This bleak anniversary is also a celebration

Holocaust Memorial Day also marks the fact that Hitler failed

By Jonathan Wittenberg, January 22, 2009

Seventy years ago, on January 30 1939, Hitler rose to speak on the sixth anniversary of his (democratic) election to power. Towards the end of his two-and-a-half hour speech, he threatened: “If international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe again succeeds in precipitating the nations into a world war, the result will be…the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”.

Hitler developed his policies incrementally. The failure of the Evian conference in July 1938 to persuade more countries to admit refugees from Nazism allowed Goebbels to declare that the rest of the world evidently had its “Jewish problem” too. This arguably emboldened him to unleash the pogroms of Kristallnacht, the “success” of which may have influenced Hitler’s fateful words. Never before had he made his intentions so menacingly clear.

The artist Roman Halter, who lost all his family in the Shoah, remembered his father translating this speech and the crushing impact it made on them all.

It is important to mark this sinister date, not only as a memorial, but also to declare that in this respect Hitler did not succeed. He murdered six million Jews and many millions of other peoples. He destroyed entire communities, stole their lives, their culture and their wisdom. He inflicted wounds on the body and soul of Jewry, and of humanity, which will never heal. But he failed in his attempt to eradicate Judaism from Europe. To adapt Emil Fackenheim’s phrase, we have not given Hitler a posthumous victory.

European Jewry is today continuing to grow and find new and creative voices. This is a remarkable cultural achievement, the testament to a profound resilience. Renewal began immediately after the war. Indeed, spiritual resistance to Nazism never ceased. In 1947, a Haggadah was produced in the DP camp in Landsberg. On the title page, the pyramids of Egypt stand opposite the sentry post and fences of a concentration camp.

Communities are flourishing across Europe. Yet the process of redemption and restoration continues. There is always a close relationship between memory and creativity in Judaism but rarely does this have such poignancy as in post-Shoah Europe. “I was deeply moved”, said Rabbi Chaim Weiner, responsible for the development of Masorti communities across Europe, “by a painting of flowers drawn on parchment torn from a desecrated Torah scroll that… now hangs in a shul in Budapest, amidst the prayers of a living community. This portion of the Torah has come back home.”

The story of the synagogue in Weesp, near Amsterdam, symbolises that of many others which escaped total destruction. For 35 years after the war, the building was used as a garage; tools were kept in the ark. For another 10 it was an employment office. Eventually, it was acquired by local Jews and since 2003 it has again become the centre of an active communal life.

Limmud now thrives in Poland and across the FSU. Numbers at Limmud Lithuania have exceeded 1,000. The secret of its success is, according to Adam Schoenberger, who runs the Marom centre for young people in Budapest, its appeal on a broad cultural front. Hundreds pass through each day.

My grandfather Rabbi Salzberger, who fled to England in 1939, remembered how, when the interior of Frankfurt’s Westendsynagogue was destroyed on Kristallnacht, the flame of the eternal lamp remained burning.

Its light is still spreading back across Europe. Hitler failed to extinguish it. As we approach next week’s Holocaust Memorial Day, it is of course essential that we learn and remember. But it also seems right, 70 years after Hitler’s terrible speech, that we should honour the great resilience and creativity of the Jewish spirit.

Jonathan Wittenberg is the rabbi of new North London Synagogue, where the commemorative event “ 70 years on…” will be held on Sunday February 1. Details: Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27

Last updated: 11:06am, January 22 2009