Of all years, this year is an important time to offer a special commemoration of the Holocaust. Eyewitnesses are few and far between now. Jewish communities that gather for Yom Hazikaron Lashoah V’laG’vurah, A Day of Remembrance for the Holocaust and Heroism, keep memories alive of Jews and members of other groups murdered by the Nazis. However, more and more, stories of heroism are being highlighted as examples of what the human spirit is capable of accomplishing, even against insurmountable odds.
PBS presented such a tale in its program on Wednesday night on NOVA – Holocaust Escape Tunnel. The portrayal of vibrant Jewish life in the town of Vilnius, or Vilna, with its 76,000 Jews, could have concluded with the death of most of those Jews in actions by the SS in Ponar Forest outside Vilnius. The program, however, focused, first, on the search for remnants of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, which stood for just over 300 years until its destruction by the Nazis. The discovery of the mikveh, the ritual bath, that was in the basement of the synagogue was heartwarming as a reflection of the commitment to Judaism that pervaded that community.
And then, the program’s focus shifted to the stories told by survivors of a purported escape from Ponar Forest after working against their will for the Nazis. They were forced by the Nazis to dig up the bodies of Jews and other community members who had been murdered and buried in large pits outside Vilna. And then, they were ordered to burn the bodies. The Ponar workers, 86 of them, attended to their horrendous task, but eventually engaged in another project in secret. Using only spoons, they spent 76 days digging a tunnel that began at the center of their work to a spot 100 feet away inside the forest that might offer these men a chance to escape.
On April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover, the workers determined that they needed to make their move. They know that, after completing their forced labor, they would be the last victims of the Nazis in Ponar Forest. Of the 86 who made their way through the escape tunnel, 11 survived.
Using modern technology, a group of experts were able to conduct surveys that looked into the ground and identified the continuing existence of the escape tunnel, still remaining after all these years. The program on PBS concluded with interviews with family members of the survivors, who were shocked and gratified that the story they had heard for so long had been corroborated by science. While the episode ended sadly for some, there was a sense of triumph for those who escaped through the tunnel and survived the war and made sure to tell their incredible story.
Last month, during the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Atlanta, Holocaust scholar and author Deborah Lipstadt spoke to us. She has gained a great deal of attention because of the excellent film “Denial,” which recounted her victory in the libel case brought against her by Holocaust denier David Irving.
She spoke to us about the persistence of anti-Semitism both on the left and the right, and the extreme overuse of analogies to the Holocaust that all too frequently use terms like “Nazi” and “he/she is just like Hitler.” She asserted that those comparisons take away from what the Holocaust was: the systematic extermination of Jews, primarly, along with the murder of other people as well. Dr. Lipstadt declared that something can be terrible, such as the tragedies happening in our world today, without being a Holocaust. Her words of caution were well-spoken.
However, she also said that Jews should not be Jewish only because of anti-Semitism. “Don’t turn Jews into an object,” she explained. “Make Jews the subject – talk about what Jews do, not what others do to Jews.”
Around the world, communities will be commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah,, which begins at sundown this Sunday night, April 23, and concludes on Monday evening. Some will be holding commemorations on Sunday afternoon to facilitate better participation.
As we host the Jewish Food and Folk Festival in the hours before Yom Hashoah begins, may it be our signal to the community and to our immediate world that we are a subject, not an object; that we are a community that sustains what it means to continue to live Jewish values, that we will practice teachings that direct us to decry stereotyping, prejudice and hatred, to show warmth and heartfelt hospitality to those who come into our presence, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.Beyond music, dance, pastrami sandwiches, knishes, bobka and rugelach, we have so much to offer to each other, to our community and to the world. And in sustaining not only our culture but the principles of Judaism as well, we will, with our small but mighty numbers, remind the world of the significance of remembrance, resistance and resolve. And to everyone in and around Las Cruces, I would say: may we always join together to live out our best values and noblest aspirations in a context of understanding and peace.