Table of Contents:
The Jewish Return Into History: Emil L. Fackenheim, Schocken Books: NY, 1978 – Excerpts
… Spring 1944. Good news from the Russian front. No doubt could remain now of Germany’s defeat. It was only a question of time – of months or weeks perhaps. The trees were in blossom. This was a year like any other, with its springtime, its betrothals, its weddings and births. People said: “The Russian army’s making gigantic strides forward … Hitler won’t be able to do us any harm, even if he wants to.”
Yes, we even doubted that he wanted to exterminate us.
Was he going to wipe out a whole people? Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What methods could he use? And in the middle of the twentieth century!
Besides, people were interested in everything – in strategy, in diplomacy, in politics, in Zionism – but not in their own fate. Even Moche the Beadle was silent. He was weary of speaking. He wandered n the synagogue or in the streets, with his eyes downs, his back bent, avoiding people’s eyes.
At that time, it was still possible to obtain migration permits for Palestine. I had asked my father to sell out, liquidate his business, and leave. “I’m too old, my son,” he replied. “I’m too old to start a new life. I’m too old to start from scratch again in a country so far away …”
The Budapest radio announced that the Fascist party had come into power. Horthy had been forced to ask one of the leaders of the Nyilas party to form a new government. Still this was not enough to worry us. Of course, we had heard about the Fascists, but they were still just an abstraction to us. This was only a change in the administration.
The following day, there was more disturbing news: with government permission, German troops had entered Hungarian territory. Here and there, anxiety was aroused. One of our friends, Berkovitz, who had just returned from the capital, told us: “The Jews in Budapest are living in an atmosphere of fear and terror. There are anti-Semitic incidents every day, in the streets, in the trains. The Fascists are attacking Jewish shops and synagogues. The situation is getting very serious.”
The news spread like wildfire through Sighet. Soon it was on everyone’s lips. But not for long. Optimism soon revived. “The Germans won’t get as far as this. They’ll stay in Budapest. There are strategic and political reasons …”
Before three days had passed, Germany army cars had appeared in our streets. Anguish. German soldiers – with their steel helmets, and their emblem, the death’s head.
However, our first impressions of the Germans were most reassuring. The officers were billeted in private houses, even in the homes of Jews. Their attitude toward their hosts was distant, but polite. They never demanded the impossible, made no unpleasant comments, and even smiled occasionally at the mistress of the house. One German officer live din the house opposite ours. He had a room with the Kahn family. They said he was a charming man – calm, likeable, polite, and sympathetic. Three days after he moved in he brought Madame Kahn a box of chocolates. The optimists rejoiced. … The Germans were already in the town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict had already been pronounced, yet the Jews of Sighet continued to smile. …
I had to stay at Buchenwald until April eleventh. Have nothing to say of my life during this period. It no longer mattered. After my father’s death, nothing could touch me any more. I was transferred to the children’s block, where there were six hundred of us. The front was drawing nearer. I spent my days in a state of total idleness. And I had but one desire – to eat. I no longer thought of my father or of my mother. From time to time I would dream of a drop of soup, of an extra ration of soup …
On April fifth, the wheel of history turned.
It was late in the afternoon. We were standing in the block, waiting for an SS man to come and count us. He was late in coming. Such a delay was unknown till then in the history of Buchenwald. Something must have happened. Two hours later the loudspeakers sent out an order from the head of the camp: all the Jew must come to the assembly place.
This was the end! Hitler was going to keep his promise.
The children in our block went toward the place. There was nothing else we could do. Gustav, the head of the block, made this clear to us with his truncheon. But on the way we met some prisoners who whispered to us: “Go back to your block. The Germans are going to shoot you. Go back to yor block, and don’t move.” We went back to our block. We learned on the way that the camp resistance organization had decided not to abandon the Jews and was going to prevent their being liquidated. …
We were tormented with hunger. We had eaten nothing for six days, except a bit of grass or some potato peelings found near the kitchens. At ten o’clock in the morning the SS scattered through the camp, moving the last victims toward the assembly place. Then the resistance movement decided to act. Armed men suddenly rose up everywhere. Bursts of firing. Grenades exploding. We children stayed flat on the ground in the block.
The battle did not last long. Toward noon everything was quiet again. The SS had fled and the resistance had taken charge of the running of the camp. At about six o’clock in the evening, the first American tank stood at the gates of Buchenwald … Three days after the liberation of Buchenwald I became very ill with food poisoning. I was transferred to the hospital and spent two weeks between life and death. One day I was abled to get up, after gathering all my strength. I wanted to see myself in the mirror hanging on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.
… When I came back from Normandy the same organization got me a furnished room on the rue de Marois and gave me a grant which covered by living expenses and the cost of the French lessons which I took every day of the week except Saturday and Sunday from a gentleman with a mustache whose name I have forgotten. I wanted to master the language sufficiently to sign up for a philosophy course at the Sorbonne.
The study of philosophy attracted me because I wanted to understand the meaning of the events of which I had been the victim. In the concentration camp I had cried out in sorrow and anger against God and also against man, who seemed to have inherited only the cruelty of his creator. I was anxious to re-evaluate my revolt in an atmosphere of detachment, to view it in terms of the present.
So many questions obsessed me. Where is God to be found? In suffering or in rebellion? When is a man most truly a man? When he submits or when he refuses? Where does suffering lead him? To purification or to bestiality? Philosophy, I hoped, would give me an answer. It would free me from my memories, my doubts, my feeling of guilt. It would drive them away or at least bring them out in concrete form into the light of day. My purpose was to enroll at the Sorbonne and devote myself to this endeavor.
But I did nothing of the sort, and Gad was the one who caused me to abandon my original aim. If today I am only a question mark, he is responsible.
One evening there was a knock at my door. I went to open it, wondering who it could be. I had no friends or acquaintances in Paris and spent most of the time in my room, reading a book or sitting with my hand over my eyes, thinking about the past. “I would like to talk with you.” …
That night Gad told me about Palestine and the age-old Jewish dream of recreating an independent homeland, one where every human act would be free. He told me also of the Movement’s desperate struggle with the English.
“The English government has sent a hundred thousand soldiers to maintain so-called order. We of the Movement are no more than a hundred strong, but we strike fear into their hearts. Do you understand what I am saying? We cause the English – yes, the English – to tremble!” The sparks in his dark eyes lit up the fear of a hundred thousand uniformed men.
This was the first story I had ever heard in which the Jews were not the ones to be afraid. Until this moment I had believed that the mission of the Jews was to represent the trembling of history rather than the wind which made it tremble. …
Gad’s stories were utterly fascinating. I saw in him a prince of Jewish history, a legendary messenger sent by fate to awaken my imagination, to tell the people whose past was now their religion: Come, come; the future is waiting for you with open arms. From now on you will no longer be humiliated, persecuted, or even pitied. You will not be strangers encamped in an age and a place that are not yours. Come, brothers, come! …
For two hours every day, Gad indoctrinated us with the Movement’s ideology. The goal was simply to get the English out; the method, intimidation, terror, and sudden death. “On the day when the English understand that their occupation will cost them blood hey won’t want to stay,” Gad told us. “It’s cruel – inhuman, if you like. But we have no other choice. For generations, we’ve wanted to be better, more pure in heart than those who persecuted us. You’ve all seen the result: Hitler and the extermination camps in Germany. We’ve had enough of trying to be more just than those who claim to speak in the name of justice. When the Nazis killed a third of our people just men found nothing to say. If ever it’s a question of killing off Jews, everyone is silent; there are twenty centuries of history to prove it. We can rely only on ourselves. If we must become more unjust and inhuman than those who have been unjust and inhuman to us, then we shall do so. We don’t like to be bearers of death; heretofore we’ve chosen to be victims rather than executioners. …
… Two events have happened to the Jewish people in this generation, more momentous than the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. ever was. The rabbis then confronted the possibility that the Jewish people might die. At Auschwitz this people in fact died. The rabbis dreamt of salvation and resurrection after catastrophe. Such salvation and resurrection have, in fact, become actual in Jerusalem in our own time.
It would be absurd to look for explanations, religious or otherwise, of these events – an enterprise in any case contrary to the whole Midrashic tradition. We can and must ask, however, whether, in response to these events, Jewish existence has remained in the demythologized condition which is so widely and so confidently proclaimed to be the universal modern fate. And what casts doubt on these confident proclamations is that not only old Midrashim have assumed new life. New Midrashim have been born. They are still being born. They will continue to be born.
Some might ask for a philosophical theory of the new Midrashim to which I refer. Those have not understood what has been said. Present Jewish existence has lived and is still living the events of Auschwitz and Jerusalem. It cannot detach itself from these events, much less rise above them, and philosophical reflection only points back to an immediacy in which the stories themselves are told. They are “only” stories, and known to be so; yet they must be told, and their telling is a testimony in which Buber’s “I am given over for disposal” and “It depends on me” become one “in being lived.”
In Elie Wiesel’s Night, the work of a man who was in Auschwitz as a fourteen-year-old boy, we read the following:
“One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all round us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains – and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.
“The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him …
The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment with the nooses. “Long live liberty!”, cried the two adults.
But the child was silent.
“Where is God? Where is He?”, someone behind me asked.
At a sign from the camp, the three chairs tipped over … I heard a voice within me answer… “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging on this gallows …””
I heard my second and third stories in 1970, when together with my wife, I went with a group of survivors on a pilgrimage to the murder camp of Bergen-Belsen – and then to Jerusalem. We arrived at Hannover, the city nearest to Belsen, it rained. The leader of our group told us: “We have revisited this place of our suffering many times. It always rains. God weeps. He weeps for the sins he has committed against his people Israel.”
And then, by a mere brief airplane ride, we leaped over the eternities that separate Bergen-Belsen from Jerusalem. There, a friend told us how one day at six A.M. he went to the Western Wall, and there, at the most sacred place of the Jewish people, he met an old Jew, who greeted the stranger, saying, “My friend, I have a simhah, a celebration! Celebrate with me! Have some schnapps and some cookies!”
Having accepted the invitation, our friend some days later returned to the Wall at the same time, only to be greeted by the same old man in the same way. And so, it went three or four times. Finally, our friend could no longer restrain his curiosity and asked the old man: “My friend, what kind of celebration is this? A wedding? A Bar-mitzvah? What simhah can last for weeks upon weeks?” The old man replied, “I am a survivor of Auschwitz. Also, I am a Cohen, descendent of priests and, as you may know, a Cohen has the duty, privilege, and joy of invoking the blessing of God on his people but a few times a year. In Jerusalem, however, he may bless the people every single day. And since I must be at work in my kibbutz at eight A.M., I come here every day at six A.M. to fulfill my duty and my privilege. This is my simhah, my celebration. It will last as long as I live.”
CIJR “Jewish Thought of Emil Fackenheim Conference” (Toronto, 2015): Prof. Elie Wiesel: Nov. 3, 2015 — Special Video Presentation by Nobel Laureate Professor Elie Wiesel on the occasion of the Conference “The Jewish Thought of Emil L. Fackenheim: Judaism, Zionism, Holocaust, Israel”, held on October 25, 2015, in Toronto. This was the last video Elie Wiesel made prior to his death three years ago.
Three Years After Elie Wiesel’s Death, We Are Desperate For Voices Like His | Opinion: Nadine Epstein, Newsweek, July 2, 2019 — On July 2, 2016, when Nobel Prize peace laureate Elie Wiesel died, a New York Times headline read, “Donald Trump Deletes Tweet Showing Hillary Clinton and Star of David Shape.”
Elie Wiesel’s Son On His Rebellion, And His Father’s Love: Elisha Wiesel, The New York Jewish Week, June 7, 2017 — As the cancer progressed with episodic violence, and my father came closer to his end, I would often ask what I could do for him. And, smiling, he would hold my hand and look into my eyes and say: “Just be.”
Elie Wiesel’s Secret: Ron Rosenbaum, Tablet, Sept. 29, 2017 — Just who was Elie Wiesel? Did we get him wrong?
Sacred Time Ep 12: Tisha b’Av – The Miracle of Jewish Memory: Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik, Mosaic, YouTube — Today, the Jewish state is restored, and Jerusalem is in our hands. Why do we still mourn ancient Jerusalem’s destruction when we have so much to celebrate?