Rabbi's Message, Rabbi Alvin Kass, October 2014
Rabbi Alvin Kass
Chief Chaplain of the NYPD
Twice a year the survivors of Radom, a town in Poland, gather together to remember the Jewish citizens of that community who perished at the hands of the Nazis. It has been my privilege many times over the years to have conducted religious services at these memorial meetings when a collective candle is lit and kaddish is recited in honor of families and friends who lost their lives simply because they were Jewish.
The implicit and explicit message of these convocations is: Don't ever forget! But how could we? Certainly those who lived through those tragic and traumatic events could never forget. But even if the second or third generation of survivors might be inclined to forget, the world will not allow them to put out of their minds for even an instant the fact that multitudinous enemies of the Jewish people are constantly looking for ways and means to complete Hitler's unfinished work.
If we cannot forget even if we wanted to, what benefit is served by these memorial meetings? What point is there to dredging up old and bitter memories? After all, healthy people cannot live forever in the shadow of crematoria. We cannot poison every sunny hour with recollections of incalculable cruelty and horror.
The miraculous result of such Yizkor assemblages is that they uplift rather than cast down the heart and soul of those in attendance. Such gatherings elevate and exalt the human spirit so that one can understand how Anne Frank could have confronted the worst abominations of the Nazis and still have concluded: "I still believe that people are really good at heart." Perhaps it is this paradoxically upbeat effect that accounts for the increasing public interest in the Holocaust as manifested through novels, films, television programs, news articles and the proliferation of college courses in this subject all over the country.
Many a Jew has experienced a renewal of pride in his heritage and roots as a result of studying the Holocaust. As he closed the gap between himself and his Jewish relatives, he realized why it was so wrong for the arrogant son, described at the Seder to ask: "What did the Almighty do for you?" instead of asking "What did the Almighty do for me?" To understand the Jewish people, you have to be an active part of it.
Awareness of the Holocaust brings as well a new appreciation of the problems of Israel. It sharpens our moral discernment; releases ethical energies; and sensitizes us to the implications of prejudice and injustice. I can't think of a better way to acquire a sense of perspective about what is important and unimportant in life than to participate in a Holocaust memorial meeting. If little things irritate you, just compare your own suffering with the massive pain of the concentration camp. How can you be selfindulgent when you ponder the agony and anguish of the inmates?
To think about the Holocaust is to intuit the truth that sensitivity and responsiveness to human need constitute the supreme value. It is to grasp the significance of such supposed "little things" as meeting someone on the street, having a nice time talking, and extending yourself in that person's behalf.
The facts of the Holocaust cast a shaft of illumination on the basis of human existence. What it comes down to is recognizing the principal risk that faces us: Will knowledge of past horrors make us rejoice that we are alive and aware of our good fortune, or will the immense cruelty and destruction of the camps undermine our faith in mankind?"
No one can depart from a memorial meeting of the Radom survivors without feeling that our own good luck and the simple facts of time and place represent a virtual miracle. The life we may have once taken for granted is now recognized as priceless. You may be as poor as the proverbial "church mouse"; but if you can run outside and yell at the top of your lungs: "I'm alive," then you are the most blessed person in the world. In this strange way, the full knowledge of how terrible life can become can somehow make living feel a whole lot better.