to Misha Wajsman, Jack Cola and Jack Dym…
three special people, two generations, one undying commitment to witness…
…and to the memory of my mother Dora…who was there.
My father called me this morning with a tear-strained croak in his voice. “Today is the 9th of May” he said. “This was the happiest and saddest day of my life.” He did not have to go into a long explanation. His sentiments were shared by many of his generation with whom I grew up.
On this day, fifty-eight years ago, millions of survivors of the charnel house of Europe declared victory over the Nazi beast…and discovered the depth of destruction and devastation of everything they held dear. Still in uniform, my father made his way to his hometown and came face to face with a shattered world. Physical ruin, unmarked graves and foreigners occupying the homes of friends and family and claiming they had lived there for decades. How does one get over seeing strangers at your mother’s table with her crisp, white linen laid out before them? The sense of violation had all the intensity of rape. The feeling of despair, all the futility of a silent cry. The searing pain in one’s heart, the weight of the rock of Camus’ Sisyphus as he fell from the mountaintop once again.
Amidst what we view as crises today, we should never forget to pause and reflect on the 9th of May. For that was the confirmation of an era in which we still live. An era characterized by the failure of faith, the retreat of reason and the humiliation of hope. An era where all the civilized doctrines man swore allegiance to through millennia of struggle to crawl out of the jungles of barbarism were betrayed. An era that, with rare exceptions, is permeated with the odious odours of justice compromised by timidity, honour cheapened by expediency and promise mortgaged by avarice.
It has always been a source of awe to me that my father, and his contemporaries, not only survived, but re-engaged in this world. They are the true unsung heroes of our time. For coming out of that preview of hell, after the tears, after the mourning, came the numbing questions. Why should I live? What can I believe?
Whom can I trust?
For what was rent asunder in those years were not just the sinews of our flesh, but the very fabrics of our souls. The depraved indulgence in an obscene orgy of blood by one of the most civilized nations on earth put the lie to man’s claim of moral progress. All the old hallmarks of decency were now washed away in a gritty swirl of red. All the old rules thrown to the waste bin of history.
The mind reeled. It did happen here! At this time. In this place. To our people. It can happen anywhere! For Jews are the litmus test of mankind’s civility. Not because we are better, or chosen, or right. But because we are few, and different and stubborn. And as long as we respect others, we have the right to be so. And to use Jefferson’s maxim, “The success of a just society is measured by the respect, and restraint, exhibited by the majority at the doorstep of the minority.” The world failed the test. The stake that would pierce the heart of man’s struggle to realize age-old transcendent yearnings for redemptive change was sharpened at Evian and Wannsee and rammed home with merciless ferocity and fury at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
I have often thought that if I had lived through that era, and survived, I would have just crawled into a hole and never come out. For in the dead of night when the thin, humid rivulets of fear crawl over us like vermin, the age-old questions still torment. Where was God? Where was man? What is the “way of response”?
So many never ask. So many, though far less, do. It is important to answer those who do, not seek out those who don’t. Some who ask feel sure that they are right, but still want to know what one as wrong as I has to say. It is important to tell it straight. In an ingracious time filled with false piety, it is more important to be hard and relentless than genteel and obtrusive.
Our fanciful concepts of good and evil, mercy and justice, reward and punishment, whether ascribed to God or man were bankrupt. Indeed they were never real.
Men of faith, dealing with two thousand years of encrusted traditions and superstitions, could do little to philosophically reconcile the superficial congregational dogmas of the masses with the Jeremiad warnings of living in a time of “hester panim”, the hidden face of God, if the plague of “sinat hinam”, baseless envy, was not stemmed, nor with the words of those Sages who painted a picture of a God far more jealous and powerful than just and merciful. The theological constructs and contexts they had set up were found woefully wanting by their own followers and could never hope to address the monumental issues that arose.
The “enlightened” put their trust in the brotherhood of man and practiced frightful self-hatred, ignoring the reality, that exists in the nature of things, that without self-respect one cannot engage as an equal in common cause with anyone, nor seek the protection of the cloak of universality when one is really concerned with nothing more than the promotion of parochial self-interest. As Thomas Masaryk pointed out in the 1930’s, this peculiar species of 20th century man was to be forever haunted by “…suicide, rebellion and death…”
All will have to make peace with their own consciences for lulling so many into the crippling complacency caused by a fear of the future, a mistrust of the present or the invocation of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed.
On May 9th, 1945, the survivors looked into the abyss and, in the words of Aeschylus, were seared yet again with the…
“…pain which falls drop by drop upon the heart until through the awful grace of God we attain wisdom…”
But they found one more thing…they found courage. If redemptive change was impossible, they would channel their suffering through redemptive anger. If need be they would live in permanent rebellion against God and Man. But live they would in the fullest sense of the word. I think it was the anger that kept many, like my father, going. But there was more than anger. There was heart.
They would look out for one another. Co-operation was to be more valued than competition. An attitutde of compassion more important that one of self-aggrandizing contempt. Not for any notions of an idealized humanity. Those lay buried in the ashes of Europe. But for the very pragmatic relief of the human being. Together, maybe life can be lived with less pain. The lesson they taught to my generation, even in the comfort of North America, was that it was a saner way to live.
Like Prometheus Unbound they had a second chance. They would “…rage, rage against the dying of the light”…and take flight. And for all their pain, they rejected any acknowledgement of surrender, refused to abide pity, and repelled the demanded acquiescence in their own self-abnegation.
This is the spirit of May 9th, 1945. God help us if we ever lose it, for when the false prophets cry “Peace! Peace!” we will not have the courage to shout “There is no peace!”. And then we will have nothing more than the poignant plea of Chaim Nachman Bialik,
“…bakshi rahamim allai…heaven have mercy on us…”
to help us with our own redemption.