Where was God? Or man? Keep asking

We must challenge simplistic narratives about the Shoah, writes Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive Karen Pollock

April 20, 2020 18:30

It is said that when you learn about the Holocaust, you are faced with unanswerable questions, like where was G-d? Or where was man? Fundamental questions about the nature of humanity and how seemingly normal people can do extraordinarily evil things.

There is no getting away from it — it is a complex subject that we grapple with, however much we know and think we understand.

Yet, questioning is something we encourage. How can an episode of such magnitude and devastation not raise challenging questions? The more we learn, the more curious we become. It is curiosity that develops critical thinking and challenges simplistic narratives and unsophisticated conclusions.

And these are questions we come across a lot at the Holocaust Educational Trust. In schools and classrooms, on visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau and more recently on visits to Bergen-Belsen.

Sometimes, there are answers, sometimes there are none. Survivors are routinely asked, can you forgive? Or, do you hate the people that did this to you and your family? As if it’s an either/or.

These are some of the themes that we have had the privilege to explore in a series of short videos we have helped create with Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that will be released for Yom HaShoah.

At this time, when families are so important and households have had to come together in a way not seen for generations, we have also been creating family learning resources to help younger people develop their understanding with their brother, sisters and parents.

The Holocaust teaches us a huge amount about the humanity and inhumanity of man. The Commander of Auschwitz who raised his children in the shadows of the gas chamber. Those who sat around the table at the Wanesse Conference, over half of whom were medical doctors or who had PhDs.

The train drivers who drove millions of Jews through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but none out. Juxtaposed with the Righteous Among the Nations — the tens of thousands of supposedly ordinary, but in reality, extraordinary, men and women who risked their lives to save Jews. Not for gain or glory, but because it was the right thing to do.

I draw faith from the humanity and bravery of our heroic Holocaust survivors, who despite all they have endured remain the exemplification of hope, strength and positivity. They suffered more than we can imagine, but recount their darkest days for the betterment of mankind.

I think of the survivors who, 75 years on, struggle to talk about the murder of their parents and siblings by the Nazis. They feel they must, for those who did not survive, and are an inspiration.

Whilst these topics are morally troubling, it is imperative that we continue to learn about, question and understand the lessons of the Holocaust.

As the Holocaust moves further away in time, we become the guardians of its memory, for our parents, for our grandparents and for our community. With antisemitism rising year on year and Holocaust denial permeating the mainstream, we must defend that truth with confidence, clarity, compassion and with knowledge.

At every Seder, we read that everyone, in every generation, regardless of age or experience, must remember the exodus from Egypt. It is only logical to apply this to the Holocaust.

We cannot confine the Holocaust to history, nor stop asking questions to ensure that it never happens again. The Holocaust Educational Trust will never stop doing that.

On Yom HaShoah, this year and every year, we must ask these questions, discuss the answers, draw strength from our community and pause to remember. This, after all, is our story. 
Karen Pollock is the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust

April 20, 2020 18:30

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