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We Need a Holocaust Narrative Reset, and Reform Jews Can Lead the Way

We Need a Holocaust Narrative Reset, and Reform Jews Can Lead the Way

Holocaust transport train on tracks

When the Pew Foundation, in 2013, asked American Jews to rank what was most essential to being Jewish, its 10-item survey list was topped by "Remembering the Holocaust.” In 2017, however, Rabbi Michael P. Sternfield of Temple Beth El in Bradenton, FL, told The Forward that, at least for young Jews, “the Shoah and the State of Israel are no longer compelling factors.”

Whispers grow of a stealthy increase in “Holocaust fatigue” among all the generations.

Reform Judaism must help prevent devaluation of the Holocaust, as it is a source of invaluable lessons for humanity in general, and Jewry in particular. As survivor and scholar Yoram Lubling maintains, “How we remember, use, document, and teach this period . . . will determine the moral space of our collective future.”

What is required is resetting of the narrative reset. For more than 70 years, that narrative has been flawed by overreliance on the horror story of the Shoah, a painful focus on atrocious acts perpetrators committed against victims. At the same time, little or no attention has been paid to its inseparable counterpart, what I call the “help story” – an inspiring focus on admirable life-risking things victims tried to do for one another, kin and stranger alike.

Accounts exist in survivor memoirs of high-risk efforts made by upstanders in the ghettos to staff forbidden schools, operate hidden mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths), and conduct clandestine  b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, etc. In the Nazi camps, some of these individuals secretly relieved the workload of exhausted peers. They smuggled in food and medicine “organized” (stolen) from the stored goods of doomed arrivals sent directly to the gas. Long-timers schooled newbies in survival secrets. They punished informers and thieves, shielded “illegal” religious services, and did much more, scores of examples of which are included in my 2017 book, Stealth Altruism: Forbidden Care as Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust.

ReformJudaism.org’s page about the Holocaust echoes the horror story centrism, reading, in part:

“When we speak about the Holocaust today, powerful and horrific images come to mind. We are reminded of the horrors which Jews and other persecuted groups faced: forced labor, starvation, humiliation, and torture which often resulted in death…”

A far-reaching reset might read something like this:

“When we speak about the Holocaust today, powerful images come to mind, some agonizing and others inspiring. We are reminded of the horrors which Jews and other persecuted groups faced: forced labor, starvation, humiliation, and torture which often resulted in death. We are also reminded of victims who at risk of their lives secretly tried to relieve suffering, resist dehumanization, and keep hope and faith alive. We see Jewish upstanders daring to improve the chances of survival, as guided by their commitment to tikkun olam, repair of our broken world.”

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis maintains that Holocaust memorialization is a "sacred act that elicits a double mandate - to expose the depth of evil and to raise goodness from the dust of amnesia." (Italics mine). However, only six of the 48 Holocaust museums I have visited around the world meet this standard, and millions of visitors therefore continue to get a distorted version of modern Jewish history bereft of the help story.

Three questions lie at the heart of moving toward a reset:

  1. Why is the help story ignored in almost all major Holocaust museums, including those well-known here in the United States? (On this subject, museums such as Yad Vashem, the Theresienstadt Museum, and the Ravensbrück Museum show the way.)
  2. What does ongoing neglect of the help story cost Jewry in moral and spiritual terms?
  3. How might affordable reforms soon bring the help story "in from the cold " and thereby honor the Holocaust’s six million Jewish victims in ever-better ways?  

Reform Jewry, with its emphasis on open-mind choice, is the only branch of American Jewry that might carefully weigh, and then, hopefully, chose to advance a new Holocaust narrative. Here exists a timely opportunity to make an historic and lasting contribution, one that can have Jewry long draw empowering and inspiring lessons from both the horror story and the help story. 

For as Pierre Sauvage, himself a "hidden child" survivor, maintains,

"If we remember solely the horror of the Holocaust, we will pass on no perspective from which meaningfully to confront and learn from that horror. If the hard and fast evidence of the possibility of good on Earth is allowed to slip through our fingers and turn to dust, then future generations will have only dust to build on."

Arthur B. Shostak, PhD, is an emeritus professor of sociology at Drexel University. His new book is Stealth Altruism: Forbidden Care as Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust. Visit www.stealthaltruism.com to learn more about his work.

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