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.