By Harriet P. Gross
Full disclosure: I’m (more than) annoyed with the many people who don’t want to read any more Holocaust books or attend any Holocaust-related programs. We have to move on, they say.
But can we “move on” from the Holocaust any more than we can from the Exodus? Both are necessary in our people’s journey to freedom. The repetitive learning of more modern as well as ancient history is necessary because the Holocaust, like the Exodus, is a seminal Jewish experience. Let me tell you a little true story to illustrate.
Every year, on the weekend before Yom HaShoah, my synagogue Reads the Names. Beginning after Saturday’s Havdallah until Sunday’s sundown, we say aloud the names of those deceased, recorded in huge books along with the places where they lived, and where they died. Through that process, we give life and voice to those destroyed in the Holocaust.
On Sunday morning, while names were being read in the sanctuary, a special program for adults and teens was taking place in our social hall. It concerned the rescue of Holocaust Torahs; four of them, from four different European communities of origin, were held reverently by four young highschoolers. Then, just as the program ended and that quartet of boys rose to return those Torahs to their special places of honor for the day, the piercing sound of the shul’s fire alarm filled the building.
What do Jews do when there is a fire in a synagogue? We all know! The four boys never put down their precious burdens, but immediately took those Torahs outside through the nearest door. The rest of us ran into the sanctuary, removed our congregational Torahs from the Ark and carried them out to join the others as the alarm continued to sound.
Heavy rain had been forecast for that day, and the first few drops began to fall lightly as we stood huddled together, wondering what to do next since our building has no protective roof overhangs. But the sprinkly shower stopped as the fire truck arrived, and soon we got the word that it was safe to go back inside. Almost immediately the strident alarm went quiet and all the Torahs were returned to their proper places, as dry and safe as they had been before.
What caused the panic? Somebody preparing a treat for some Sunday school kids had burned a pizza! We could even muster a laugh when our Learning Center director came by, munching on a blackened crust: Facetiously, we accused her of eating the evidence!
However, there were real lessons to be learned from this experience, and they all have to do with irony. The first was how ironic it was that something which had never happened in our shul before “chose” to take place at the very moment we were commemorating the Holocaust and honoring some of its surviving Torahs. This was a stark reminder of several important matters: How many times over history, even as Nazis burned synagogues a half-century ago, did Jews like us rush into those flaming structures to save what was most precious? And how much like those frantic rescuers we became, almost without thought, at less than a moment’s notice. And how quickly tragedy might strike any of us. How to act when we are threatened must always be present in our minds and bodies, just under the surface of our consciousness, ready to rise up and get us moving when swift action is necessary.
The second lesson: We might laugh, afterward, at the panic a pizza could cause. But our laughter must be secondary to our fear, our concern, our quick response and our vast relief when all is finally resolved. When we retell this incident in the future — and we will, for it will surely become part of our shul’s history — these, not any ironic “humor,” are the elements we must emphasize.
And the third: A wise, anonymous someone said that coincidence — irony — is when God has decided to remain anonymous. Maybe all this did not “just happen”; there may have been a reason. There may also have been a reason why the heavy rains started only after we, like our Torahs, were safe and dry in the protecting Ark that is our shul, as safe and dry as Noah had been in his.
The reason, I suspect, was to remind us that we can never forget the Holocaust, or “move on” without it.