Mir Zaynen Do – We are Here

This is a speech I gave at a Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) at a ceremony sponsored by Hospice of Broward County an amazing caring organization. It was delivered on Tuesday April 9 at the Court of Palm Aire in Pompano Beach, Florida. It was an interfaith gathering and I decided to name this after the Yiddish partisan’s song that was sung at the program by a non-Jew, in Yiddish. Perhaps the lessons of the Holocaust have penetrated more hearts than we know.

Mir Zaynen Do – We Are Here

Good afternoon.   Thank you for that warm introduction.  It is an honor to be here today and to be a part of this important commemoration.

Let me begin with a story.  It is told by Yaffa Eliach in her book, “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust”

Near the city of Danzig lived a well-to-do Hasidic Rabbi, scion of prominent Hasidic dynasties. Dressed in a tailored black suit, wearing a top hat, and carrying a silver walking cane, the rabbi would take his daily morning stroll, accompanied by his tall, handsome son-in-law.

During his morning walk it was the rabbi’s custom to greet every man, woman, and child whom he met on his way with a warm smile and a cordial “Good morning.” Over the years the rabbi became acquainted with many of his fellow townspeople this way and would always greet them by their proper title and name.

Near the outskirts of town, in the fields, he would exchange greetings with Herr Mueller, an ethnic German. “Good morning, Herr Mueller!” the rabbi would hasten to greet the man who worked in the fields. “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” would come the response with a good-natured smile.

Then the war began. The rabbi’s strolls stopped abruptly. Herr Mueller donned an S.S. uniform and disappeared from the fields.(*) The fate of the rabbi was like that of much of the rest of Polish Jewry. He lost his family in the death camp of Treblinka, and, after great suffering, was deported to Auschwitz.

One day, during a selection at Auschwitz, the rabbi stood on line with hundreds of other Jews awaiting the moment when their fates would be decided, for life or death. Dressed in a striped camp uniform, head and beard shaven and eyes feverish from starvation and disease, the rabbi looked like a walking skeleton.

“Right! Left, left, left!” The voice in the distance drew nearer. Suddenly the rabbi had a great urge to see the face of the man with the snow-white gloves, small baton, and steely voice who played God and decide who should live and who should die. His lifted his eyes and heard his own voice speaking:

“Good morning, Herr Mueller!”

“Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” responded a human voice beneath the S.S. cap adorned with skull and bones. “What are you doing here?” A faint smile appeared on the rabbi’s lips. The baton moved to the right – to life. The following day, the rabbi was transferred to a safer camp.

The rabbi, now in his eighties, told me in his gentle voice, “This is the power of a good-morning greeting. A man must always greet his fellow man.”

There is a lot in this story that we need to remember when we think about the Holocaust and the way it has changed our world forever.

Until World War II, It was common for Americans to believe that people were basically good inside and that the evil that men do, was often the result of outside influences. The Nazi’s  buried this idea forever. One could not review the history of Nazi Germany and believe that Humans were basically good. In fact, it did not require much to transform a normal person in the street into a cold blooded killer. Since 1945 there have been all kinds of scientific research on how it is possible to reverse a lifetime of moral training and the results have shown that it is relatively easy. Our need to fit in, to be one of the gang, to not make waves, apparently trumps our religious and moral training.

Nazi Germany was not a backwater country in 1935. It was not Cambodia, The Central African Republic, or Rowanda; places where other genocides have occurred. Germany was a modern democratic state. German Jews had fought and died in World War I defending the German homeland. The victims of the Nazi’s paid taxes and were law abiding citizens. None of this saved them from the hands of their oppressors, people who were once their neighbors suddenly were filled with bigotry and hate.

Finally, the European countries outside of Germany who supported the Nazi effort to kill all the Jews, Homosexuals, Gypsies and Communists, those countries had enormous numbers of Jews and others killed. In Poland, Austria and Hungary, where there was local support for genocide, vast numbers were murdered. Genocide came late to Hungary but a half million were killed in this short time because the Hungarian gentiles helped round up their Jewish neighbors. In Denmark, where the population rallied to protect their Jewish citizens, only a handful of Jews died.

It is not a pretty picture. The technology of the middle twentieth century was turned on the Jews and with German efficiency, six million Jews and 4 million others were murdered in five short years. And if you might think that the United States was not complicit, I must remind everyone here of the voyage of the St. Louis, the infamous “Voyage of the Damned”  filled with Jews who were refused refuge in this and many other countries, and showed Hitler that nobody would care if he were to kill Jews. 1935 was not a good time to be a Jew.

It is an old story, divide and conquer. Get everyone to be concerned only with themselves and you can pick them off one at a time. As the Protestant minister Martin Niemöller wrote in his famous poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

This was Europe during World War II.  This is Historical fact. We can like it or we can blush with embarrassment but it was real, all of it: the murder, the brutality, the inhumane medical experiments, the starvation, the forced labor, the random killings, the extermination of entire villages, all of it is true and it remains a shameful stain on all of Humanity, that we had to discover in this brutal way, how depraved our species can be.

But the inhumanity of Nazi Germany is not the whole story.

This year we observe the 70th anniversary of the Jewish Rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jews who were imprisoned in this slum at this time of year, found a way to stockpile guns and grenades and for almost a month they held the Nazi war machine at bay. Only by systematically bombing each and every building in the ghetto could the Nazi’s end the rebellion.  And this was only the largest of the rebellions. In Auschwitz they managed to destroy two of the five crematoriums. Jews escaped from their captivity and fought as partisans in the forests and in the cities. One can only push another human being so far and then we begin to push back. We rebel against our oppressors and fight for what we know is right.  Evil can triumph for a while, but eventually the moral and the good will arise and fight back. This too is an important lesson from the Holocaust. Psychologist Viktor Frankl, who himself was a prisoner of the Nazi’s, discovered that you can take everything away from a human being but you can’t take his self respect and you can’t take the meaning out of his life.  These are enduring human traits.

Another part of the story is found in a statistic. The country that lost the most Jews was Poland. There were more Jews there than almost anywhere else and the Poles helped the Nazis round up and kill all the undesirables. And yet, at Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, there is a grove of trees planted in memory of all the non-Jews who helped save and protect Jews. One tree was planted for every righteous gentile. It is a small forest on the slope of the hill. Which country has the most righteous gentiles? Poland. A Catholic country, the immorality of the treatment of the Jews was not lost on these pious people They gave food and shelter and protection for those who were persecuted, often at the threat of personal harm and harm to their families.

A Rabbi who survived the war was once asked why the other clergy did not rise to defend the Jews. The Rabbi looked puzzled and said, “ we had no relationship with other clergy. They lived in their world and we lived in ours. We never spoke or shared anything.”

What a stunning indictment of society. It is not hard to kill others if you have no connection to them. Once you know their name, once you have lunch or dinner with them, one you learn together and share ideas, it is much harder to ignore and to hate. Bigotry needs darkness to grow. Shine a light on each other and prejudice can’t survive. This is a complete endorsement of interfaith activities. When religions understand each other, there is no room for discrimination.  Even something as simple as a cheerful “good morning” each day, makes it harder to harbor hate.

The lesson of Herr Muller and the Rabbi is that any moment of connection with another human being pushes the forces of darkness back to the hole that is there home. If we want insure that genocide will end, then we need to make friends with our neighbors of every background. It is not about random acts of kindness, it is about being constantly kind to every human being. With love and understanding comes life, for ourselves and for everyone else. Perhaps if we can build the bridges between those who are different we can create a new poem;

When they came for Michael, Michael was my neighbor who helped took care of  my plants when I was on vacation so I helped him escape.

Then they came for Miriam who worked beside me when we would feed the hungry so I warned her and she got away.

Then they came for John, but John and I used to sit in the park and discuss history and while I never agreed with him, I made sure that they couldn’t find him.

And when they came for me, I stood up to fight and suddenly, Michael, Miriam and John were by my side and together we stood against the evil.  Soon others joined us and the evil was destroyed. So once again life was good.

This doesn’t have to be a dream of the future; we can make this happen now, just by extending our hands to each other, and walking together in peace.

If we can thus bring peace to our hearts, we can also bring peace to the world.

That is my prayer, my hope and my dream, as we remember the victims and the heroes on this Holocaust Remembrance Day.