Sunday, June 28, 2009

Holocaust Memorial Day 2009 (2)

Some of you may have noticed in the paper this last Tuesday that scientists working in the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland have announced their discovery of the smallest planet ever noticed to be orbiting a star. Even so, this newly located planet, which has been given the rather prosaic name of Gliese 581e, is still almost twice the size of earth. And the star itself, a dim red star called Gliese 581 in the constellation Libra and located about twenty light-years from earth, is not really that much like our sun either. But the discovery is still an exciting development in the search for a planet anywhere at all on which life as we know it might somehow be possible.

For Jews, of course, the excitement over this really very interesting discovery will be dampened somewhat by the sense that we already live on a different planet from the rest of the world. That thought has come to be in different formulations and in different contexts, but it was coming through loud and clear to me as I sat in the sanctuary Monday evening and listened to Ethel Katz speak about her experiences during the war. For those of you who couldn’t be there, her story was gruesome even by the grisly standards of Shoah reminiscences. Ethel was born in Poland, but her family moved to the town of Buczacz (pronounced BU-katch) in the Ukraine when she was a girl. In its day, Buczacz was a famous town that produced many famous sons: the great author Shmuel Yosef Agnon was from Buczacz, as were Simon Wiesenthal, the eventual diarist of the Warsaw ghetto Emanuel Ringenblum, the actor Lee Strasberg, the famous Orientalist David Heinrich Mueller, and the great Talmud scholar Abraham David Wahrman who served as the town’s rabbi from 1813 to 1840. When the Germans invaded the Ukraine in July of 1941, there were about 10,000 Jews living in Buczacz, Ethel, her father, her sister, and her three brothers among them. In July of 1944, when the Red Army finally liberated the town decisively (they had seized it briefly earlier, but then it fell back into German hands), there were about 100 survivors. Today, there are no Jews in Buczacz.

The story Ethel told was horrific, one involving the cold-blooded murder of thousands. And even for those of us who have heard these stories since we were children, Ethel’s story was hard to listen to. A thousand deported to their deaths in the Belzec death camp. Fifteen hundred gathered at random and sent to Belzec. Twenty-five hundred Jews picked up at work or on the street and shipped to their deaths in Belzec or elsewhere. Execution pits just outside town into which thousands were mercilessly shot: two thousand on February 1 and 2, 1943, then another three thousand in the following couple of months. And then there was Ethel’s own story and her family’s, culminating with the murder of her father and twin brothers just a few months before liberation. (They were found in hiding and simply shot on the spot.)

As I listened to Ethel speak and tried to digest some reasonable part of the horror she was trying to convey by telling her story simply and in an unadorned and decidedly non-histrionic manner, I was struck not only by the deep sadness all of us bring to our thinking about the Shoah and about the fate of so many, including the uncountable number of the Nazis’ victims who left no one at all behind to tell their stories or even to remember their names or their children’s names. I was also struck by the thought mentioned above: that we truly do live on a different planet from the rest of our fellow human beings, that the way we view the world is categorically different from the way everybody else does or must see things.

This is, after all, a world in which the murder of a single individual is considered front page news. I was struck by the story in yesterday’s paper about the man in Colorado who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for brutally killing a woman he had been dating when he learned that she had been born a male. Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. A story in the New York Times complete with photographs of the monster and his victim. Quotations from all sorts of people related to them both. A big deal, as well it should be, and, on top of all that, the added opprobrium of the “hate crime” label which adds several theoretical years to the already maximal sentence. I wasn’t outraged by the verdict. Just the opposite, I was satisfied to hear that justice had been done, that a horrific crime had been solved and its perpetrator punished.

But how exactly do we square that story with the murder of Ethel Katz’s brothers, two little boys, identical twins, adorable (she showed a photograph) and wholly innocent. They were dragged from their hiding place and shot to death in a field. There were no indictments, no trial, no possibility of appeal. Their photographs were featured neither in an article in the Times nor in any newspaper in the world (including, needless to say, in Buczacz). Their murderers too were never indicted, never brought to trial, surely never convicted. Whether they are alive or not, who knows? But whether they lived long enough to regret their crime or even to appreciate its enormity, the bottom line is that we truly do seem to occupy different space than the rest of the world. In their world, the murder of a single child is front page news. In ours, the murder of all but one hundred Jews in a town formerly home to 10,000 Jewish people is barely noticed. Who ever heard of Buczacz? Who can even spell it properly? No wonder we feel differently about things! Our neighbors’ idea of a nightmare is—and reasonably—the murder of a child, any child. Our idea of a nightmare has to do with listening to an elderly woman describe thousands, children included, being forced into pits and machine-gunned to death. Could this be why we and the rest of the world so rarely see eye-to-eye about Israel’s right to defend its citizens against outside aggression? Or about the basic benignity of the world and its peoples?

And then, almost on cue, another news flash from Switzerland. Not only is there another planet like our own out there, but Geneva itself has apparently relocated to Gliese 581e. I refer, of course, to the so-called Durban II Conference which the United Nations allowed yet again to be hijacked by forces so implacably hostile to Israel that when the president of Iran, Haman’s worthy successor, stood up to frame his vitriolic attack on Israel with insults to the martyrs of the Shoah, he was actually applauded. It is true that delegates from twenty-three European nations and one Caribbean one stood up and walked out. (They were not joined, incidentally, by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.) And it is also true that the conference itself was boycotted in advance by Germany, Australia, Canada, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, as well as by our own country. All that is re-assuring…but only to a point. And the fact that the president of a country on the verge of becoming a nuclear power could stand up on Yom Hashoah in a public forum sponsored by the United Nations to build a case against Israel on the backs of the martyrs of the Shoah is simply too much to explain away as merely an example of poor taste or differing opinions.

The only rational explanation I can come up with is that we really do live on a different planets, President Ahmadinejad and I. On my planet, Ethel Katz’s story only makes it more clear and more obvious that the security of Jews everywhere, Israel certainly included, can never be left to chance, that we simply cannot be too vigilant in looking after our own welfare and the welfare of our children. On Haman’s planet, apparently, the opposite is true and stories like Ethel Katz’s only make it more, not less, important to thwart Jewish efforts, and particularly Israeli efforts, to live securely not by wishing for it or by praying for it, but by fighting actively and aggressively for it. I suppose there must be other ways to explain feelings this dichotomy, but the two planet theory seems by far the simplest to me and the most likely.

We had a good turn out at Shelter Rock for Yom Hashoah, but I wish more of us had been there to hear Ethel speak, especially including more young people. Still, she spent the hour before her presentation in our Hebrew School where many of our children did hear her speak. I can’t imagine they will ever forget what they heard. I don’t think I ever will. For those of you who would like to read more, she has written a book about her experiences during the war called Our Tomorrows Never Came. The book, published by Fordham University Press in 2000, is available on-line at,,, and, I’m sure, many other sites. (If you search for it, remember that the cover bears the Polish version of the author’s name, Etunia Bauer Katz. But you can find it by searching just as easily for the title.) It won’t be pleasant reading, that I can promise you. But there is something intensely satisfying in playing even the smallest role in preserving these memories and making sure that they are carried forward into the next generation. I don’t know if I would give her book to very young children, but teenagers certainly can and should read it. It will upset them, of course. But, in the end, I believe that only good can come from knowing what planet you live on. And what it means for Jewish people to be in and of the world, and also slightly apart from it. (April 24, 2009)

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