Remembering What We Wish We Could Forget

April 3, 2013Rabbi Jeff Brown

Yom HaShoah is a day filled with paradoxes.

First paradox: how can we possibly do anything to memorialize or honor the memories of six million? The number is so immense that it defies comprehension. Like the picture here, which hints at the enormity of the number without actually listing, or being, six million. What we remember on the Holocaust is the "idea of the six million" because remembering each of the six million is impossible.

Second paradox: Why are we supposed to remember something so awful and gut-wrenching that normal people would prefer to forget it?

The Torah itself seems to know of this paradox. Deuteronomy 25:17-19 recalls the tragedy that the Amalekites brought against our ancestors, and what we're supposed to do in response to it:

Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost [i.e. defenseless women and children], all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God.  It shall be that when the Eternal your God gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that the Eternal your God gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens - you shall not forget!

Take a look at that last clause: We should wipe out the memory of Amalek - and at the same time, we should absolutely not forget it.

How is it possible to simultaneously wipe out a memory and remember it?

This is the paradox of Holocaust remembrance. For what sane human being would not want to forget it? Wouldn't it be easier on all of us if we could just pretend that the death of six million didn't happen on our watch?

(Brief tangent on "our watch": I think one of the most troubling parts of Holocaust remembrance for those of my generation and younger is that it's history to us. We didn't live through it. Some of the teens that I talked to about this thought about the Holocaust the same way they think about ancient Roman history - as something in the distant past. Young people today don't realize that the Holocaust happened, basically, yesterday. This really hit home for me personally when I realized that my maternal grandmother, who is alive and well in Florida, was born before Anne Frank was.)

I have two thoughts concerning the nature of Jewish existence. As Jews we wrestle with what we are supposed to think, and believe. And, we wrestle with what we are supposed to do.

Regarding thoughts and beliefs: for me, the core question that grows out of the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism in general, is whether something like the Holocaust could ever (God forbid) happen here in America.  And, since I am constantly polling my teenage and adult students about this, I can at least anecdotally report that most American Jews react in disgust to my question.  They are insulted at even in the insinuation that America might be capable of turning on its Jews.

Like them, I pay tribute to the virtues of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and to the Judeo-Christian ethos that lies at the heart of what constitutes American law and values.  But, although it brings me no joy to type these words, my own reading of Jewish history teaches me to be more realistic.  For me, I must acknowledge that there is at least a chance that such a horror could happen here - however unlikely.

(Everyone should absolutely read Philip Roth's The Plot Against America for one fictionalized vision of what such a scenario could look like.  And, from Jonathan Sarna, the dean of American Jewish historians, everyone should read the recently released When General Grant Expelled the Jews to learn about the real life events that have come closest to federally-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the US).

For me, the acknowledgement of the chance of such a horror repeating itself directly informs my own Zionism.  To put it as simply as I know how: I support the existence of the State of Israel so that - God forbid - it will be there for me, my family, and my descendants if we ever needed to (God forbid) flee there for safe haven.  We have not yet discovered the silver bullet to rid anti-Semitism from the world.  It still exists. And it could rear its ugly head again.

Regarding what we are supposed to do after reflecting on the Holocaust: Rabbi Emil Fackenheim z"l said it best when he wrote of an imagined 614th commandment created out of the Holocaust: a responsibility on the part of all Jews to keep on being Jewish, and perpetuating Judaism, lest Hitler score "a posthumous victory."  The longer Judaism remains alive in the world, the longer we insure that Hitler was actually defeated.

What are each of us to do to perpetuate Judaism?  That's too large of a question and will have to wait for a later post.  For now, it is enough for us to rise up from the end of Yom HaShoah and act...simply with the determination to affirm our identity as Jews, our pride as Jews, and to express a commitment to do what we can to pass the torch of Jewish life on to our next generation.

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown originally posted this piece at his Union for Reform Judaism Techie Award-winning site In July, he became the spiritual leader of Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanuel-El in Scarsdale, NY. You can visit his new website at

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