaders of Iran as the Iranians themselves. Indeed, as I watched the youtube footage of the demonstrations in Teheran and elsewhere in Iran—you can look at thirty separate clips on the youtube page of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the failed presidential candidate, at — I was reminded of nothing as strongly as I was of the fall of East Germany and how that whole series of events demonstrated undeniably that, in the end, even the most ruthless cadre of oppressors cannot withstand the force of a nation rising up en masse and in quiet dignity to claim its civil and human rights.

Of course, we’d be a little premature breaking out the champagne just yet. Indeed, even if Ahmadinejad’s unbelievable two-thirds majority was phony—and that certainly appears to have been the case—there were still more than thirty-nine million votes cast and there were an awful lot of those people, millions upon millions of them in their own right, who did not find the incumbent’s policies sufficiently reprehensible, let alone sufficiently repulsive, so as to make voting for him out of the question. More to the point is the fact that it remains entirely unclear whether the protests—including today’s massive demonstrations which you will know about when you read this, but which are still in the future as I write this to you—will ultimately be exercises in blowing off steam or in actually getting the government to declare the election results irremediably tainted and to announce its intention to bring the people back to the polls. This latter option seems, to say the very least, unlikely. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak was quoted yesterday on yahoo as saying that Ahmadinejad’s re-election was “bad news” for Israel and the world. I suppose that more or less sums it up. But it’s even worse news for the people of Iran.

What has been interesting to me especially in watching all this unfold has been the use of the internet to foment public dissent in a way that seems to me to be unprecedented. (When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I had just bought my first computer and hadn’t decided yet whether I should spend the money to acquire an e-mail account. Who knew if it would catch on?) There are, for example, almost 28,000 people who are following the moment-by-moment description of what is going on in Teheran on Twitter by reading the postings of persiankiwi, an anonymous blogger, possibly an Australian, who has possibly become the world’s most widely read post-biblical person of unknown identity. (Take a look for yourself at .) Or you can join the almost 15,000 readers of Mir-Hossein Mousavi himself, who is also on Twitter, by going to This is not a game for the non-intrepid, however. The full list of twitterers writing from inside Iran that was posted up until yesterday at was taken down last night out of fear that the government would somehow be able to identify the authors involved, then punish them for the candor. But new sites spring up so quickly that it’s almost impossible to keep track. This morning, for example, I found, where dozens of bloggers and twitterers writing eye-witness accounts of what they have seen in these last few days are listed for all to see. The amazing thing, at least to me, is how possible it is to be part—or rather, to feel part—of ongoing events in other places in a way that simply would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Do you want to be one of change_for_iran’s 24,000 readers? You only need to click once or twice…and there you are!

I’ve mentioned Mousavi’s presence on the ‘web in terms of his youtube page and Twitter identity, but he’s also on Facebook (at, on Flickr (at and on the less well-known (at, where the so-far failed candidate suggests some interesting sites he himself has bookmarked and suggests that others go to visit. Clearly, it’s a whole new world out there!

When I read in the paper the other day that the State Department had made a formal request of the managers of Twitter that they forego a planned upgrade to their software that would have disrupted the Iranian people’s ongoing effort to tell their story to the world through the Twitter site, I didn’t quite get it. But now that I’ve taken the time to read about this in more detail and to visit the sites in question, I understand perfectly why this mattered so much to our government. This is something new, something very exciting and interesting. (Even the Obama campaign itself didn’t quite manage to use the internet in this kind of concerted, in-your-face way to bring their message to the American people nor, as far as I know, has anyone else.) If the Persians had had Twitter in the days of Esther and Mordechai, would Haman have gotten as far as he did without anyone (other than his wife Zeresh) noticing that he was bringing ruin not ultimately to the Jews of Persia, but to the Persians—that is to say, the Iranians—themselves? Would Mordechai simply have tweeted Esther to bring her up to speed instead of having to engage in the elaborate scheme reported in the Megillah whereby he finally told her of Haman’s murderous machinations? Who knows about any of that? But what I do know is the world seems different to me than even a few months ago, that the power of mass, instant communication has somehow moved past being an amusing diversion and taken its place among the most powerful of all tools for change in the world: an instrument that permits people to communicate with each other without having to get the permission of others, without having to pass their remarks by a censor, without having to do anything more complicated than type it all out and then push the “send” button.

In my opinion, this is all for the good. A world in which repressive regimes can no longer hide their excesses behind a cloak of invisibility and silence is going to be a better place than one in which the wicked can work efficiently and quickly without having to bear the opprobrium they deserve and ought to have earned. Whether the Iranian people will seize their own destiny remains to be seen, of course. Whether the people will show themselves to be less implacably hostile to Israel than their current president who sounds almost demented with anti-Semitism when he speaks of Israel or Zionism too remains to be seen. But the recent past is only the recent past…and there is the distant past to consider as well. King Cyrus of Persia was personally responsible for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E., and it was he who ended the exile of our ancestors in Babylon and sent them home. Later on, the kings of Sassanian Persia created a stable, cultured homeland for our greatest sages to produce the Talmud, the masterpiece of all rabbinic creativity and jurisprudence. In our own day, the Shah of Iran provided a welcome voice of Muslim friendship in an otherwise wholly hostile Middle East in the early days of Israel’s statehood and was in fact the first Muslim leader to recognize the Jewish state. So we’re not starting from scratch here…and who knows what might not happen if the voices of the Iranian people—the real voices of the real people, not the shrill haranguing of their crazy president—begin to be heard. Perhaps when the din quiets, we’ll hear voices of reason, even of friendly dialogue. You never know!

Obama at Buchenwald

When we first heard about the events in Washington at the Holocaust Museum yesterday, all of us were seized by some version of the same amalgam of horror, disbelief, and sadness. How could it have been otherwise? I was also seized by a witch’s brew of angry thoughts, but when I calmed down I found myself focusing on the tragic death of Stephen T. Johns, the security guard who was killed in the line of duty. He leaves behind a wife and an eleven year old son, neither of whom will find much comfort in knowing that he now becomes a symbol of the price we Jews must pay for not hiding our light under a bushel, for not being reticent or shy about bringing the story of the Shoah to the attention of the world, for choosing not to feel that Jewish life can only thrive underground…and then only if we can somehow collectively will the world not to notice us much.

We are way beyond that point in feeling comfortable in society—and the choice location of the Holocaust Museum in Washington is only one of the more obvious examples of that truth—but the reality is that few of us ever have to pay any price at all for our sense of being accepted as integral members of our own society. Stephen Johns paid that price. It wasn’t his battle, just his job. But he’s gone from this world nonetheless, his senseless death the work of a man apparently so wholly possessed by his own anti-Semitism, by his own racism, and by some idiosyncratic mixture of delusions, personal demons, and conspiracy fantasies that he lost all perspective and brought a rifle to the museum yesterday to make some sort of obscure point and opened fire. I’m glad it’s not going to be my decision how to try or, if convicted, how to punish the accused perpetrator. I suppose they’ll think of something and the story will slowly fade from the scene. But, of course, Stephen Johns will still be gone long after the newspapers have gone on to report on other events and we ourselves, all too pleased to feel secure once again, will have gone on to worry about other things. I suppose you could say that he must have accepted the risks inherent in security work. His gun was a weapon, not an accessory. A museum in the center of our nation’s capital devoted to the Shoah could be expected to draw crazy people almost as a kind of magnet. It’s all too true. But which of us would offer any of those thoughts to a little boy who must now grow up without a father?

That this all unfolded not a week after President Obama’s visit to Buchenwald seems almost uncanny to me. If you didn’t hear it or read it, I suggest you take a few minutes to watch it here: . (It won’t take long. The whole thing is under ten minutes.) He was preceded by German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose words were also very well chosen, even eloquent. Regretfully, I haven’t been able to find a video clip of her remarks that features simultaneous English translation, but you can read what she had to say here: .) And then the president and the chancellor were followed by Elie Wiesel, whose remarks you can listen to here: .

Reading Mrs. Merkel’s comments, and then listening to the president and to Elie Wiesel was an exceptional experience for me. Wiesel spoke about his father’s death, a topic he almost always returns to in his writing and in his speeches one way or the other. But this time, speaking openly and with the greatest candor in the presence of the chancellor of Germany and the president of the United States, and standing while doing so in Buchenwald itself where he was a teenaged prisoner and where his father died, Wiesel spoke in a way that I have never heard him speak before. He didn’t speak for long—the youtube clip is only nine minutes long, roughly as long as the president’s—but he spoke with such depth and such quiet conviction that I found myself truly riveted by his remarks. And when he finished up with the famous line from the end of Camus’ novel, The Plague, in which the author wrote that even after the most horrific tragedy there remains more in the human spirit to celebrate than to denigrate, my emotions were even more powerful. Watch the clip. You’ll find it, I think, as moving—and as arresting—as I did.

But I want to talk in more detail about the president’s remarks. First, he spoke about the experience of being in Buchenwald itself, noting that his own great uncle was part of the 89th Infantry Division that liberated the Ohrdruf, one of Buchenwald’s sub-camps, and remembering how his great-uncle’s experiences in the camps shocked him so deeply that he had no choice upon returning home but to isolate himself from society for as long as it took for him to feel strong enough to live in a world that could have produced Buchenwald. But then the president went on to anticipate Wiesel’s use of Camus’ comment by focusing on the lessons of Buchenwald for the world today, for our world, and that was the part I wanted to write to you especially about. Interestingly, he chose to frame his remarks not by contrasting the bad old days and the progress we’ve made since then, but the other way ‘round: by considering the evils that plague us today and the good that we discern in humanity even then, and then by allowing us to realize from the unexpected juxtaposition of lessons that the ability to do good in the world is unrelated to circumstance, just as is the ability to turn away from God and do evil.

There was nothing inherently evil about the land on which Buchenwald was built, the president implied. There was nothing depraved about the trees that overhung the mass graves, nothing noxious or inherently polluted about the air that the Nazis breathed as they tortured their victims to death. The place itself is not wicked. No place is inherently wicked. Nor is any inanimate thing, including tracts of real estate, inherently good. But the hearts of the men and women who ruled over the prisoners in that place were filled with evil…and ultimately that is the lesson of the Shoah for us all: that we cannot blame evil on circumstance, only on the willingness of individual men and women to embrace depravity and to turn away from goodness. The Nazis were not born bad, nor are tzadikkim born righteous. We are what we do. And we are what we will ourselves to become.

This is what the president said:

We are here today because we know this work is not yet finished. To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened -- a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful. This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts; a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.

Also to this day, there are those who perpetuate every form of intolerance—racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and more—hatred that degrades its victims and diminishes us all. In this century, we've seen genocide. We've seen mass graves and the ashes of villages burned to the ground; children used as soldiers and rape used as a weapon of war. This places teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time, that we must reject the false comfort that others' suffering is not our problem and commit ourselves to resisting those who would subjugate others to serve their own interests.

But as we reflect today on the human capacity for evil and our shared obligation to defy it, we're also reminded of the human capacity for good. For amidst the countless acts of cruelty that took place here, we know that there were many acts of courage and kindness, as well. The Jews who insisted on fasting on Yom Kippur. The camp cook who hid potatoes in the lining of his prison uniform and distributed them to his fellow inmates, risking his own life to help save theirs. The prisoners who organized a special effort to protect the children here, sheltering them from work and giving them extra food. They set up secret classrooms, some of the inmates, and taught history and math and urged the children to think about their future professions. And we were just hearing about the resistance that formed and the irony that the base for the resistance was in the latrine areas because the guards found it so offensive that they wouldn't go there. And so out of the filth, that became a space in which small freedoms could thrive.

I don’t know why I found these words so moving, but I did. I’ve just lately been reading President Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father, which has also made a great impression on me. So perhaps it was the realization that the Shoah has the capacity to teach not only an interesting lesson but the most profound of all lessons, and not only to Jewish people but to all men and women of good will in the world—which is why the rightful place for the Holocaust Museum is precisely where it is located in the center of our nation’s capital—combined with the obvious detail that our president, standing in here for our country as a whole, seems to understand why we feel as strongly as we do about the need for Holocaust education and to accept our feelings as rational and reasonable—from that combination of realizations came the first glimmer of comfort I have found in contemplating the details of the Shoah in a long time. (June 12, 2009)

The Producers in Berlin

I have a sense of humor. I really do. (I heard that! But I know you didn’t mean it.) But I don’t want to write to you today about me or my alleged sense of humor, but rather about the opening of The Producers last week in Berlin.

Like all of you, I’m sure, I saw the original 1968 movie featuring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. In fact, I think I actually saw it in 1968. It was a long time ago. I was fifteen. I got it, but now I think I probably also didn’t get it. But I laughed. We all laughed. I had a good friend in those days whose father had a number tattooed on his arm. The three of us saw the movie together, in fact, but my friend’s father didn’t laugh. That, of course, made no impression on the fifteen-year-old me—he didn’t laugh at much, that guy (later, when I heard his story in more detail, I knew why) and this was just one more thing that failed to amuse him. Besides, I told myself, he probably barely understood it—he only spoke five or six languages fluently and had three university degrees, so why shouldn’t he have found incomprehensible a movie that teenagers like myself understood easily? Later on, after he died (and after I had the great privilege of eulogizing him), I regretted my impudence. But by then, of course, it was too late to apologize. He probably wouldn’t have even remembered the incident. Or maybe he would have….

From there, The Producers went on to bigger things. Opening as a musical on Broadway in 2001 starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the show eventually won a record twelve Tony Awards and ran for over 2,500 performances. The show also won eleven Drama Desk Awards and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical of 2001. There was a U.S. tour. There were international productions in Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne, Tel Aviv, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Copenhagen, Milan, Budapest, Madrid, Prague, Stockholm, Caracas, Moscow, and many other cities around the world. You get the idea. It was a huge hit. The productions were similar, yet also distinct. In Tel Aviv, for example, Hitler was for some reason depicted as morbidly obese (yet also no less effeminate than on Broadway), and local sensitivities were catered to by having the actors spit on the ground when his name was mentioned and mutter the Hebrew words yimach shemo (“May his name be erased”). That showed ‘em!

And now The Producers has come to Germany, opening last week in Berlin at the same Admiralspalast Theater in which the real Hitler once had a private box. The story, which I’m sure all of my readers already know, has to do with two Jewish New Yorkers, one a conniver and the other his willing lemmeleh, who attempt to make a fortune by raising a huge amount of money to open a show on Broadway that closes long before most of the money is spent. In their attempt to find something so indescribably terrible that its chances for success are truly zero, they finally locate the script to a show called Springtime for Hitler, which they actually manage to produce. In the end, the show is mistaken for satire, ends up garnering rave reviews, and ruins both men. Hah! But in between the beginning of the show and the end, we are treated to a long series of jokes about…Hitler, the Nazis, the S.S., the invasion of France, the Second World War itself, and, yes, the Jews. (There are, I should mention, no specific jokes about the Shoah—apparently that would have been too much even for a Mel Brooks—but there might as well have been: we all know what the same storm troopers dancing their way across the stage in their tight-fitting pants were doing during the war when they weren’t taking tap lessons. If you can’t quite conceive of the whole thing, take a look here at this clip from the Berlin production: . When the window opens up, click on “video starten.” You’d better be sitting down while you watch, though.)

And now we are being treated, if that is the right word, to reviewers in Germany and elsewhere commenting on how positive a development it is that we have finally turned the corner, that we can finally laugh at the Nazis and their leaders. Indeed, in a poll conducted by the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper, 56% of respondents indicated that making jokes about the Nazis should be considered perfectly acceptable, while a mere 20% thought such jokes to be in bad taste. (Interestingly, the final 24% indicated that making such jokes was acceptable but that they personally would not go to see such a show. So that makes just under three-quarters of the respondents who were not outraged, who considered the whole concept either fully or at least theoretically non-offensive.)

For those of us for whom the duty to remember the victims of the Shoah is a daily obsession, this is all very confusing. Even as a boy, I remember finding Hogan’s Heroes confusing. (When I later learned that both the actors who played Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz were themselves Jewish and that the family of John Banner, who played Schultz, was actually exterminated during the war, I was even more confused.) But the issue has, at least for me personally, crystallized around The Producers. I didn’t see the musical—I couldn’t bring myself to go, although Joan went with a girlfriend—but I did watch the 2005 movie. And I’ve listened carefully to the CD of the musical. Of course, I laughed—it’s pretty funny stuff—but I also felt ashamed of myself for laughing. In the end, it comes down to the fact that nothing looms larger in my worldview than the Shoah. I don’t think I’m obsessed either, just responding rationally to horror so absolute and terrifying so as to be truly indelible. Like so many of you, I’ve read so many books on the topic—the academic studies, the survivors’ memoirs, the philosophical interpretations—that I can’t even begin to guess how many different authors’ takes on the Shoah I’ve exposed myself to. When I think of German audiences guffawing at a funny Hitler, or applauding at sexy S.S. maidens dancing their way across Europe, I feel more than just queasy. Indeed, I feel as though we truly have turned a corner—away from decency to a level of moral degeneracy that would only decades ago have seemed inconceivable.

Nor am I making this up. This was in this morning’s Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper you can find on-line at : “’Should one be allowed to laugh about Hitler?’ asked the daily Berliner Morgenpost. And the answer, ringing out from every stall on Friday night, was an affirmative yes. Moreover, Hitler received a standing ovation and some audience members even waved parody Nazi flags bearing wurst instead of swastikas.” Yes, I understand that the whole Springtime for Hitler show-within-a-show is supposed to be in such indescribably poor taste that it’s guaranteed to fail. But, speaking honestly, isn’t that plot device just a fig leaf invented specifically to justify the concept of funny Nazis tapping their way across the stage? What do you think? When the audience in Berlin was laughing its sides off, were they laughing at Bialystok and Bloom, the producers in The Producers, or were they laughing at the funny Führer and his dancing Wehrmacht?

If Ethel Katz, the survivor whose recollection of the murder of her father, sister, and twin brothers I wrote about a few weeks ago, had been present in the audience, would they still have laughed out loud at funny Hitler? I know they would have! But, of course, what does it matter that Ethel wasn’t personally present in the Admiralspalast the other night when The Producers opened? She, and countless other survivors, live on in this world as living, breathing reminders of the depth of moral depravity to which the world once sank and could conceivably sink again. And they are not laughing—not at Hitler and not at the S.S., and not at any of the events of the Second World War, both those that specifically concerned the murder of our people and those only related to the Holocaust tangentially.

I’m with them. Mel Brooks is a funny guy. The Producers is a funny show. But the fig leaf is, I think, just what I said it is: a flimsy plot device intended to pull the rug of moral outrage out from under the naysayers in advance. And I can’t countenance telling jokes about the murderers of our people—and of so many countless other people, millions upon millions in their own right—that the jokesters would hesitate to tell to the people being rounded up for deportation to the camps. If those people—our kedoshim who died as martyrs at the hands of fiends so diabolical as for there almost to be no way to describe the depths of their depravity in human language—if those people wouldn’t have laughed, then how can any of us?

Pope Benedict at Yad Vashem

Like most of you, I’m sure, I’ve been watching and reading the news coverage of the Pope’s visit to Israel with mixed feelings, but also with a bit of genuine confusion. Indeed, the reports I’ve looked at have themselves been oddly at odds with other journalists’ reports of those same events.

Look at the incident regarding Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, the chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, for example. The pope was present at the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem when the sheikh, uninvited to the podium, seized the moment anyway to launch into a long, violent diatribe in which he used the most inflammatory and hostile language imaginable to damn the government and people of Israel. What happened next depends on whose newspaper you read: in the Arab press, the Pope is reported as having waited politely for the end of the meeting, then as having shaken the man’s hand. In the Israeli newspapers, however, I read that the Pope stood up, presumably indignantly, and walked out before the scheduled end of the meeting. And then there are sources that embrace both versions, thus making no sense at all by insisting that he shook the man’s hand as he was walking out. (Left undisclosed is how the Pope can be expected to have known what was going on in the first place—the sheikh’s speech was in Arabic, there was no translator, and the man wasn’t scheduled to speak. ) You see what I mean about confusing accounts!

And then there was the whole brouhaha regarding Yad Vashem, which is actually what I want to write about today. I’ve expressed myself in this space on several occasions about the controversy concerning the behavior of the Catholic Church during the years of the Shoah and I’ve recommended to you Daniel Goldhagen’s extraordinary book, A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, published by Vintage Books in 2003, on several occasions. (Second-hand copies are available for less than a dollar through and the other on-line purveyors of used books.) Nor are we done with this issue: the controversy concerning Pope Pius has become only more heated in the last several years as the possibility of his eventual canonization as a saint has been raised. (If you want to sense the passion on both sides of the issue, it would be profitable to read both John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope , published by Penguin-Putnam in 1999, and also, for a diametrically opposing analysis of the same data, Rabbi David Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, published by Regnery Publishing in 2005. That’s the same David Dalin, incidentally, who spoke at Shelter Rock several times over the last few years, mostly recently in 2006.)

So what happened in Jerusalem the other day? Again, it depends who you are reading. Either the Pope, incensed that a display at Yad Vashem refers (I think quite vaguely) to Pope Pius having maintained “a neutral position” regarding the annihilation of European Jewry, agreed only to visit the Hall of Remembrance, but not actually to enter the exhibition space. Or else he was not making any statement, considered a visit to Yad Vashem to be a visit to Yad Vashem, and set to making his remarks in as dignified and personally engaged manner as possible in the space assigned to him. Hovering over the whole affair is the Pope’s own story: he was inducted at age fourteen into the Hitler Youth (as was obligatory for all German boys after December, 1939), then drafted at age sixteen into the Anti-Aircraft Corps, then transferred into the infantry unit from which he deserted in 1945. (An interesting detail that I myself just learned the other day is that the Pope was touched personally by the Nazis’ rage when a teenaged cousin of his, a boy with Down’s syndrome, was one of the more than 70,000 mentally handicapped Germans, including about 5000 children, murdered as part of the Aktion T4 program in effect from 1939 to 1941.) And so, bearing all this baggage (as though being the first German pope since the eleventh century weren’t enough), the Pope spoke at Yad Vashem.

The responses were, to say the least, varied. But I have to say at a lot of what I read seemed petty almost to the point of being meanspirited. Rabbi Lau, for example, the former Ashkenazic chief rabbi and himself a survivor, made a big and public deal over the fact that the Pope referred to “millions” of Jewish victims instead of mentioning specifically that six million Jews fell prey to the Nazis’ effort to rid Europe of its Jews. And then he went on to complain that the Pope referred to the dead as having been “killed,” rather than “murdered.” To me, that sounds like ungracious carping…and so I went to the Yad Vashem site and listened to the speech myself. (The URL for the Yad Vashem site is, but it’s much easier to hear and understand the speech in its version on the YouTube site, where you can find it in its entirety—it’s only about six minutes long—at .) I have to say that I heard nothing but moving rhetoric delivered solemnly and with what certainly sounded to me like great feeling. Despite having heard a thousand similar speeches over the year in different venues, I was transfixed by the thought of this old man’s journey in life from Nazi Bavaria to Jewish Jerusalem, from that moment in 1941 when he was inducted into the Hitler Youth to the moment this week that he stood at Yad Vashem and spoke about the victims of his countrymen’s genocidal fury simply and with what I certainly took for genuine emotion.

Why I was so moved is not that hard to say. The Pope was in the Hall of Remembrance, where an eternal flame burns before a crypt containing the ashes of some of the Nazis’ victims. He stoked the flame slightly, then lay a wreath of flowers before the crypt. And then he addressed the assembled. Playing on the fact that the “shem” part of Yad Vashem is the Hebrew word for “name,” he began his remarks with these words: "I have come", he said, "to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah. They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names: these are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones, their surviving fellow prisoners, and all those determined never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again. Most of all, their names are forever fixed in the memory of Almighty God. One can rob a neighbor of possessions, opportunity or freedom", he added. "One can weave an insidious web of lies to convince others that certain groups are undeserving of respect. Yet, try as one might, one can never take away the name of a fellow human being.”

Then, moving forward with the theme of the obligation to memorialize the victims’ names, the Pope said this: "The names enshrined in this hallowed monument will forever hold a sacred place among the countless descendants of Abraham. Like his, their faith was tested. Like Jacob, they were immersed in the struggle to discern the designs of the Almighty. May the names of these victims never perish! May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten! And may all people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man anything that could lead to tragedies such as this…Gazing upon the faces reflected in the pool that lies in stillness within this memorial, one cannot help but recall how each of them bears a name. ... Who could have imagined that they would be condemned to such a deplorable fate! As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts. It is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood. It is the cry of Abel rising from the earth to the Almighty.”

I’m not sure why I was so moved by the Pope’s remarks, but I was. Rabbi Lau’s comments seemed petty to me, but the remarks of Reuven Rivlin, speaker of the Knesset, struck me as almost incomprehensible. He complained that the Pope didn’t apologize for the Shoah, didn’t request forgiveness for his nation’s sins (or for his church’s), didn’t engage in what he called “honest communion, personal and determined, regarding the Shoah.” Even Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem itself, regretted the “restraint” he heard in the Pope’s remarks. I listened to the same speech and you all should too. (The pontiff’s English is strongly accented, but he speaks clearly and you’ll find it very easy to understand him.) What I heard was a man speaking directly from the heart about events that, almost by definition, defy translation into human language. When the man referred, as quoted above, to the cry of the victims reverberating in our hearts as a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence, but also as a perpetual reproach against the victimization of the innocent, I personally thought he got it perfectly right. I don’t see any percentage in holding a man who was all of sixteen years old when the war ended personally responsible for the Shoah, much less for the actions or inertia of the wartime pope, nor do I expect such a person to apologize for the sins of others. (I’m not even sure it is possible to apologize for others’ sins.) Nor do I personally think there is anything insulting about speaking with restraint about indescribable, almost inexpressible, matters. What I heard in the Pope’s comments was a dignified response to a tragedy not of the man’s own making and a personal pledge to serve the memory of the martyrs by memorializing their names in perpetuity. Why anyone would take issue with comments of that ilk, I really can’t imagine. (May 15, 2009)