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.


  1. The best memorial to the Holocaust is the commitment to prevent more genocide and hateful violence not only against Jews but against anyone.

    I love the story about how a sacred ritual of fire and prayer observed by a great tsaddik in a secret place saved the community from evil. In the second generation, they had forgotten how to get to the place, but they lit the fire and prayed and it was sufficient...And so on, until they didn't know how to get to the place or light the fire or say the prayers, but they told the story and that too was sufficient.

    Since the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem, and subsequent exiles, we have carried the holy of holies with us. In our studies and words, in our actions, in our hearts.

    All the earth is sacred, or none of it.

    Harriet Korim,
    a fellow Rohatyn descendant