Monday, November 19, 2012

Divinity, Memory, Theology, the Holocaust and God's Very Existence

The Last Witness

Joseph Polak — July 2012, Commentary

Imagine it: the end of an era. The last person able to testify to all that transpired, to all that befell us, the last person who could affirm that we indeed saw what we saw, is gone. Of all the rememberers, I alone am left to sit here, knowing that my time will also come. And then, what becomes of the tale?

I am limited in what I remember; I was not yet three when the war ended. What value is there in the few horrific scenes I can conjure? The historical record is not enriched by them. My memory has become a datum, a relic. Valid, but inessential.

While they still lived, I stood among the other survivors, seasoned, wizened men and women who were perpetually old, prematurely gaunt. Their bodies reflected those days. The deep shadows of what they had once taken in never left them.

They would glance at me in passing, surveying my inconsequentiality, often with patience, often without. I was a fly. “Do you really know, child,” they would ask, “do you really know what it is to have your parents shot before your eyes, do you really know what it is to have your grandparents thrown out of the upstairs window during a liquidation?”

Did I know? I would put my hands in my pockets and shrug, looking, in those early days, for a cigarette. Did I know? The question was an accusation. You do not understand, they were saying, you were too young to make sense of it. The carnage and death, the murder by fever and by hunger—all of which I witnessed, some of which I experienced—were not valid to them because I could not have made sense of such experiences as they occurred. My testimony was that of a blind man. I heard the noises, put it all together later; not acceptable in a court of law, not sufficiently real.

“You say you were there,” they argued. “But you really weren’t.”

Then they would appear astonished at the pain that came over my face from such invalidation and would hastily take pity.

Bist geven a yingeleh,” they would say. It’s not your fault, you were just a kid. Children, they meant, are frivolous; let’s not take their experiences seriously.

They are all gone now. Their hoary heads and Polish teeth have crossed the great divide, and I alone, I alone am left to tell the tale. I’m a bit of a fake, don’t you think? A bit of a liar, no?

When those memories I did possess would beckon, I trembled. Sleepless nights would become my lot, filled with chills and despair. They were without solace, without consolation. I would not allow love. Love promised that what little memory I did have would be submerged. Love meant the cesspool that was Bergen-Belsen would disappear.

When I was 10 years old, my father murdered, my mother married a man in Montreal who forbade mention of the Holocaust. Shall we let it disappear, I wondered? And if we did, would I continue being? I lived with him but did not take up with him.

I did not, could not, remember what brought on my nocturnal fits of madness; there were no visual scenes in my imagination when primordial terrors wracked my body. I could not remember why I would periodically get mammoth rheumatic tremors that seized me in the darkness and in the light. I did not remember why Mother’s moans of terror shuddered within me decades after she died. I knew that I was afraid of her, not for what she had been but for what she had become. I knew that I did not have, did not want to have, the toughness in her that allowed her to survive. Yet did it enter me, yet does it overtake me. It turns people away when they sense it; I am not easy to love.

For all that, I did not visit my past, really, never gave it a glance, until I turned 50. Slowly I stared at it, slowly, with index cards, I put it into chronological order: the Hague, Westerbork, Bergen-Belsen, the Hague.

Soon after the end of the Holocaust, in Montreal, I fell in with other child survivors. They made up fully a third of my seventh-grade class. We were silent about our past. When the topic came up, we would become restless and look about anxiously for distraction. We did not want to be witnesses; we just wanted to be like everyone else. Eventually we each became an anti-witness. We didn’t want to hear about it, talk about it; we pretended that the ordeal happened to others, to those who did have numbers on their arms. Perhaps we understood that the mature survivors constituted the most humiliated group of people on earth, and we wanted no part of their residual shame.

Mother died when I turned 40. Freddie, a tad older than I, came to sit with me at her shivah.

“Do you remember, Joseph,” he said, “do you remember how we used to play hide-and-seek around the corpses in Bergen-Belsen?”

I did not remember, but it was this question, coming from him, that allowed me to accept myself as a survivor. And it has taken nearly three decades following that shivah for me to have learned that what my mind does not remember, my body does, and so does my soul.

Hesitantly I take my place among the survivors. I get into the line at the gates of the death camps, and I am there, more in death than in life.

And so I sometimes entertain this fantasy that, because of my sheer youth during those years, I am the Last Witness. The Holocaust will pass out of experience and into history. There will be no one left to say “and then they took my parents away and I never saw them again,” or “Moishalleh died in my arms; he had not eaten anything in two weeks and his nine-year-old frame could not take it any more,” or “my high school teacher examined all the boys in the class, and all the circumcised ones were expelled.”

I carry this fear that when I disappear, so will the last memories of that great darkness, so will the fecal stench that attended the typhus, so will the ravages of the outdoors that attended the roll calls, and the stiffness, everywhere, of the corpses. And in the absence of such primary memories, how long will it take for a civilized country again to allow a leader into office who harbors evil beliefs and insidious desires? And how long until the physicians and lawyers and judges and philosophers and writers and musicians and composers and conductors join his cause?

I wonder: If I indeed turn out to be the Last Witness, will my death mark the beginning of the Great Forgetting?

At such moments, fortunately, I have also come to realize the arrogance of such questions, and to understand that such arrogance is where idolatry and atheism begin.

For I will not be the Last Witness; the last Witness will be the greatest, the most humiliated Witness of all. I speak of course, of G-d Himself. He Who is everywhere had to have been there, too. He had to have been present, and He had to have witnessed His reputation as redeemer and savior of Israel sink into the mud of Treblinka and Belzec.

“What will the Egyptians say?” Moses asks when G-d threatens to destroy Israel after they worship the Golden Calf. “Do you want them to say that You took the Jews out of Egypt only so that You might destroy them Yourself when they reached the desert?”

The argument worked; He was averse to being misconstrued.

There is a scene in the great Rolf Hochhuth play The Deputy in which a priest asks the character Hochhuth, based on Josef Mengele, something along the line of, “Have you no fear of divine retribution? Do you not believe that G-d will call you to account for this?”

And Mengele is made to answer: “You have no idea, no idea, how I wish with all my heart that He strike me down, that He slay me every time I send a child to the gas. But He doesn’t.”

No one came out of the Holocaust looking worse than G-d. He is compassionate, the theologians used to say! He hates evil, they claimed! Omnipotent, they said! Caring for His chosen people, the liturgy reads: “Ha-oneh le`amo yisrael be-et shavom elav” (“He Who answers the prayer of His people whenever they turn to Him”). Not this time, not six million times.

Yet although He did not save six million of His people, in an extraordinary reversal of roles and of history, His people, the ones who did survive, saved Him.

The rabbis who escaped the infernos spent scant time contemplating, much less bemoaning what the philosopher Martin Buber has called the eclipse of G-d.

“With ten trials was Abraham tested,” the Mishnah recalls, and he passed them all. Why didn’t Abraham ask G-d all those moral questions about his final trial, the binding of Isaac? “Didn’t you just promise me a chapter ago that my seed will come through Isaac? What am I now supposed to tell people about divine commitments? Is Isaac guilty of something that merits the death penalty? With respect to Isaac, shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” Abraham, who clearly knows such questions, does not ask them. When you are in love, as Abraham was with G-d, your love sabotages all such inquiries. Rashi, the great medieval teacher and exegete, says it most clearly: “Lo hirher ahar midotav merov ahavato (“Because of his great love for G-d, Abraham was not interested in G-d’s intentions and agendas”).

The rabbi of Zanz-Klausenberg, who came out of the camps shaven and shrunk, raged for years about his Holocaust experiences, yet skipped nary a beat in his loving worship of his creator, and embarked almost at once on a successful campaign to build a hospital. The rabbis of Bobov, Ungvar, and Satmar created housing for the poor and provided food programs for the infirm. Like the rabbi of Modzhits, another survivor, who composed and sang his way through the 1950s and 1960s, they built houses of worship, ritual baths, and educational institutions in numbers unmatched ever in Jewish history.

The mighty theological questions emerging from that muddy darkness, they found, merely led back to the gates of Auschwitz, and they chose not to go back there. Never would they be humiliated again, and never again would they permit G-d such humiliation.

And they had confidence that He Who commands the dawn to follow the night will represent them fairly when the last witness is gone, that He Himself will report on the heroism of the victims and on how, in their last moments, they sanctified His name.

The Last Witness will join the legions of victims in the celestial palace that is touted as the place where Elijah, in G-d’s presence, will provide the mighty answers—including one that deals with the great absence while one-and-a-half million Jewish children were being murdered.

Two lines will form in heaven, each of them silent. No one will be asking Elijah a thing.

The first line, with Dostoevsky as its guide, might say: “Elijah, tell G-d that we really have no interest in post-facto explanations about His great absence; it’s just too late for explanations, too much injustice, too much cruelty has been allowed to happen. The notion of an adequate answer to such horror is itself repulsive.”

The second line, forming the dialectic, would have Abraham as its guide. It might assert, “It was never about us, Elijah; we never sought, and still don’t need, explanations. It was always about G-d. We just couldn’t bear His vast humiliation, and we did what we could to mitigate it. Blessed be His name for ever and ever.”

And, were I the Last Witness, I would rage against both camps and ask how dare they remain silent, what self-absorbed luxury were they indulging, anyway, when the memory of that time, of those children, is in danger of dissipating?

“Where is G-d?” I would thunder at Elijah.“Is He out there reciting the names of the camps? Belsen, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor? Is He reading the names of the victims?” I would pound the tables with both hands. “Is He weeping?”

About the Author

Joseph Polak is Hillel Rabbi and University Chaplain at Boston University. He is completing a memoir on the first 10 years of his life, which include surviving both the Holocaust and its aftermath.


God, the Holocaust, and Divine Memory

November 2012


To the Editor:

I read with aroused interest Rabbi Joseph Polak’s “The Last Witness” [July/August]. What got my attention was Polak’s imagining briefly the unanswerable question in relation to the Holocaust. As he uniquely cries it out:

“Where is G-d?…Is He out there reciting the names of the camps? Belsen, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor? Is He reading the names of the victims?…Is He weeping?”

These questions are meant to rebuke two opposing assertions put to Elijah as to the “great absence while one-and-a-half million Jewish children were being murdered.” The first imagined assertion is Dostoevskian, that there can be no answer to, or explanation of, such transcendent injustice and cruelty. God should stay silent. The second, opposite, assertion is Abrahamic, that man cannot question God, cannot demand explanations and answers of such awesome divinity.

The rebuke is rageful. How dare anyone remain silent? What self-indulgence allows such silence?

Polak’s questions admit of no answer. They ask what kind of a God would allow such suffering and killing? Who is this God? Wherefore His “great absence”? What penance does He do? Polak “would pound the tables with both hands.” His God must be held to account. Polak is engaged in an imagined confrontation with his creator, from whom he demands some action of remembrance, contrition, and atonement.

I, a non-believer, take a different view. I ask no such questions (of whom, after all?). I am interested in Polak’s questions insofar as they reveal to me the absurdity of belief and faith in light of the overwhelming evil of the Holocaust (in which an uncle and cousin of mine were killed, and during which another cousin of mine suffered but survived the depredations of the concentration camp).

I get no succor or relief from being able to make my God human and contend ferociously with Him. It is a wasted effort. For its presupposition is that there is some divinity worthy of such contention, which concedes reification of a notional God.

If there ever were an occasion that informs Jews that God is not great, that belief and faith in Him are preposterous, and that by them we diminish ourselves and the meaning of the Holocaust, then the Holocaust itself must be that occasion. 

Itzik Basman
Toronto, Ontario


To the Editor:

Joseph Polak’s heartfelt and stirring article resonates within me. Like him, I was born in the Hague, Holland. Unlike him, I survived in hiding, not in Bergen-Belsen. My memory was questioned by adults, my suffering diminished by the assumption of adults that the madness had not touched we youngsters: “You were only a child.”

Joseph and his friend played hide-and-seek around the corpses in Bergen-Belsen. I did not play at all. We children who grew up overnight, did not know play. We were co-operative with our hiders, remained silent unless bidden to talk, and we did not cry.

It appears we two little Dutch boys, Joseph Polak and I, now aged 70 and 72 respectively, are indeed fated to be among the last Shoah survivor witnesses, along with G-d. But can we trust Him to be a reliable witness?

Robert Krell
Vancouver, British Columbia


Joseph Polak writes:

I am struck by how well Mr. Basman read my article, and am grateful for the frankness with which he presents his non-belief. And, if I understand him correctly, he is proposing a kind of Occam’s razor in Holocaust theology: It takes fewer assumptions from the experience of the Holocaust to conclude that there is no G-d than it takes to conclude that there still is one.

Alas, were Mr. Occam alive, I think he would take issue with Mr. Basman. The Holocaust does not pose a single challenge to G-d as Creator, nor to the integrity of His recorded revelation, nor—come to think of it—to most of the classical philosophical proofs that Anselm and Descartes proposed. It does raise questions about our understanding of His role in history—perhaps because we got this wrong in the first place, or perhaps because without the advantage of old-fashioned prophetic revelation, it is impossible to make sense of this role. However, let me assure Mr. Basman that Jews who observe the Sabbath or immerse themselves in the study of the tradition do not seem to feel that they are alone. Nor do they feel that they are deluding themselves.

My article is not about G-d’s existence but instead about divine memory: It is a sort of Midrash on the 2,000-year-old High Holiday liturgy, which claims ve-en shikcha lifnei kisei kevodecho (“there is no forgetting before Your glorious Throne”). More than us, it is G-d Who will have to live with the memory of the Holocaust. What is He doing with this memory?

To my dear friend Robert Krell, the psychiatrist who has dedicated his life to helping child survivors of the Holocaust maneuver their way out of the horror of their memories, my answer is not much different. If G-d can forget nothing—in some ways, that’s terrible. So what is the best way for Him to deal with the Holocaust? Repress it? I think He will be more reliable on keeping the message alive than Dr. Krell gives Him credit for! Or, as I say in the article, I certainly hope so.

(today) Dear Rabbi Polak:

I just today discovered the publication of my letter in November 2012 Commentary concerning your cri de coeur essay, The Last Witness, itself appearing in the July/August 2012 edition of the magazine. I also noted your gracious but respectfully dissenting response, which I very much appreciated.

I’ll hope you don’t mind a pretty brief, direct response rather than engaging the labyrinthine process of writing back via Commentary.

I wonder whether, respectfully, if I’m comprehending your meaning, you’ve accurately characterized my essential point:

... And, if I understand him correctly, he is proposing a kind of Occam’s razor in Holocaust theology: It takes fewer assumptions from the experience of the Holocaust to conclude that there is no G-d than it takes to conclude that there still is one...(my bolding emphasis)

The problem with this characterization, as I read it, is that it locates what I’m saying within the framework, and upon the premises, of Holocaust theology, and that you say I say it simplifies matters considerably—hence the razor, less assumptions—to conclude from the experience of the Holocaust that there is no God rather than that there is one. But I do not come to my nonbelief from the experience of the Holocaust. The formulation that I do puts my nonbelieving cart before my nonbelieving horse.

Rather, I come to my nonbelief by all the intellectual, emotional and experiential means at my disposal over the course of my reading, thinking, academic, writing and lived life. My idea of a “Godless Holocaust” comes from all of that, not the other way around. So for me there is no Occam’s razor that I bring to the Holocaust theology; for me there ought be no theology-- the inquiry into the existence and nature of the divine and its relation to, and influence on, all things—in relation to the Holocaust or to anything else.

One other point—and I mean not to engage in a debate about whether God exists: you say, “My article is not about G-d’s existence but instead about divine memory...” In my field of meagre competence, the law, and the litigated law at that, and from the little I know about formal logic, what you say is a proper example of begging the question, as well as begging the subsidiary question.

The question begged is God’s existence, that, again, only respectfully, not to be o’erleaped by “a sort of Midrash” on divine memory, which presupposes divinity,

The subsidiary question begged, to my mind, indeed perhaps a matter for Holocaust theology as well as other modes of thought and inquiry, is, exactly, the resolution of the awful, terrible tension between belief and faith on one scale and God’s existence on the other. Enragedly pounding the table with both hands, ferociously contending with Him, heartbreakingly asking “Where is G-d” seem to me the wrong responses and the wrong question. The question should be, I argue, foundational not presuppositional. How can there be a God who can visit such incomprehensible, underserved smiting on His Chosen people? How can I, by any means issuing from my mind and heart, reconcile my belief and faith with the experience of the Holocaust?



No comments:

Post a Comment