Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the communal Warsaw Ghetto Commemoration, Sydney, April 28, 1973
This is a yom hazikkaron, a Day of Remembrance. We are an historic people with much to remember. For us, remembrance is a religious duty: particularly when it comes to remembering the cruel deeds of Amalek. Amalek, the Biblical figure, was a heartless enemy. But what he did to us is as nothing compared to what we have experienced in our own day. If we remember Amalek, should we not remember all the more the calamities of the twentieth century?
That is why Jewish communities hold solemn memorial gatherings such as this: so that we should remember. And yet we are sometimes asked, why talk about the Warsaw Ghetto now – thirty years after the uprising? Why talk about the Holocaust now – a generation after the war? Why live in the past?
I don’t know how you would answer. But these are some of the things I would say, and I suspect you will not disagree.
First. We remember-because we cannot forget. Our collective experience, for all that it is over a quarter of a century ago, burns into our being: It tortures us. In the words of Job, “When I stop to think, I am filled with horror, and my whole body is convulsed.” (Job 21 :6).
I think of a Jew I know who escaped from Auschwitz. He reached London before the war ended. One day at 77 Great Russell Street, the Zionist headquarters, a venerable rabbi came in and my friend stood up for him. “No,” said the rabbi, “I must stand up for you. You are a gilgul. You were dead and now you are alive.” Many cannot forget that they were dead; some even today cannot forgive themselves for being alive. We cannot help remembering.
Second. We humbly want to remember our martyrs. Centuries in which we were moved across the chessboard of history by forces beyond our control culminated in our being degraded and dehumanised by the Holocaust. We are told, “You should have fought back.” It is cruel counsel. It was not so easy. Where Jews could, they fought back. Everywhere, they put up moral and spiritual resistance.
They knew they had ein b’reirah – no alternative but to face even death with dignity, faith and hope. The songs of the camps and ghettoes – what were they? Songs of belief and optimism. At the brink of death an old Jew stood up straight and cried, “Fellow Jews, don’t despair. Brethren, shake off the melancholy. Don’t you see that we are going to meet the Mashiach? If I had Bronffen I would pour out a glass to drink. Lechayim, Lechayim! Don’t you see you are going to meet the Mashiach?”
There were Jews who decided to stay alive-to spite the enemy. Jews who preferred to suffer – but not commit suicide. Jews who said Kaddish – for themselves. Jews who did not have this strength – what right have we to criticise? Eileh ezkerah – these Jews do I remember. Al eileh ani bochiyah: eini eini yor’dah mayim – for these do I weep: my eye, my eye runs down with water…
Third. Jews have to remember what European Jewry represented… the great communities… the sources of spiritual strength, of culture, piety and learning… the will to be Jews… the desperate determination that Am Yisrael chai – that the people of Israel would live and its heritage be cherished… the impetus which produced Israel, Phoenix-like, out of the ashes . . .
In these days when ignorance, assimilation and intermarriage are sapping our strength, we have to remember that European Jewry looked to us to accept and hand down untarnished the shalshelet hakabbalah – the age-old chain of living Jewish tradition.
“WHY ARE YOU WOLVES?”
Fourth. We must remember in order to ensure that never again will such a catastrophe be’ allowed to happen. We are told to free ourselves from the trauma of the Holocaust. This is not the time for that sort of advice. A fortnight before the Six-Day War we heard that Auschwitz was mild compared to what the Arabs would do to the Jews if they had their way. But we refused to let ourselves be butchered. So now the question is, as an Israeli paper put it, “no longer ‘why were you sheep?’, but ‘why are you wolves?’ Why will you not yield to Arab demands and endanger your lives to make things more secure for the Big Powers? Why, in fact, are you no longer willing to go as sheep to the slaughter?”… We know we have to remember, if we want to stay alive.
Fifth. There are some who are ashamed – or afraid to remember. Some who were silent when their voices should have been heard. (Pierre van Paassen, the famous author, warned the leaders of the Allies in 1943: “Our present silence is growing audible in Berlin”… but the silence proceeded as before.) Some who refused to believe that it was all happening. Some who may have felt uncomfortable but made excuses to themselves and to others. They share in the guilt. They must not be allowed to forget. It is not vengeance that we are advocating: it is realism. Evil has a tendency to escalate. Once the world allows one inconceivable crime, the next genocidal maniac will find his path easier. If horrible things happen and the world lifts not a finger, even more horrible things become possible.
If we allow ourselves to be indifferent to the reemergence of a Hitler cult and other extremist attitudes, then democratic values and ideals will be frighteningly threatened. By remembering, the world has a chance to stop the virus of hatred spreading and eradicate the causes of horror and human inhumanity. By remembering, it can begin to see that mutual tolerance, understanding and harmony replace intolerance, hatred and inhumanity.
We gather at this solemn memorial meeting because we intend to remember, and to remind others.
We say: Yitgadal veyitkadash shemey rabba and we pledge all our future generations to say Kaddish. Yet even if it were said six million times it would not exhaust our duty to remember. But the memory will begin to mean something when it has succeeded in carving an indelible impression on the consciences of Jewry and all mankind, and only then will the duty to remember be – partly, at least – satisfied.