Reflecting on Yom HaShoah
Delivered on April 21, 2023
Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. The number is so well known that "the phrase 'the six million' is a rhetorical stand-in for 'the Holocaust,'" writes historian Peter Novick.1 The number is a horrid fact that we, living only one or two generations past, grapple to fully appreciate. With the commemoration of Yom HaShoah this past Tuesday, it is a number to which we draw our attention as we remember the souls persecuted and killed by the Nazis.
Early in researching the Holocaust, historians successfully used Nazi records to verify that, in fact, six million was an accurate count of those who perished. Our claim to the enormity of loss during the Jewish Holocaust was appallingly correct. Over the last many decades, as Jewish survivors told their stories, as researchers uncovered other narratives about the genocide, and as we collected materials in Holocaust memorials and museums, we--who came after--better understood that the Nazis persecuted others while they attempted to systematically destroy European Jewry. Gays were marked with a pink triangle and deported to concentration camps. It is estimated that 15,000 gay men died in the camps. Blacks, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political dissidents were all identified and persecuted alongside the six million Jews. The Romani, sometimes called Gypsies, were also targeted and murdered in those same years, at all the same camps--you know the names of those places. Maybe you have visited them.
As the Jewish community became more aware of the suffering and death that other communities endured, each time we memorialized our own communal loss, we began to publicly recognize the harm that these other peoples dealt with alongside our own. How many people died in the Holocaust? At these memorials, where we would recite Jewish names, we would note the 11 million who died: six million Jews and five million others. Accuracy matters because each of those numbers represents a human life. Pausing for a moment on that number, 11 million, it seems a strange coincidence that we lost six million and all others combined totaled five million. Where did that number come from?
Interestingly, it is historically inaccurate to claim that five million others died during the Shoah. That number came from Simon Wiesenthal. "He simply invited it."2 Wiesenthal wanted to recognize the totality of the Nazi’s crimes, to remind the Jewish public that the extent of loss went beyond our community alone. Not meant to misrepresent, Wiesenthal chose the number five million as a reminder that the Nazis' crimes in their totality--done to the Jews and to others--was on a scale wholly unimaginable. "Since 1948," he once said, "I have sought with Jewish leaders not to talk about six million Jewish dead, but rather about eleven million civilians dead, including six million Jews... We reduced the problem to one between Nazis and Jews. Because of this we lost many friends who suffered with us, whose families share common graves."3
Several generations later, we still wrestle with how we remember and memorialize the Holocaust. Among Jews, the Shoah remains one of, if not the most, significant historical periods in recent memory. And within that memory, we sit with a tension that is with us whenever we consider the Jewish community’s role in broader communities. The tension is between Jewish particularism (How special are we?) and our desire to live among others, Jewish universalism (Our lives are with others). Did the Holocaust happen to the Jews or to many people, among whom Jews were the first, and the most aggressively and precisely targeted? Knowing that others were killed during the Shoah should make us pause and consider how we tell our story.
Consider the Romani Genocide. While the Nazis and their collaborators were committing genocide on Europe’s Jews, they did the same to Europe’s Roma and Sinti people. The Roma and Sinti are who are historically referred to as “Gypsies.” They, too, spent the years of the Holocaust in ghettos like Lodz and concentration camps like Dachau and Auschwitz. They, too, died in the gas chambers there.
There is a new book called Rain of Ash, by historian Ari Joskowicz. In this book, he looks at how the Jewish community and the international community have told the story of these other peoples who suffered during the Holocaust. Interestingly, there has always been a difference between Jew hatred and the hatred of the Romani. We were hated because we were supposedly rich and powerful, secretly puppeting world powers to influence the economy and politics. Jewish power did not compute in the antisemite’s mind since we were also labeled at that time a lesser race. The Romani were also seen as a more inferior race among Europe’s peoples. Still, they never had economic or political standing as the Jews of Europe did. The Romani living in Germany were often impoverished. The Nazis rounded up many of them living in Berlin in 1936, on the eve of the Olympic Games, to better present Berlin’s streets.
It is estimated that half a million Romani and Sinti people died during their genocide. And yet, as we grapple with understanding what our people endured and survived, the death of others has not been as much a part of our consciousness. Perhaps that is because we still do not fully understand the consequences of the Holocaust on world Jewry. We are still in process on that. And yet, we are aware of the Romani genocide. Yad VaShem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have held exhibits on the others who died alongside Jews.
What must it be like to visit one of those museums as a Romani? To have the story of your people’s persecution and survival always shared in the shadow of Jewish loss must be a strange experience. We, Jews, need to understand the Jewish Holocaust, but are we so the Chosen People that our persecution was special above and beyond the loss of other human lives?
This year, having read this new relational history between the Jews and the Romani, I am brought back to essential questions that each of us answers whether we realize it or not. What is the role of being a Jew in the world today? Do you define your life as distinctly Jewish, limited to the boundaries of the Jewish community? Or, are you a Jew in the world, in relationship with the others around you?
I recall the end of the film Schindler’s List. As Oskar Schindler leaves his plant for the last time, as the war comes to a close, he says goodbye to all those Jewish laborers who were in his care. Some of the craftsmen collected some gold and made a ring for him, inscribing a Jewish dictum inside the ring: “To save a life is to save an entire world.”
This phrase comes from the Mishnah, some of the earliest textual traditions we received from the ancient Rabbis.4 Let me share the story of the phrase’s original context: You find the idea of saving lives in Mishnah Sanhedrin, the volume that deals with how courts do their work. There, we read instructions about how judges are to engage with one another, with witnesses, and with parties in disputes. We read about court procedures. And we read about standards for witnesses who come forward when subpoenaed. There, we first hear this idea, “To save a life is to save a world.”
The Rabbis ask how one should instruct a witness to ensure they answer honestly in capital cases. Given the seriousness of the charge and potential penalty, the truthfulness of the witnesses is essential. The life of the accused rests in the witness’s hands. It is more than that, too. It is not only the life of the accused but the life that would flow from that life, for which the witness is responsible. “The blood of the accused and the blood of his offspring are ascribed to the witness’s testimony forever,” we read in this Mishnah. And then, the teaching: that just as Adam was created alone, to teach about the singular importance of every life, “Anyone who destroys a single Jewish life, it is as if they have destroyed an entire world. Moreover, anyone who preserves a single Jewish life, it is as if they have preserved an entire world.”
Open up a book labeled Mishnah Sanhedrin, turn to the fourth chapter and look at the fifth paragraph, and there you will find what I just shared. The key word is Mi-Yisrael, one who destroys or preserves a single Jewish life. This teaching preferences Jewish life. One has to give true testimony in a capital case because otherwise the accused's life, presumed to be Jewish, matters. If the accused were not Jewish, would the Rabbis have cared about that person's life equally?
Here is where the detective work of Jewish study gets exciting. The Mishnah was first communicated as oral traditions, only canonized and written down later. We have different editions of the Mishnah in Jewish libraries and archives. And every once in a while, you find a small, but meaningful difference.
I was recently studying this text with Rabbi Rachel Adler, a teacher of mine. And she pulled out a different edition of the Mishnah from what I had. She said, “Look at this.” And reading from the same paragraph in another edition, she read the following: "For anyone who preserves a single life from among humanity (Mi-B’nai Adam), it is as if they have saved an entire world.
Preserved in the Blackman edition of the Mishnah, we find an alternative reading of the same teaching. And this alternative is significant. As our traditions were passed from teacher to student, some preferred Jewish life, and others taught that each human soul was unique. Whether we are looking at the lessons learned from the Holocaust, or trying to understand the role of a witness in Jewish legal proceedings, we encounter this tension about who we, as Jewish people, are in the world in relation to other peoples. And we have to answer for ourselves: do we focus Jewish care on our own? Or do we attend to the needs of others who are not like us, but whose lives are bound up with ours?
This is a question that the organization HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has answered over the decades. The organization’s original mission, back to its founding in 1902, was to help with the immigration of Jews fleeing pogroms and persecution. During and after the Holocaust, their focus shifted to Jewish refugees coming to the United States. In the 1980s, they were instrumental in the resettlement of Soviet Jewry. Today, they describe themselves differently. “HIAS stands for a world in which refugees find welcome, safety, and opportunity,” they say, “Drawing on our Jewish values and history, HIAS provides vital services to refugees and asylum seekers around the world and advocates for their fundamental rights so they can rebuild their lives.”5
HIAS is a Jewish organization that preserved thousands of Jewish souls, saving thousands of Jewish worlds because of that. And now, even with hate and antisemitic sentiment on the rise, HIAS uses its history and our privilege today to animate the care they give to others in need of its expertise and service.
That is part of the answer to the essential questions that the memory of the Holocaust raises, and part of the answer that comes from the Mishnah that teaches about the importance of preserving all life. We know how precarious and unsafe it can be to be Jewish. We know that life is precious. We know that too many Jewish lives were lost because they were Jews. And that is true of Romani lives, gay lives, and black lives--then and now.
It is not enough to exclusively place our attention and care on our own, especially when we live such blessed lives today. The lesson of the Holocaust is that we have to attend to ourselves and to others. Then, we have sustained not just an entire world, but the entire world.
May we each do our part to leave the world a touch more whole than it was the day before. Shabbat Shalom.
1: Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, 214.
2: Novick, 215.
3: Quoted in Novick, 215.
4: Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.