A few weeks ago I received an invitation to speak about the Holocaust to students and faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, my alma mater. I was pleased to do so. However, I had certain requirements for my coming. They had to do with the subject matter.
In 1948, when I arrived in St. Louis from Germany, I was asked to come to a Friday evening service at the Hillel house and speak about my Holocaust experiences — a topic of great interest and importance at that time.
Let me interject that the Holocaust is still an important event, but I have been telling and retelling my story for 73 years. On Wednesday, May 2, I marked 73 years since my liberation from Muhldorf Wald Lager by a squad of soldiers led by Lt. Schwartz of the 14th Armored Division of the U.S. 5th Army.
My memories of the events are still fresh, and although they should be retold, nonetheless it has come time to evaluate the experiences.
I informed the university that while I would like to speak about my experiences, at the present stage of my life — age 92, soon to be 93 — I would prefer to speak of the ideas and perspectives that are rooted in those Holocaust experiences and in my Judaism. Those ideas have become central to my worldview.
Namely, I wished to present a set of perspectives that helped me overcome the negativism and cynicism that led many survivors to judge the world as a negative place.
As a child, long before the Holocaust, I was taught this adage by my grandmother: Money lost, nothing lost; hope lost, all is lost. Judaism, at least as I was taught it, is a religion of hope and, even more important, a religion that teaches human perfectibility.
Judaism proposes that in spite of selfishness and self-centeredness, mankind can change, and the road to the future lies in the moral teaching in the Torah as summarized by Hillel: “If I am only for myself, then what am I?”
Judaism is different from the Christian perspective of Dante Alighieri, who proposed that once humans fall, all hope is lost. There are no places in the world, nor are there any conditions, from which we can rise as better people than before.
We survivors of the camps entered purgatory and even worse, but, armed with Jewish principles, we ascended into the world with the words of Hatikvah — of hope in the future.
At least every Rosh Hashanah I read Jeremiah’s hopeful prophecy in Chapter 31. He stands there and observes a much earlier Holocaust: Jews form a long line as they are being led into exile from their homeland by the Babylonians, and as they pass Rachel’s Tomb near Ramah, G-d hears Rachel’s cry.
But instead of considering Ramah as an earthly place, I translate it as a high place, G-d’s abode in the heavens. And so the passage reads: “A cry is heard up high in heaven, a wailing, a bitter weeping. Rachel (the quintessential Jewish mother) is crying for her children. She refuses to be comforted, for her children are gone. Thus said the Lord (to Rachel): Restrain your voice from crying, keep your eyes from shedding tears; for there is reward for your labors, for they (your children) will return from the enemy’s land, and (above all) there is hope for their future, and they will return to within the land between their borders.”
The prophets have instilled into us a faith in the future. We have faith that in the end of days, as described by Micah and Isaiah, we will create an idyllic world. I believe in the prophets’ dreams, and I wish to believe in the perfectibility of human beings and the world in which we live.
Hopeful positivism is also built into our belief in tikkun olam. When I was introduced to this concept in my youth, it was translated as completion of the world rather than repair of the world.
Unlike faiths that argue that G-d created the world in perfection but human beings ruined it, we propose that G-d, by design, did not complete the act of creation but assigned that task to human beings.
We do not believe that people are faulty simply by the act of birth. Instead, as human beings, we were assigned an important task: We were given the duty to complete the world. Can you imagine believing that we, the people of the world, do not have any tasks to accomplish? How utterly boring would life be in a perfect world?
It would be a world that could not be improved. Contrarily, because we cannot improve that which is perfect, all we could do is make it worse and even destroy it.
From a Jewish perspective, the human task is to complete the world, and this completion starts with self-improvement. G-d created us as humans and assigned us the task of adding an “e” at the end to change ourselves from merely human to humane.
The Holocaust reminds us that we failed in our task of completing the humane world. The central theme of Holocaust remembrance should be that the elimination of human suffering can be accomplished if we accept G-d’s task not only to improve the physical world, but above all else to start our task of self-improvement.
I wish to share with you one of my Holocaust experiences, an event that reaffirmed in me that there is hope in this world and that we can, if given the right education, become humane people.
We arrived in Birkenau, and I and my transport of men spent about 10 days there before we were again put into the cattle cars — destination Warsaw.
Cattle cars have three distinct areas: the spaces left and right of the doors and the third of the space aligned with the sliding doors, reserved for the two SS soldiers assigned to guard us.
One SS man was an ethnic Ukrainian who clearly hated Jews and often pointed his rifle at us and threatened to shoot us.
The other guard was also a Totes-Kopf SS man, with the insignia of the skull displayed on his coat. He was well over 6 feet tall with deep-blue eyes and, of course, blond hair. He could easily have been the poster image of Hitler’s vision of the true Aryan.
Every time the Ukrainian threatened us, the other soldier defused the situation and kept telling us not to worry. This alone would have made him memorable to me. But his sense of benevolence went much further.
Every time the train stopped, he rushed out to the station. When he returned, he was loaded down with all kinds of containers filled with coffee, which he handed us. Imagine an SS soldier with this sense of empathy.
Three times that morning he brought us coffee. The fourth time was in the afternoon. He came back with the containers and apologized to us because there was no coffee to be had. He brought us merely water.
Can you imagine that in the Third Reich a young SS man apologized to us — to Jews?
Of course, I could dismiss this event as unique, and it was rare. But I could not then and cannot even today dismiss the enormity of his empathy.
Surely there must have been other such experiences by camp survivors. But to me this event reaffirmed human perfectibility. All my life I have held to this belief and the hope that I was right.
In the Zionist gymnasium I attended in the 1930s, each classroom displayed a large picture of Theodor Herzl standing on a balcony and looking over a beautiful Israel. Under the image, the following statement was also displayed: If you wish it, this image is not a dream (ihm tirzu eyn zoth agadah).
I wish to add this slogan also to the image I described above. If we but wished it, we could make this a better world. That is my tikvah, my hope. Moreover, I also hope that my story and others like it are recalled at Holocaust memorials so we can reaffirm the Jewish belief in the perfectibility of mankind.