Rabbi Hillel Skolnik
Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5774
Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation
Although I had been a loyal camper at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires for five years, and already knew that I would want to go back on staff, my plan for the summer after 11th grade, the summer when all of my camp friends were going on Ramah Israel Seminar, was always to go on USY Israel Pilgrimage/Poland Seminar, a six-week long experience that began with a week in Poland visiting the concentration camps to be followed five weeks touring, exploring and loving Israel. Both Ramah Seminar and USY Pilgrimage are programs associated with the Conservative movement and both are excellent. I had simply decided that a summer with my USY friends was how I wanted to spend my time. I was, of course, incredibly excited to go to Israel, especially with this group of 62 other Jewish teenagers which included some of my closest friends, but I was also anxious to get to Poland and to see the place that had been ground zero for the Nazi Holocaust of the Second World War. If memory serves me correctly, I used about 24 rolls of film that summer and have the hundreds of pictures sitting in four albums that usually reside in my home but today are in my office for anyone who would like to look at them during our break between Musaf and Mincha. But the images of that week in Poland that remain most clearly in my mind are images of the camps and the different memorials that were erected in different places throughout the country.
The first camp we visited Majdanek, the death camp that is at the outskirts of Lublin, a sizeable city in Poland that used to have a thriving Jewish community. So close is the camp to the city that at the time of our visit there were houses literally on the other side of the fence of the camp. I don’t know if those homes existed during World War Two, but it makes it plain for all to see that this camp did not exist in the middle of a forest somewhere. This was near a major city and the citizens of Lublin could not possibly have been unaware of what took place there. The truly terrifying thing about Majdanek is that it exists more or less as it did in 1945 and gives the impression that with minimal work it could be operational within a couple of days. The gas chambers and crematorium still stand along with barracks full of glasses, barracks full of suitcases, another full of hair and one with only shoes. The memorial that was constructed at Majdanek is a huge creation that is impossible to miss. After arriving on a raised platform at the front of the camp, you walk down a gradually descending ramp and before you know it find yourself at the bottom of what is a large pit with a massive stone sculpture towering over you and sharp edges jetting out of the walls from both sides. As the survivor who served as our guide that day told us, the gradual ramp is meant to remind us all that the trip down into the terror that lies ahead is one that we might not even notice. We take one step after another, none of which seems to dangerous on its own, but by the time you reach the bottom, it’s too late to go back and you’ve managed to walk yourself down into this awful place where the walls are jetting out against you ready to close in and a terrifying thing is hanging over you. The way out of the monument is a viciously steep staircase on the opposite side symbolizing that while it was easy to get into this mess, there is no easy way out.
The next day we visited the Warsaw Ghetto whose memorial is dominated by a two-sided monument which also exists at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem though as a side-by-side monument. On the front side of the Warsaw version is an image of Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, along with some of his followers. Anielewicz himself is shown standing strong, with a set of bullets wrapped around his clearly malnourished body, and a Molotov cocktail held firmly in his grasp. On the other side of the monument is a depiction of our people leaving wherever they had been, suffering as they carry all they can but most especially their Seifer Torah. It is a powerful monument and its recreation at Yad Vashem underscores the effort in our time to not only memorialize the victims but to honor those who managed to fight back, even knowing they were fighting a losing battle.
During our week in Poland we also visited Auschwitz, Birkenau and Sobibor, spent Shabbat at the one synagogue in Warsaw that survived the Holocaust because it was used as a horse stable and where I was honored to daven Musaf, studied Torah at Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin, a Yeshiva that once housed some of the greatest scholars of its time but now sits empty between tour groups, and even spent a night in the Polish town of Chelm. But for me, the most meaningful and even spiritual memorial we visited was the one that has been constructed at Treblinka. As the war was ending and the camps were being closed, the Nazis did their best to destroy the evidence of the atrocities that had taken place and so Treblinka’s structures are no longer standing. What exists instead is a sea of two or three foot tall stones, each with the name of a community that was destroyed during the Holocaust. Included among the stones is the name Janusz Corczack, a doctor who also ran an orphanage and was offered his life by the Nazis when they came to collect the children for extermination. He chose instead to go with his children and staff to the gas chambers, staying with them to the very end. In the middle of the sea of stones sits a weeping willow tree. It was under that tree that I sat for a long time by myself knowing that this was as close as I would ever come to being in the presence of the six million Jews including one-and-a-half million children who were taken from us.
At each camp it was the responsibility of a different group of us to conduct a memorial service that invariably included the El Malei Rachamim, the special memorial prayer that we will recite ourselves this morning, a recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, other readings and some version of the Hebrew word Zachor, meaning remember, imploring us to never forget the atrocities that took place. Today, when I think of those services and memorials, my mind immediately turns to a similar phrase at the top of our new SOJC Holocaust Memorial constructed by Max Waldor with the help of his family as his Eagle Scout project. On top of the tiles that tell the stories of both victims and survivors of the Holocaust, Max chose to have the words, “Never Forget, Never Again.”
This sentiment, of Zachor, and of “Never Forget, Never Again,” forces us to ask the questions of what is the modern day instruction of Zachor? What does it mean for us in our time to be moved by the phrase “Never forget; Never again”. To me, the answer is found in a famous quotation of Pastor Martin Niemoller, who, as I found on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, was “a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Hitler, yimach shmo, and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.” His famous words may be known to some of you and are found, among other places, inscribed on the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, Massachuseets. He said:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Zachor and “Never Forget; Never Again” requires us as a positive commandment to stand up and speak out for those who are suffering in this world we live in, even when those people are not anyone we know.
It always makes me wonder: how many lives could have been saved if someone had spoken out not only for the Jews but for the gypsies, the homosexuals, physically and mentally impaired and every other group targeted by the Nazis, how many would have been saved if someone had spoken out. How many boats of refugees seeking safe passage away from Nazi Germany were turned away and forced to return to Europe, like the S.S. St. Louis which was turned away from Cuba, Canada and yes, the United States of America. How many lives could have been saved if someone had decided it was worthwhile to bomb the concentration camps and death camps, or at the very least the train tracks leading to the camps thus preventing the mass murder that was taking place there, a fact that was known to the leadership of the allied forces? How many innocent children would not have lost their lives in the most horrific of ways, ways that have been since outlawed by the international community but were clearly already against any human morality, if someone, if anyone had stood up to speak out. I don’t know the actual answer, but I do know that no one stood up and so we are without six million of our brothers and sisters, without their descendants, without their wisdom and without their love.
Visiting Poland and walking through those terrible places helped me understand that if we want to be the people that claim as one of our basic rallying cries “Never Forget; Never Again”, then we cannot be a people that ever even gives the impression of forgetting or allows something similar to happen again to anyone. And if we want to be a people that reminds the world what happened when no one spoke out on our behalf when it was our brothers and sisters who were being gassed, then we have to be the people that stands up for others, of any race or religion, when they too lose their lives in these same horrific ways.
I have to tell you, I kept waiting to write this sermon to try and see what was going to happen and what was going to develop in our country’s and the world’s response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21st and thereby craft these words around that response. It turned out to be an impossible exercise. But what I came to realize is that whether you believe that targeted strikes will act as a deterrent to Bashar al-Assad using his stock of chemical weapons in the future, whether you think a Russian led resolution through the United Nations Security Council that in some way forces Syria to hand over its stock of chemical weapons to the international community to be destroyed in a safe way, or whether you think both of those solutions are destined to fail and the right method for preventing further atrocities hasn’t been realized yet, what we need to do, what we have to do as human beings and as Jews, is stand up for those people, those children and say out loud that we have not forgotten and will not let it happen again in our lifetime or in any future age. Yes it is true that members of both sides fighting the civil war in Syria hate us both as Americans and as Jews. Yes it is true that there are elements of the rebel forces in Syria that are tied to Al Queda and yes it is true that Assad is closely tied to Iran and Hizbollah. But when we hear that chemical weapons have been used, against children, the only thing that should matter is standing up and speaking out for them.
Much has been said recently that the United States has lost its place on the moral high ground, lost its place on the world stage as a moral authority. If that is indeed true, you don’t regain the moral high ground by cowering in our corner of the world and saying this is not our fight. You regain the moral high ground by planting your flag there and saying I am going to stand here and fight for the right of those who cannot fight for themselves as loudly as I can until someone either forcibly removes me, or until others come over and start shouting along with me. If we bomb them, if the UN resolution passes and is effective, or if as I’ve heard suggested we create some sort of modern day Kindertransport to save innocent lives, we, as Jews and Americans, can once again show our morality by saying “Never Forget; Never Again”, and by keeping non-combatant men women and children from being gassed, even if those people are our sworn enemies. That is what makes us better. That is what makes us right. You can’t say “Never Forget; Never Again” if you’re willing to look the other way and allow yourself to forget and allow it to happen again. We are required to make it mean something.
I went back to Poland in the summer of 2003, this time as a staff member and once again had the chance to recite the El Malei Rachamim and Mourner’s Kaddish in those same horrific places. And as we prepare to recite Yizkortogether, to chant those same words and to remember our loved ones who have passed in the Holocaust as well as in other places at other times, I implore all of us to speak out for those who suffer in our own country and in all corners of the globe. It is not going to be easy. But it is the right thing to do and it will honor the memories of those we remember today in the hopes that one day, God willing, we can will finally live in a world at peace.