You told Holocaust jokes at the table on Friday night. Ima and I grimaced and tried to segue into a discussion of the boots you are refusing to buy and your insistence on trudging through the Polish snow in running shoes. We acknowledged that telling jokes with your classmates would be a legitimate way of letting off pressure during your trip, although we didn’t think the ones you told us were particularly funny.
It was then that I knew how I was going to write this letter, a letter that your teacher asked us to deposit with him in a sealed envelope for you to read, in Hebrew, when you arrive in Poland. That’ll be at about the same time that The Jerusalem Report’s readers receive it in their mailboxes in English (and thanks for giving me advance permission to share it with them).
I reminded you that when your older sister and brother wanted to sign up for their class trips to Poland’s Nazi death camps, in what has become a routine part of the Holocaust curriculum for Israeli high school seniors, I objected. “Why?” you asked.
I explained that I don’t want my children to be Jews who are Jews because they are victims. I don’t want my children to be Israelis because the world hates them. Our history, tradition, and culture are rich and powerful and provide adequate reason to want to be a Jew and an Israeli even if Hitler had never been born and the swastika never had reigned.
When your sister said she was going to Poland anyway, I was reminded of a comedy skit I once saw at a club in New York. A man and a woman sat side by side on a small stage with big smiles on their faces. “Hi, we’re Jews,” the woman said. “And we’re dead.”
The man continued: “We’re here to tell you that 90 percent of dead people are Jews. So if you’re not nice to us when you’re alive…”
“…We’ll get you when you’re dead,” the woman concluded with a wicked giggle.
Not funny, you say? Well, it got a lot of knowing laughs from the mostly Jewish audience. Because a certain element in the education that nearly all young Jews get, no matter what their religious background and politics, is that being dead, at the hands of others, is the natural state of the Jewish people. Being alive is the exception. If you’re a Jew and you’re alive it’s because you are unusually lucky, or because the goyim around you are unusually indulgent, or because you’ve fought off your enemies. The bottom line is that everyone hates us.
So five years ago, when your sister came home with the forms to sign up for her school trip to the concentration camps, I worried that the message she’d get there would be “I’m a Jew because everyone hates me. I’m a Jew because most Jews are dead.”
What an awful reason to be a Jew.
Why not “I’m a Jew because the Jewish people produced the Bible, whose stories and poetry have become the common heritage of mankind?” Why not “I’m a Jew because of my people’s ethos of learning, argument, and dialogue, because of the Talmud, midrashim, and thinkers ranging from Maimonides to Spinoza to Soleveitchik?” Why not “I’m a Jew because my people preserved its language and culture through centuries of dispersion and reestablished and recreated them in the modern state of Israel?”
When she returned from her trip, I saw that my worst fears had not been realized. She came back with a more mature and sober view of Jewish history.
Still, her trip focused primarily only one of the two lessons that we, as Jews, must learn from the Holocaust. It’s an important lesson: that we, as Jews, must defend ourselves. That our people’s history shows us clearly that we cannot be secure without a state and army of our own.
But, face it, we didn’t need the Holocaust to tell us that, and you don’t need to go to Poland to learn it. Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion all came to that conclusion long before Hitler enlisted in the Kaiser’s army in World War I. Just yesterday, in a book I’m translating, I encountered this eye-witness description of a pogrom in Lvov: “The Jewish city is in flames and living people, or burnt bodies, are buried under the demolished houses.… More than a thousand victims were murdered brutally, women raped, men—bayonet wounds and bullet holes on their bodies, piles of burnt bodies, people were trapped in blazing houses and doomed to die in the flames.” That was in 1918, twenty years before the gas chamber was invented.
Growing up in Israel, as you have, in the age of suicide bombings, Qassam missiles, and virulent bellicose anti-Semitic rhetoric from Islamic extremists in Lebanon and Iran, you hardly need to go to Poland to learn that there are still people who want to murder Jews simply because they are Jews, and to learn that if we don’t defend ourselves, no one else will. In fact, that’s what you said at the Shabbat table on Friday night, in your own way—one that a Jewish boy couldn’t have dreamed of saying until just a few decades ago: “I’m a Jew,” you said proudly, “because we’re the strongest nation in the world and we don’t let anyone push us around.”
If that’s all there was to being a Jew, then we could save the cost of the trip to Poland. You could finish high school at the end of the year and follow your brother’s and your father’s footsteps into the army. After doing your part to defend your people, you’d have fulfilled your obligations as a Jew.
But there’s another big, important lesson that you’ve got to learn from the Holocaust.
You see, being a Jew doesn’t just mean fighting to defend Jewish lives. It doesn’t mean just keeping yourself alive. To be a Jew, you have to do something with Jewish your life, and that means understanding your life in the light of your people’s history and texts and stories. It means understanding yourself as a Jew, and as a human being.
At 17, you are into fighting more than into reading. Despite my nagging, you don’t read much beyond the sports pages—certainly not poetry. But there’s a poem I’d like you to think about when you are in Poland—one you’ve probably encountered in literature class or in the seminars that prepared you for your trip. It’s by Dan Pagis, who spent much of his boyhood in a concentration camp. After the war he came to Israel and became a famous Hebrew poet. It’s called “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Boxcar”:
Here in this transport
Am I Eve
With Abel my boy
If you see my elder son
Cain the human being
Tell him that I
Pagis packs reams of meaning into these six lines and 25 words, and we could talk about them for hours. But I want to point out just a couple things about the poem.
The first centers on line five. The original Hebrew is “Kayin ben-Adam,” which means both “Cain the human being” and “Cain the son of Adam.” Cain, we know from the biblical story (which we read in synagogue this past Shabbat), is the murderer, so Pagis seems to want us to identify Cain as the Nazi who has shoved his mother and brother into the transport and sent them off to the gas chambers. This Cain is a human being. Not a monster, not a supernatural angel of death or evil spirit, but a human being, the son and brother of his victims.
The second is that, in Hebrew, as you, though not my English readers, can hear, line three rhymes with line six—something I represent in my translation with an imperfect half-rhyme. From the literal meaning of the words, and the picture that the poem’s title creates in our mind, we see these lines as a scrawl on the boxcar’s inside wall, an message that Eve leaves unfinished because her strength fails, or because she dies.
But the rhyme, like the final chord of a song, provides closure—it makes it sound as if Eve’s message is not “I” followed by more words that we will never know, but simply “I.” If we read it this second way, the message that Eve wants the reader of her words to convey to her son and murderer Cain is “I.” That is, what you have sent to death is an “I,” a human being, just like yourself.
Here, in this handful of words, is the other message you need to come home with. The near-annihilation of the Jews was not accomplished by supernatural beings or by monsters in human guise. It was perpetrated by human beings—evil human beings raised on a tradition of anti-Semitism and militarism, but human beings nonetheless. Human beings like ourselves.
What Pagis is telling us in this poem is that every human being contains within him both the capacity to be a victim and the capacity to be a murderer. The fact that we have long been victims does not mean that we are immune to evil. On the contrary, now that we are, in your words, “the strongest nation in the world and we don’t let anyone push us around,” we need to take special care that we don’t let our power go to our heads. We need to remember that the non-Jews who live among us, and our enemies, too, are human beings.
Unfortunately, many Jews have become so enamored of physical strength and so sure of their nation’s destiny that they have turned off onto the dangerous road traveled by the self-righteous Slavic rioters of Lvov and their ilk, who were certain that in killing Jews they were doing God’s will and the will of history.
Niot, as you tread the steps of the slaughtered Jews of Europe and take in the enormity of the crime committed against our people, keep in mind that we are not Jews simply because most dead people are Jews. And we are not Jews simply because we can and will fight to make sure that we will never again allow ourselves to be victims of such a crime. To be Jews we must be alive. We are Jews because we are alive and because we have a religion, a culture, a language, and a history that affirms and gives life. A Jew should not settle for being merely a victim, nor merely a defender. Being Jewish means being a person who creates, not one who destroys or is destroyed. This is no joke: we’re Jews despite, not because, of the Holocaust.