Sunday, May 04, 2008

Yom Hashoah: Remembering Death Celebrating Life

The first time I watched 'The Pianist' was in a cinema in Warsaw during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2002. Together with other students from Leeds Jewish society I was taking part in what has in many ways become our generation's rite of passage – the trip to Poland’s concentration camps.

We did the usual itinerary – trips to the quiet fields of Treblinka, (where I perhaps inappropriately felt that if one didn’t know the place's history, it would make a good picnic spot) the barracks of Majdanek (which are eerily like a film set), and of course Auschwitz, the symbol of humanity's capacity for evil, the place that forever changed our imaginative framework for what depths people are capable of.

Yet rather than focusing on death, we also explored Jewish life before the war. It still amazes me how dynamic the Jewish Polish experience actually was – that in addition to those learning Torah, the country was filled with Jewish poets, writers, artists and philosophers…all integrated into society, four cities the equivalent of today’s New York…and all destroyed in the space of a few years.

There were of course the obvious questions - of how God could let such a thing happen; of how man could let such a thing happen. And the less obvious - of whether I would have survived in the camps, or whether if I was a non Jewish Pole I would have risked my family's life to save a neighbor (is it just me or does everyone imagine these scenarios?)

But the overall feeling was one of pride - that despite it all we're still here, still standing. Like Eli Wiesel’s portrayal of the prototypal biblical ‘survivor’ Isaac, those that came out of the death camps picked themselves up and build new lives, brought children into the world, moved out of Hannah Arendt's 'worldlessness' and re-entered history. Most refused to let fate embitter them. How amazing to be part of such a people.

The second time I watched ‘The Pianist’ was last Wednesday night, in my Tel Aviv flat, as the first Hebrew city in nearly two thousand years marked Holocaust Memorial Day. There’s a lot that needs fixing in this country. The political culture, the education system, the fact that many find it difficult to articulate a vision of what sort of state we want to build here...We haven't yet created a cultural and spiritual utopia a la Achad Ha’am while the daily sirens around Sderot remind us we’re a long way from a Herzelian safe haven. Surrounded by the hustle and bustle of daily life, it's often difficult to make out the wood from the trees, hear the 'still short voice' through the noise of scandals and strikes.

Yet every once in a while, as the siren we hear indicates the past rather than a sometimes frightening present, its worthwhile using the silence to remember a time when we didn’t have the strongest army in the region, or a first world economy, or a place to call our own.

And be appreciative and proud of a place those 6 million could only dream of.

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