Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Can the Grinch Steal Auschwitz?

I know I'm not the only Jewish American who grew up on a steady diet of TV Christmas specials around this time of year: "A Charlie Brown Christmas;" "Frosty the Snowman;" and, of course, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Watching felt like a kind of TV tourism, conducted behind the mezzuzah on our door. Sometimes, when the calendars overlapped, the compartive religion trekking happened while my family's Hanukkah candles still burned.
I couldn't help think about the Grinch when I read the statement from my colleague, Yad VaShem Chairman Avner Shalev, that the theft of the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign was "an attack on the memory of the Holocaust."
Certainly, the brazen theft of perhaps the central image of the Holocaust suggests profound disrespect for the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp to which this sign is the gateway-- and for what it stands for today.
But if the theft represented some kind of attempt to erase the memory represented at the camp, it could have no more significance than the Grinch's efforts to steal Christmas. As I saw in the animated special, year in and year out, you can take away the superficial trappings, the physical emblems of something held sacred. But you can't steal the idea or the meaning of something that is truly sacred.
One of the strongest sources for the significance of the idea over the physical is Jewish history itself. Ancient Judaism expressed a sacred relationship between God and man manifested through a physical temple. That temple, known as Solomon's temple, and whose retaining wall in Jerusalem remains revered to this day, was built, destroyed, built again, and destroyed again. Instead of disappearing after the second destruction, Judaism developed new ways to express its theology.
Bumbling thieves could steal the Auschwitz sign, but no human force can suppress the significance of everything literal and figurative behind the sign. As God says of Abel's murder in Genesis, "your brother's blood screams out to me from the ground." No physical icon -- or its removal -- will ever silence the blood of the 1.5 million Auschwitz-Birkenau victims, the suffering of those imprisoned at the camp for slave labor, or the violence of families torn apart in the selections at the gas chambers.
What the theft really tells us is that not only is it not possible for Poland to protect the historic site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, it is not fair for it to be expected to do so alone. Just as citizens of many nations involved in the Holocaust were sent to die at Auschwitz, what Auschwitz-Birkenau represents today belongs to every nation involved in the Holocaust. Maintaining and securing the 500+ acre site and all it contains requires significant resources. Poland has, for years, been asking for assistance; it is ironic that on the very day the theft was announced an agreement was signed in Berlin to provide $90 million for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. But this agreement will need to be renewed at some point, and more funds will inevitably need to be secured.
In the feel-good conclusion of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" everyone forms a circle and sings in unity. So too must the people and nations of the world join together to protect the sacred significance of Auschwitz-Birkenau. If we do that, no Grinch or band of common thugs will ever harm us.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

This Just In: LAMH As Covered in "The Forward"

Click below to read the article in today's "The Forward" discussing the funding future for Holocaust museums.
Local Holocaust Museums Grow Amid Worries About Future

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Apologies for Bad Rendition of Doonesbury Strip

Here is a panel-by-panel description of the Sept. 27, 2009 Doonesbury strip referenced in the blog entry, "How Far We've Come."

Hitler salutes under the narration, "The Nazis..."

Kristallnacht-style book burning under the narration, "...created a brutal, repressive society..."

Soldiers battle under the narration, "...left half the world in flames..."

Train tracks lead to Auschwitz/Birkenau under the narration, "...and methodically murdered millions."

A cemetery of graves marked by crosses and a few stars under the narration, "They were the most evil force in history."

Showing the White House, the narration reads, "Understandably, the current parallels are frightening." Dialogue bubbles read, "The bill is stalled, sir." "That does it -- I'm giving a speech!"

How Far We've Come

As we approach the Senate's historic vote on healthcare legislation we must remember where we came from to get here. The journey expected to achieve a major milestone this week travelled over the mis-information of death panels, town halls of fear, and the accusation of Nazi-style tactics.

Each of these proved, once again, that figures don't lie, but liars can figure. Meaning, anyone who wants to throw mud at something needs merely to fill a bucket with whatever swill he can grab.

Gary Trudeau eviscerated last summer's insanity best with the strip first published Sunday, September 27, 2009 and re-published here. First, he capsulized Nazism's effect on the world in 5 eloquently detailed panels. Among the many minor gems in this strip, no matter how many times I re-read it, I never fail to find particularly affecting the Jewish star on one of the graves in the cemetery panel. With that single detail, Trudeau reminds us that a democracy -- unlike a dictatorship -- can unite all its varied people in the service of a single noble goal.

I could end the blog right here -- that this week the thrust of democracy will overcome internal differences to increase our citizens' access to health care, just as it did in our efforts to win World War II.

But I can't leave aside that too often one finds the Holocaust used as a metaphor to damn a current event.

On the one hand, this propensity stands as a sign of our success at keeping the worst event in human history at the forefront of people's minds. They wouldn't be making Holocaust comparisons if they'd forgotten about it.

But on the other hand, it suggests we haven't succeeded at making it clear exactly what made the Holocaust the worst event in human history.

Every inappropriate Holocaust equivalency one discovers should not be only a cause for scorn. It should also be a spur to action, a reminder that we need to make the case more carefully and more often that the mass murder of multiple millions occurs not from a single blow. The Holocaust must be understood as a tragedy of accumulation, an infinitely nuanced event, a perfect storm of an exponential number of perfect storms.

One can not communicate this complicated understanding simply, in few words, while standing on one foot. It requires a consistent campaign, to which many must dedicate themselves over a vast period of time.

Kind of like what it takes to pass a healthcare bill. And, of course, to win a war.

I like the sixth and final panel so much. It reminds us of an endearing quality characterizing President Obama's election and campaign and early presidency. He demonstrated himself able to confront difficult issues with a really good speech. In this way he resolved nuanced conflicts of race dogging his election hopes, and re-framed America's relationship with the Muslim world. Yet the panel also pokes fun playfully at his idealism, charming in its naivete, that a good talking to is enough to solve all problems. Though he will inevitably fail at times, you can't help admiring a guy willing to get out there and try.

N.B. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss the Cairo speech's incorrect implication that the Jewish people's claim to a homeland in Israel does not stretch back thousands of years. Suffice it to say that in a recent speech to the congregants of B'Nai David-Judea, the Los Angeles Consul General of Israel, Yaacov Dayan, provided the words President Obama should have used to describe Israel's existence since 1948. The Consul General referred to the year of Israel's independence the date of the "re-establishment" of the State of Israel.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Does God Help Baseball Fans?

Few of the fans at yesterday's Yankees-Angels play off game would challenge the piety of the prayerful Cubs fan at the left. Innumerable TV images of New Yorkers clasping their hands, chanting softly, and shuckling in prayer suggest this. A Johnny Damon gapper bore ultimate salvation, but Yankees fans continued their appeals for divine intervention until the final out.

Yankees fans, of course, have no monopoly on prayer for their sports teams. Angels fans probably prayed just as hard -- as do, every summer, those lovers of the hapless of Cubs, or supporters of any other team or sport. But the intensity or frequency of supplication begs the question: does God really influence one player's ability to throw a ball, another's likelihood of hitting it, and a third's facility to catch it?

What one really asks, when one thinks about prayer in something like sports, is: what role does prayer have in any aspect of human activity?

This question is only a few intellectual jumps from thinking about God's role in the Holocaust. In a word, if God could conceivably impact the path of a baseball, couldn't he -- or, more to the point -- shouldn't he -- have ended the Holocaust sooner, or even prevented it in the first place? I know of no more troubling theological question.

This weekend I read a Talmudic story suggesting a provacative answer. The story describes a moment when the prophet Elijah appears to Rabbi Yose. At least one Jewish sage says Rabbi Yose prayed fervently for the wisdom to answer the question of why God allowed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

God had directed the Israelites to build the Temple as a conduit for the holiest relationship between God and man. Yet, God allowed the razing of that same Temple, the ending of that special bond, and the scattering of the Jews throughout the world.

In the story, just after Rabbi Yose finishes praying amongst Jerusalem's ruins, Elijah gives him his answer.

"What did you hear when you were praying in the ruin?" Elijah asks.

"I heard a heavenly voice cooing like a dove and saying, 'Woe to the sons because of whose sins I destroyed my house and burned my Temple and dispersed my people.'" Rabbi Yose says.

Elijah responds emphatically, telling Rabbi Yose he didn't hear the half of it. "By your life and the life of your head," Elijah admonishes, "God doesn't say this only at this moment. He says it three times a day, and when people enter the synagogues and the houses of study and when they respond in prayer, 'May God's great name be blessed.' What is more, the blessed one shakes his head and says, 'How lucky is the king who is praised this way in his house! As for me, what is there for the father who has exiled his sons and for the sons who have been exiled from their father's table?'"

God aches for the destroyed Temple and the spiritual intimacy it created, just as His people do. Yet, in spite of the pain, God could not stop the destruction. Nor could he simply snap his fingers and have the Temple rebuilt.

The Rabbi Yose story provides a window to how God might feel about the Holocaust. Not only did he watch the suffering of innocents. He saw the sadism of the perpetrators. He heard the silence of the bystanders. The Holocaust could stand as exhibit A in a case against God's existence: if God exists, how could He let such things happen?

Perhaps the Holocaust happened because God established a world where human action can lead to things that are excruciatingly painful for both man and God. Perhaps God too mourns the millions of innocent Holocaust victims. Perhaps that is how He allowed the Holocaust to occur: with incomprehensible divine suffering. God had to suffer not only the evils of the Holocaust. He had to watch it happen with the knowledge that humanity alone caused it, just as humanity alone could end it. One reason the Holocaust happened is not because we live in a Godless world. It happened because we live in a man-full world, a world where man has the ultimate power to choose good or evil.

What role does prayer play in our lives? In a word, quite a big one, I believe. Prayer leads me to insights I find literally life changing, and that lead me to be a more effective human being for myself and my fellows. Through prayer I can also express the gratitude I feel for the relatively charmed life I lead.

Does prayer for a sick person help her heal? I believe it does, though I lean against it doing so the way antibiotics kill bacteria, or the way surgery removes a tumor. I am much more comfortable with the idea it does its magic in some way beyond human understanding. I'm enough of a non-rationalist to accept levels of reality beyond those we can understand. I'm not enough of one to buy that our thoughts directly influence the material world.

So no, all those prayerful people in the Bronx did not guide Mariano Rivera's delivery of that final strike. But I wouldn't be surprised if God has a little extra measure of heavenly mercy set aside for those Cubs fans. They deserve it.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tisha b'Av: Why Does This Always Happen To Us?

I was in film school when I first read the extended joke explaining why bad stuff happens. The joke quotes several world religions' perspectives on evil. Hinduism: This stuff has happened before. Buddhism: If stuff happens, is it really stuff? The capper for me was, of course, Judaism: Why does this stuff happen to us? The joke seemed particularly appropriate at the moment I read it. Film making is the Sisyphisean exercise of constantly struggling to solve one problem after another.

Joking aside, Tisha b'Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av) is the day on the Jewish calendar selected to embrace all the terrible events that befell the Jewish people. The two central events it commemorates are the destructions of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Tradition holds that both temples were destroyed on the same day, hundreds of years apart.

Further tragedies befell the Jews on this day in whatever region of the world they found themselves. According to the Orthodox Union web site, the expulsion from Spain occurred in 1492. The Holocaust, of course has its own days of infamy tied to Tisha b'Av. And, the seed of the Holocaust, World War I, was planted on this day when Britain and Russia delcared war on Germany. Germany's economic privations resulting from the war and the Treaty of Versailles later became fertile soil for the rise of Hitler.

I grew up with no understanding of Tisha b'Av. Although I have since taken on significant aspects of formal religious observance, Tisha b'Av remained a blank spot. I had no model of how to observe it, and no voices of memory informing me why I should. The day approaches with a prologue of three weeks, in which observant Jews begin taking on certain practices of mourners, such as not attending live music performance. The last 9 days of those three weeks become a kind of home stretch. Mourning practices increase to include not eating meat except on Shabbat, showering only with cool water, and not shaving.

In past years, these prologue periods provoked me to discuss Tisha b'Av casually with friends. Those that had attended Jewish summer camp harked back to those experiences to guide their Tisha b'Av observance. Having so such references, I took a "pass" on any observance.

This year, subtle steps drew me towards a deeper understanding of the day. When I discovered Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust scheduled its summer fundraiser during the three weeks, I insisted we reschedule. Thus our comedy showcase at the Improv (seats are still available!) will be held Sunday night, August 16.

A more profound nudge came when I invited a religious couple, who had never been to the Hollywood Bowl, to join my wife and me for a Beethoven concert. My friend begged off. "Unfortunately we can't. It's during the Three Weeks." Rather than only feel sheepish about my faux pas, I resolved to think more deeply about Tisha b'Av. And then I decided to take baby steps towards my own observance. So I adopted some of the restrictions of the 9 days.

I made sure to attend schul on the evening of Tisha b'Av and to begin the fast included in the observance. The formal practice in synagogue includes the congregants sitting the floor, in imitation of the practice of Jewish mourning, and the chanting of Aicha, the Book of Lamentations. As I sat, subdued in the darkened sanctuary, several factors, like tumblers in a lock, combined to open a door to a deeper relationship with the day.

The minor actions I assumed during the 9 days probably laid some sort of foundation. As a result of reminding myself to keep the shower's hot water low, or that I needed a salad for lunch, I continued to raise questions of what exactly it means to be mournful. What am I mourning? Can I be commanded to do so, or am I just going through the motions? I tried not to grow frustrated as no answers came. I figured I could only evaluate the experiment's true results if I stuck to the protocol.

Then, last night in schul, the door cracked. First I felt a sense of belonging to a community. As I entered the sanctuary I heard the congregants' loud responses during the hetzi kaddish, a responsive prayer signifying a turning point in the service, before I saw the size of the group. In the immortal words of Slim Pickens (Blazing Saddles), "I didn't know there'd be so many!" And as I took my seat on the carpet, this sense only increased. No matter the depth of my personal experience of Tisha b'Av, I was not alone, and together we were paying respects to our losses in our history as a people. I was now a link in a chain that stretched behind me and before me in time. I didn't need to be intensely involved to become a link. I just had to be there.

As various readers chanted Aicha, the images from its numerous extended metaphors took form in my mind. And these were images from the Holocaust, images one might see in the exhibits in our Museum. I heard:

[Children] say to their mothers: 'Where is corn and wine?' when they swoon as the wounded in the broad places of the city, when their soul is poured out into their mothers' bosom. Aicha (Lamentations) 2:12

and I saw pictures of children starving on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto. At "Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles of the heaven (4:19)" I saw the Nazi eagles held high on flags in mass rallies. I don't have to explain what I imagined when I heard "From on high He hath sent fire into my bones (1:13)."

I looked around me and, for no explicable reason, noticed the styles of shirts worn by the men around me. Checked shirts, white dress shirts untucked, blue shirts. I recalled the voice of Museum founder Thomas Blatt, one of the few Sobibor inmates who survived the 1943 prisoner revolt. The day before, he told me he was able to make it in hiding after the revolt because he never wore a camp uniform. "We had the clothes of the Jews who were killed. If your shirt got dirty, you just went to the sorting barracks and chose a new shirt."

Mental echoes comprise an occupational hazard in running a Holocaust Museum. Usually I try to let them go rather than note them or hold on to them. They're not thoughts one can bring up in pleasant conversation, such as at the dinner table. "Dear, could you pass a slice of bread? Did you know people in the camps would ration just half a slice for an entire day?"

But in schul, on Tisha b'Av, I didn't have to evade. This was the time and the place to engage. Doing so didn't just propel me towards a sense of the sadness that is the appropriate mood for the day. It imbued me with the wisdom of having such a day. Bad stuff does happen. Really bad stuff. Not just to a group of people who seems to have more trauma than any other group. To anyone. It is the nature of being alive. And rather than ignore the existence of misery and suffering, it seems profoundly wise to not only set aside a period of time to embrace it, but to orchestrate a slow crescendo of ritualized practices helping us reach out for such an embrace.

Getting back to the Jewish propensity as a people to always have bad stuff happening to us, there is a silver lining. We are one of the few groups in modern society who can trace their history back through thousands of years. Live long enough, and lots of bad stuff is going to happen.

And good stuff, too. Tisha b'Av is, after all, only one day.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Letter to the Editor: The Going Has Been Tough for Needy Survivors

In its July 24 issue, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles published an article about communal efforts to help people who've become needy due to the recssion: When the Going Gets Touch, Where Do You Go? Here is my letter to the editor in response.

Dear Editor,

We can all be proud of the organized Jewish community’s response to the newly needy among us (“When the Going Gets Tough,” July 24). Yet the going has been tough for some time for too many survivors. Virtually every challenge demonstrated in that article can be applied to needy survivors as well.

A recent community forum at Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust highlighted the needs of indigent survivors. Representatives of the Federation, Jewish Family Service, Bikur Cholim, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, 2nd Generation, and Generations Connect described their efforts to meet those needs. Yet it emerged there is no complete understanding of the full extent of survivor poverty.

Many factors make this identification difficult. None is as powerful as the prison of shame, as stated eloquently by Temple Aliyah’s Jeff Bernhardt in Julie Fax’s effective journalism. Whether Holocaust survivors or not, no one wants to admit need. But even the resources available to survivors before the recession – augmented by some key philanthropists in our community -- could not meet the full need of many.

Rabbi Mendel Cohen of Generations Connect and I met recently with Federation and JFS leaders to chart next steps. The will exists to make a difference for the destitute survivors among us. The most well-intentioned leaders can fail without their community behind them. Each of us must ensure our communal safety net stretches further.

Mark Rothman, Executive Director
Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bruno: Scratch an Austrian and Find A Nazi? Nein!

Bruno, the eponymous main character in the new Sacha Baron Cohen film, makes several references to Nazism and Hitler. These references include a quick goose step, a stiff arm salute, and a nostalgic reference to the way Bruno's fellow Austrian was ultimately treated by the world. The simplest conclusion to make is that Bruno demonstrates what some people presume to be a fear about German-speaking people in the shadow of the Holocaust: support for the anti-Semitic and despotic beliefs behind their countries' tragic roles in history lie just beneath the surface.

Were this the truth, Austrians and Germans watching the film would have even more right to condemn the film than the people of Khazakstan may have had to reject Borat.

Bruno's Holocaust-era references need to be taken in context with Bruno's character. The main character's inability to see outside himself, combined with his self-aggrandizement, drive the comedy in Bruno. He is the buffon who makes us laugh not with him, but at him. With rare exception he is not Charlie Chaplin's little tramp, making fun of the hypocrisy of others. He is a modern Mr. Maggo, substituting for near-sightedness an egotistical weltenschaung blinding him to almost everything beyond the end of his, well, penis.

One could easily argue his Nazi-ish references are thus gratuitous. He would be no less of a fool without them. But Baron Cohen's inclusion of them allows him to make a mature and ultimately healing statement: only a fool would embrace any casual and cavalier references to the emblems of a history good people deeply regret. As a Jew, Baron Cohen's statement carries added wieght.

Every joke has to have its topper. One of the biggest and purest belly laughs in the film comes when Bruno zeros in on a headshot of Mel Gibson and calls him "The Fuhrer." Baron Cohen's phony character-in-search-of-celebrity disproves once and for all the canard that an anti-Semite lurks just beneath the skin of anyone with a German accent. How? Through Bruno's idol worship of a real celebrity who only needed a few too many drinks to reveal the anti-Semite living just below his.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

LAMH Reacts to White Supremacist Attack on USHMM

LAMH Board Member and survivor Miriam Bell recounts to KABC's John North how today's shooting at USHMM reminded her of the evening the Nazis entered the town of her birth in Lithuania. Miriam recounted how the Nazis arrived at sundown, just as she and her family were lighting shabbat candles and singing songs welcoming the sabbath. She then heard shooting and commotion; when the family went out to investigate she saw her father shot and killed. Click Here to watch the full KABC-TV news segment .

A Tragic Loss Is Also A Victory

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust adds its voice to the chorus of those wishing to comfort the friends and loved ones of Steven Tyrone Johns, of blessed memory, pictured at right.

Mr. Johns died violently, an innocent victim caught in the crossfire between a known white supremicist and the target of the murderer's obsessive hatred. His passing undoubtedly broke the hearts of all those who knew him and loved him.

Today was a tragic loss, but also a stunning victory. Today good triumphed over evil, completely the opposite of what happened during the Holocaust. There evil triumphed over good; the innocents were imprisoned, tortured and murdered, while the evil Nazi perpetrators flourished. Mr. Johns is not just a hero to the Jewish people or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but to mankind.

The history of Mr. Johns' murderer was known to law enforcement and private watchdog groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. He had been imprisoned for previous anti-Semitic acts, and actively engaged in white supremisist acts for decades. These facts only underscore the simple irony that instead of dying, the evil he represents will itself kill when given the slightest opportunity.

The perpetrator's evil flourishes when good people do nothing, as they did too often during the Holocaust. Mr. Johns and his fellow guards at USHMM responded as they should have. But brave and quick-acting security guards are only the proximate protectors of good. Each of must do something, today and in our own homes, in our schools, our places of worship, and our communities, to make sure virulent hatred may never have another opportunity to kill.
Executive Director Mark A. Rothman speaks with KABC report John North about today's tragic shooting at the USHMM. Click here to see the full segment.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Meaning of This Hour

Gather several parents, and you'll always get sympathy when you talk about the challenges of raising children. But you could just as easily talk about the gifts they bring us.

Last night the gift was an introduction to Abraham Joshua Heschel's essay, "The Meaning of This Hour." My oldest son, Saul, struggled through the essay and needed help understanding it for school. He'd been assigned it to study Heschel's commitment to the civil rights struggle. As soon as he told me it was a Heschel piece I felt his pain; I still would like someone to explain to me the prepositional pairing "over against" Heschel relied on in I and Thou. So I sympathized with Saul's challenge and agreed to help him.

Of course in trying to explain the essay to Saul, I learned it better myself. The first time I read it I heard Heschel's dual tone of immediacy and righteous indignation. But when Saul and I reviewed it I gained new insights into the causes of Heschel's fury.

Heschel places the blame for the Holocaust squarely at the feet of the world's inaction. He writes,

"The roar of bombers over Rotterdam, Warsaw, London, was but the echo of thoughts bred for years by individual brains, and later applauded by entire nations. It was through our failure that people started to suspect that science is a device for exploitation, parliaments pulpits for hypocrisy, and religion a pretext for a bad conscience."

To Heschel the onset of the war was no surprise, and the failure of the mechanisms of our society to stop it was only a proximate cause. The ultimate cause was the failure of the individuals behind those mechanisms -- the 'our' in his formulation -- to act.

Heschel's prose cascades upon the reader as rhetorical two-by-fours upside the head. But few blows strike as harshly as these:

"There has never been more reason for man to be ashamed than now. Silence hovers mercilessly over many dreadful lands. The day of the Lord is a day without the Lord. Where is God? Why didst Thou not halt the trains loaded with Jews being led to the slaughter...Like Moses, we hid our face; for we are afraid to look upon Elohim, upon His power of judgment...Indeed, where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen [read: Hitler and his gang] were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?"

In several quick thrusts Heschel smashes a common post-Holocaust excuse for a lack of faith: if God truly existed, He would have stopped the Holocaust. Au contraire, calls the rageful Rabbi. Man was called upon to act, and instead he hid himself, slinking away like a chastised dog. For Heschel, inaction is the worst evil of all.

Saul read this essay in the context of understanding the civil rights movement. But this essay places before us an eternal demand for action against the failures of society, wherever and whenever they occur.

And here, for me, is my biggest difficulty with Heschel's exhortation. His call to action echoes within me. As does Heschel's scorn for the petty distractions that prevent our action: "We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting constantly and keenly for our effort and devotion."

Yet I remain intimidated by the call. The need is so great and so constant. How can I possibly meet it? Before reading the essay, I comforted myself thinking my only responsibility is to try; I am mindful of the Talmudic teaching, 'Neither may you complete the work, nor may you desist from it.' But have my efforts been sufficient? Is there more I could do? And what does it mean to be 'hunting for trivial satisfactions?' Am I not allowed to go to a movie with my children over July 4th weekend?

Ironically, once again my son has been an agent bringing me to a point of challenge. But he has also brought me the gift of self-examination, and with it the potential for growth. And, as I feel, ultimately, gratitude for my children, as I do so often.

Friday, May 8, 2009

All Beginnings Are Hard

I thought it was going to be easy to start a blog about my experiences as Executive Director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. I intended my first post to be about the panel discussion we hosted last night about the Los Angeles community's efforts to meet the needs of indigent survivors. (And I will post about that.)

But first I had to find a title for this blog. And all I could think of was an picture I saw in a book our archivist, Vladimir Melamed, Ph.D., showed me when we had our weekly meeting. The book is a collection of Holocaust photographs from the Bundarchiv in Berlin. Just flipping through the pages, one easily finds icons of that period: the picture of the bearded man, forced to daven in his talit tefillin while a crowd of soldiers taunt him; a woman forced to strip; two soldiers kicking a man lying on the street.

Then a page falls open to reveal a picture I had never seen. A group of about 20 Polish men clustered in an open, snow-covered field. The group stands sideways to the camera. Soldiers are not clearly present in the photograph, but the phtographs that preceed and follow it depict a mass shooting. Clearly, the men clustered together on this wintry day await their execution.

I note a minor detail. The two men closest to the camera appear younger than the others. And they are blowing on their hands.

Blowing on their hands. As one would while waiting for a bus on a cold day. But on this day, they are blowing on their hands while they wait to be killed.

As one might imagine, I encounter in my job more than my share of the kind of images one normally conjures up when one thinks of the Holocaust, images one hides from children until they are old enough. I find myself inurred to those pictures. Not because volume has desensitized me. But because they depict a reality that is incomprehensible. Not unbelievable; I know with every fiber of my being humans did to other human beings the things depicted in those pictures. But they are so extreme, I literally can not assimilate their meaning into my emotional understanding of the world.

And then I see a picture of young men blowing on their hands. Acting innocently, in the moment. Acting as normally as anyone would in the most abnormal of circumstances. Suddenly I shudder inwardly, and I find myself speechless. I have encountered the Holocaust. And there are no words to describe sufficiently the annhilation of innocence I see in this image.

How could I possibly think of a title?