a sermon by the Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak – preached on 23 April 2017
Not quite two weeks ago the holy time Passover was observed. And I was glad to join the Seder here at BuxMont. The telling of the plagues in the Seder always makes me sit up and really pay attention. This not a triumphal or gladdening moment in the Exodus story,. There is no sense of justice in the hardships inflicted upon the Egyptians, even though you know it will lead to the Pharaoh finally relenting.
To this day, when I watch the Cecil B. DeMille epic, I am creeped out by the Angel of Death scene – even if the special effects are laughable, the horror is not. As a child, seeing the movie, it was frightening. That particular plague is a moment of reckoning for all of us. We are called to ask, “Is one person’s son more worthy of life than another’s?” We can ask that question today, when we ponder refugees in countries far away, when we think about immigrants entering this country, or the shootings and deaths on our own streets. Do we shrug our shoulders at the disposability of some lives, lives that don’t seem to matter as much, lives lost to violence or hunger or addiction or incarceration?
So as horrible as the Exodus story of enslavement is, does that justify the plagues? In this moment, the Seder becomes not just a story of one people’s “chosen-ness” but a cautionary tale contemporary in its revelation of the ceaseless tide of human history and the never-ending presence of hardship, pain and sorrow, and the propensity of human beings to profit from this, to inflict such evil on others.
And so, with the Passover story behind us, and the resurrection of Spring and Easter reminding us of life’s possibility, we come to Holocaust Remembrance Day – Yom Hashoah. Prayers are said in synagogues and temples. Some communities will hold a public observance. In Israel there is a moment of silence, when everyone and everything stops – silence and remembering. The tragedy of the event, the catastrophic toll it took on people, families, communities, and society cannot be underestimated. There are museums or monuments dedicating to remembering the Shoah in Washington D.C. and in major cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia. There have been films and projects that recall and catalog the stories of those who survived – and those who did not.
For some, there is a feeling that this day is for Jews, and that we who are not Jews cannot speak of the Shoah. Perhaps there is a kind of speaking and sharing that is not appropriate for us. But the event raises questions for Jews and non-Jews alike. The Shoah (Holocaust) posed an enormous challenge to Judaism and to religious people everywhere… How can one be a believing Jew after the Holocaust? How could God let this happen? Where was God when his people – his chosen people – cried out in pain, in suffering, in death?
And some would say that is the wrong question. Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel argued that the Holocaust should move us to examine our own behavior: “The question about Auschwitz is not where was God, but where was man?”
How can one continue to have faith in humanity? If we believe that human beings are creatures of free will, we alone are accountable for our actions, for our own moral failings. And now, here we are, in times that trouble us greatly, being asked to remember a complicated and horrific historical event.
The Holocaust is not something we particularly want to talk about. We may be able to conjure up images of boxcars and can see the barbed wire and the barracks. We picture the terrified faces of women and children, the gaunt stare of men paralyzed by hunger and despair. But how can we really “know” this? And in knowing it, what can we do?
As Naomi King reminds us, the Shoah, the great calamity, was industrialized genocide. There was a precision to the plan, and like cogs in the great machine, many people played their part. That may be one of the most disturbing aspects of the story.
Books – novels and memoirs – and films – drama and documentaries – can help us find a way into a human response to this.
One book (and film) called “Sarah’s Key” was a drama that unfolded around the ownership of an apartment in the Marais in Paris, a neighborhood that at one time was home to many Jews. A family who lived in this apartment in the summer of 1942 were caught up in what is called La Grande Rafle, the roundup of Jews in Paris. Little Sarah and her parents were taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver (not far from the Eiffel Tower)where they and thousands of other Jews suffered for days, without food or water .. in the most unsanitary conditions. This was the gathering point before they were to be trucked to a concentration camp and on to Auschwitz.
Although this is a work of fiction, the details of what happened in La Grande Rafle are true. In the story, many years later, a woman is writing an article on La Grande Rafle and living in and renovating a lovely apartment in the Marais. The objects they find hidden in the walls reveal the story of Sarah and her family, and the writer embarks on a deeper, more personal journey into the story of the Holocaust.
What saved this story from being just another melodrama was the questions it asked – questions about keeping secrets; of not wanting to tell the most horrible things. About what people did in those horrendous days.
The French have long championed the role of the Resistance in World War II, but struggled with the story of the Holocaust. We human beings do prefer to remember ourselves at our best, as heroes in the story. It is only in the last twenty or so years that there have been official acknowledgments of the major role of the Vichy government in France collaborating with the Nazis in the murder of thousands. But what the film reveals is that it was not just the official government taking those actions. There were many ordinary people willing to go along – either because they held similar views, or because they feared for their own lives and wellbeing.
Young Sarah’s story is heartbreaking and tragic. Despite the fact that she alone of her family escaped the fate that awaited tens of thousands in Auschwitz, and despite the kindness of the village family that sheltered and raised her, there was no happy ending. As the contemporary drama unfolded, the story of this one person revealed more and more secrets and more silence. And as in all good dramas, revelations brought healing, which I do not doubt would happen.
But it also brought anger and more questions. Questions of how is it that people kept silent then and now. Questions about what any of us might have done.
Each year, when Yom Hashoah comes, those very question comes up for me. What, if anything, can I say now? What would I have done? We ask them as if we could rewrite history… would I have rescued someone? Would I have hid Jews? Or would I have kept silent? Looked the other way?
These are not questions limited to the past.
Events of such magnitude do not unfold like a great historical panorama. When we look back now and see them one after another…it seems that way. The drama unfolds, events occur one after another, the pattern emerges. We see the people making decisions, the suffering and the courage of so many. But in the midst of the Shoah, in the midst of the war and carnage, are the ordinary lives… lives that go on in the face of hardship; lives that continue in ignorance, willful or not.
And from this vantage point we say “never again.”
If we truly believe that human beings are creatures of free will, then we alone are accountable for our actions, for our own moral failings.
In his book The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal’s story brings our human frailties and moral failings into sharp focus. Some say the book is a highly-fictionalized account of his experiences, and others claim it as a searing witness to the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Germany. Wiesenthal survived the horror of the Shoah and dedicated his life to seeking out Nazis – tracking down those who went into hiding after the war,those who fled Germany to live in other countries – even here in the U.S., or were able to “hide” in plain sight where they were. Wiesenthal also wrote and gave speeches as a witness to this history,to remind us – the rest of the world – that we have a choice in such matters – and silence is not an option.
“The Sunflower” ends with more questions.… Instead of helping me – or us – better understand
human depravity and giving us tools for confronting such horror and cruelty, the questions nag and persist. He noted that after the war, those who “suffered in those dreadful days,” who could not “obliterate the hell we endured” were advised to keep silent. It was time to move on, move forward.
“…I kept silent when a young Nazi, on his deathbed, begged me to be his confessor. And later, when I met his mother I again kept silent rather than shatter [her] illusions about her dead son’s inherent goodness. And how many bystanders kept silent as they watched Jewish men, women and children being led to the slaughterhouses of Europe? There are many kinds of silence. Indeed, it can be more eloquent than words, and it can be interpreted in many ways.”
Our silence speaks.
When I preached a sermon very much like this one back in 2009, I referenced concerns I felt reading that week’s news…about being reminded that genocide, mass killings, discrimination and murder
did not begin nor end with the Holocaust.
And that events closer to home, in this country, might raise alarm: as an op-ed piece in that long-forgotten 2009 edition of the New York Times noted the growth of white supremacists groups in this country.
Putting it in context, I can only imagine it was connected to President Obama’s early days in office. Then – like some kind of latter-day prophet – I noted that a renewed fervor could easily arise. And we can ignore it, and think that op-ed writer overly cautious or alarmist. We could remain silent. Or not. And here we are, 8 years later…
Yom Hashoah is about remembering. And as we remember, we dedicate ourselves to becoming more human even in the face of unspeakable sorrow and horror.
We are called to be more than guardians of the past.
We are called to be promoters of a hopeful, inclusive, peaceful and just future for all people everywhere. And that begins here, among us. We cannot undo the past. We cannot right all wrongs. But we can do one small thing.
We can speak, breaking the silence imposed on us by fear, apathy, insecurity, shyness. There are countless ways we human beings can pretend ignorance or keep silent. We are great believers, it seems, in going along to get along.
To change this – to bring an end to the silence, to tell our stories and learn from them, to remember what it is we would sooner forget, takes spiritual courage.
Unitarian Universalist minister Barbara Wells Ten Hove reminds us:
“There are times when my heart is deeply burdened, when I think there is nothing strong in me, no ability to respond with courage to the challenges of life. Yet, I can remember…
I can remember my mother, and be grateful to her for instilling in me a sense of what is good and right and true. I can reflect on those brave souls who took their lives into their own hands and did the right thing by rescuing Jews. And I can think of my religious community. When I think of you, and remember I am not alone, I discover in myself seeds of courage.”
Are these seeds growing in us? Who has planted them? Who will water them? When called upon, how will we respond?
Your Silence Will Not Protect You
excerpted from The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action
(published in The Cancer Journals 1980) by Audre Lorde
I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. [Because of the cancer] I was forced to look upon myself and my living with a harsh and urgent clarity that has left me still shaken but much stronger. Some of what I experienced during that time has helped elucidate for me much of what I feel concerning the transformation of silence into language and action.
In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death.
But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words.
I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself.
My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.
But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.
Yom HaShoah Remembrance (excerpt) by Reverend Naomi King
On Yom HaShoah we remember those who died in the Holocaust.
We remember those who resisted. We remember those who helped people survive. We remember that genocide did not stop with the end of the Shoah. We remember, because we owe a spiritual debt to those who died, those who resisted, those who saved lives. We remember, so that when our resistance is needed, when hatred whirls round and makes it seem not just okay but the morally right thing to do to hate that we might be the resisters and the life savers, even as our own lives might also be threatened.
Those who saved others in the Shoah and in genocides since share certain characteristics. They were willing to take great risks for friends and for strangers; they had to live with a bigger identity than the one hate claimed. And, often, they had to endure social isolation and ostracism not just during the war, but after it.
The rescuers remember those they helped, and those they lost. They crossed the lines hate and fear drew and insisted on love’s great courage and wider circle. But they all came face-to-face with hate-filled violence and said no to hate. It is terribly hard to protect the stranger, neighbor, or friend when we do not know them, when we have chosen to live inside the spiritual and emotional walls of hate and fear.
When we remember those who died, let us not be driven into our own walls of hate and fear from the shock and grief. The Holocaust was, terribly, neither the first nor the last genocide, but it was the first to industrialize genocide. And many, many states turned away refugees and refused to intercede until it was too late And only after this were the first laws of human rights to bring an end to genocides created.
But the dedication of survivors, resisters, rescuers, and those of us who keep faithful memory continues to teach us that we can choose life, that there are no walls hate can build that we cannot cross under, over, or through, and that love is a tremendously strong force of moral courage.