Acharei Mot means “after the death”. The sidra with this name deals with the aftermath of the death of the two sons of Aaron. In a different sense, Acharei Mot is also the motif of this week’s remembrance of the Holocaust. We still live in the shadow of the destruction; we always will. We still ask searing questions about the destruction, and these will continue.
The questions focus on many dimensions of the Sho’ah. They include the issue of why so many good people did so little during those terrible years. Some try to argue that people simply did not realise the gravity of what was happening, or could not believe that a civilised nation could commit such madness. But enough nations, leaders and ordinary people knew and recognised the crime. So why did they not stand up and speak up?
An article by CC Aronsfeld suggests that this is common human experience. “A striking example,” he says, “occurred not long ago in a densely populated district of New York where early one morning a young woman was stabbed to death. She so screamed and shrieked for help that 38 windows opened – and 38 windows promptly closed again.
“Not one of the witnesses raised a finger to help, or used the nearby telephone to call for help, though all they had to expect was inconvenience, the trouble of a police inquiry – nothing like the terror of Gestapo action…
“When the story was told by an American journalist, the London Times thought that ‘the problem is older than the parable of the Good Samaritan. People have always been tempted to pass by on the other side if they could’, and the British Police Review found: ‘There are increasing numbers of people who will ignore the death rattle of the next door neighbour or a cry from the street’.”
The circumstances of the Holocaust era certainly were exceptionally difficult, but as Aronsfeld points out, Hitler “brazenly relied on” good people doing nothing. Yet there is a price to pay if one remains silent. Not only do countless innocent victims suffer, but it gravely diminishes those who should have spoken.
Leo Baeck wrote, even before Hitler came to power, “Wherever crime could extend its writ, it nearly always happened because those consciences stayed dumb and those lips mute which ought to have been open to utter words of righteousness and moral appeal… In every nation there is injustice and sin; they come and go, the nation remains. But where the nation as a whole incurs guilt through silence, through tolerating evil, through on-looking, there crime will destroy the very ground on which alone a nation exists. Nations have sunk into oblivion only after they first had fallen dumb, after the demurrer to sin and the judgment of righteousness had ceased to find a hearing among men.”
Yet there is a second question that needs to be asked in relation to the response or non-response of others to the events of the Holocaust. That many were silent when they should have spoken – that is amply documented and, unfortunately, not difficult to explain. But how about those, however few, who did try to help? How do we explain what they did? The Jewish people sees them as the Righteous among the Nations, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem recognises their deeds and accords them honour. Yet they themselves refuse to regard themselves as saints or heroes.
When President Chaim Herzog thanked Giorgio Perlasca for saving Jewish lives in Budapest, Perlasca said, “Oh, I did nothing special. I am sorry I could do only that much.” Yet he had placed his own life in jeopardy, masquerading as the Spanish charge d’affaires in the Hungarian capital, issuing thousands of Jews with Spanish “protective passes” and giving asylum to hundreds of others.
The Righteous among the Nations think that what they did was normal. “I only did what was quite natural”… “It was a natural consequence of my religious beliefs”… “I could not have looked at myself in the mirror if I had not become involved”… these are the words of the people we Jews believe to be heroes.
Mordechai Paldiel of Yad Vashem asks the question, “Why does goodness leave us gasping?” Have we been brainwashed by the philosophers who consider man to be essentially aggressive, egotistical and sinful? When someone does something altruistic, why do we consider it to be a miracle? Must we be forced into the view that it is human nature to hurt others, rejoice in their downfall or at best close all windows to muffle their cries?
To despair of human nature is tragic, but is it justified? Different faiths and cultures offer different answers. The Jewish answer comes from a people that has good reason to have a low opinion of human deeds and motives, and yet it echoes Maimonides who assures us that it is natural for human beings to want to do the right thing.
Just because the Holocaust saw more windows closing than opening is no reason to accept that we should never expect better from human beings. Nor is it a reason to decide that we ourselves will think twice before helping others and acting like decent human beings.