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Friday, March 30, 2012

Remembrance and Forgiveness

Yom HaShoah Remembrance
It has been my great privilege and honor and delight to work with an interfaith group here in the Rehoboth Beach - Lewes area on the development of a service of Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It's been an especially powerful exercise as I prepare for Holy Week.

Yom HaShoah is Israel's day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its accessories, and for the Jewish resistance in that period.

In Israel, it is always celebrated on the 27th Day of Nisan, which, this year, would be April 24th. The interfaith community here is gathering to observe it on Sunday afternoon, April 22nd.

It is, for Christians, the Third Sunday of Easter, the season which commemorates our liberation in Christ through his Resurrection.

For our Jewish friends, it is Pesach (Passover) VIII, which commemorates the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.

I am struck, as I always am, by the wonderful juxtaposition of the Christian and Jewish calendar and what that tension has to teach us about God.

Each time I am privileged to be part of planning a Yom HaShoah Service, I find that I have to work past the knot in the pit of my stomach when I think about eleven million people - six million of them Jews - who were killed in the Holocaust.

The others were Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses ("Bible Researchers"), Homosexual Men, Habitual Criminals, Political Prisoners, Asocial (including prostitutes, vagrants, murderers, thieves, lesbians, and those who violated laws prohibiting sexual intercourse between Aryans and Jews), Emigrant, and Mentally Handicapped - each with their own particular colored badge of identification.

Some patches included letters on the triangles to further distinguish among the various groups in the camps. Most commonly, the letter indicated nationality, e.g., "F" for franzosisch (French), "P" for polnisch (Polish), "T" for tschechisch (Czech), etc., but it could also denote special sub-categories of prisoners.

For example, the word Blod on a black triangle (Asocial) marked mentally retarded inmates, and a red and white target symbol set apart those who had tried to escape.

It's hard enough to think about the Holocaust in Germany without considering the genocide of the Armenians, the Bosnians, the Rwandans and those in Darfur.  Each of those events also include the senseless, stupid torture and murder of innocent men, women and children because they didn't fit into someone's idea of what it means to "belong" or be "right" because they were deemed politically, racially or socially "unfit".

To be perfectly honest, it's what scares the beejesus out of me when I hear the rhetoric of Tea Baggers and White Supremacy groups. It's just a few steps behind the rhetoric of Germany, circa 1930. If they ever got into power...well...I think you know exactly where I'm going with this thought. It's part of what inspires me to be part of the Interfaith Yom HaShoah observance.

Rather than try to explain it all or try to understand genocide and Holocaust, our interfaith service will begin with a time of silence in the presence of thirteen candles. Twelve will be lit while the names of twelve of the concentration camps and twelve categories of prisoners will be read. The 'Theme from Schindler's List' will be playing softly in the background.

Eleven candles will be lit in remembrance of the eleven million people who were killed during the Holocaust.  A twelfth candle will be lit to remember the millions of people who were killed in other genocides. A final candle will remain unlit in the hope that never again will there be another genocide.

As important as it is to remember the daunting capacity of human beings to do evil, it is even more important to remember our unlimited capacity to do good.  Somewhere, in the balance of the two, lies the hope for the future of the human race.

Which is, in fact, my perennial dilemma during Holy Week: caught between my despair over "the evil men do" and trying to remember the words of Anne Frank that, "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart".

I am acutely aware of what stands in my way of finding balance - of what it is, exactly, that causes my stomach to tie itself up in a knot. Here it is, in a word: Forgiveness.

I can forgive - it's a spiritual discipline which strengthens my soul. It's not easy, but I've learned that I don't do it out of some sense of benevolence for others. I do it because I need to forgive. As the folks in the 12 Step Programs say, holding onto resentment and anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

That's not what I'm talking about. I don't know how to forgive what happened in the Holocaust. I don't know how to forgive that kind of evil.

I notice that, in all the literature I have read from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the word forgiveness is not used. I see these words: Remembrance. Commemorate. Genocide. Victims. Survivors. Rescuers. Hope.

I don't know if, after genocide, forgiveness is really possible. Remembrance is important. We must never forget. Hope is essential. It is what shapes the future. But, forgiveness? After genocide, starvation and unspeakable torture in the name of "medical science"? How do you find it? Where do you find it?

One of the Holocaust survivors, a woman named Estelle Laughlin, is quoted as saying, "Memory is what shapes us. Memory is what teaches us. We must understand that’s where our redemption is".

Certainly, that is the core of Holy Week, but I don't think that Holocaust survivor was referring to the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Still, placing our feet on the path Jesus walked and remembering His journey shapes and teaches us and helps us understand what it means to be a follower of Christ.

The most difficult path for me to walk in Holy Week is the path of forgiveness. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," is the prayer from the lips of Jesus as he hung from the cross. At least, that's how his followers remembered it.

That prayer trips me up every time. Asking God's forgiveness on behalf of those who have betrayed, humiliated, tortured and mean to kill you is a thing so divine as to seem beyond the reach of my mere human frailty.

And yet, I know it's the heart of Christ's message and the central work of the ministry of everyone who is baptized in His name.

Of all the information and prayers I've read in preparation for this interfaith Yom HaShoah event, the following touched me deeply.

It is a prayer that was prayed on the behalf of others — not fellow sufferers, bunk mates sharing not only a wood-slat bed but co-habiting in heartless conditions. It wasn’t prayed for them. The petition was offered on behalf of the oppressors, the monsters who tortured and killed innocent men, women, and children, the sick and elderly, the vibrant and young. The prayer was a prayer for forgiveness for unforgivable treatment.

I’ve read that it was discovered hand-written and posted in a barrack, scribbled on a torn scrap of wrapping paper. I’ve also read that it was found shoved into the coat pocket of a dead girl discovered in Ravensbruck. I’ve read that it was stumbled on and published immediately after the war in a German newspaper.

Obviously, it is difficult to trace the source of the prayer, or to even assure its veracity. But because the Holocaust revealed to us the inconceivable cruelty of mankind, I also want to believe that it could reveal — as a counter weight, an opposite — equally inconceivable human grace, possible only in communion with God.

Here is a version of the possibly fabled but masterful prayer:
“O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But, do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us; instead remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering — our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble. When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let all of these fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.”
I am left speechless in the presence of this prayer. The dignity of it. The profound wisdom of it. The divinity of it. The humanity of it. All of that speaks to me as clearly as the words of forgiveness which Jesus spoke from the cross.  If it could be spoken by one human being in the aftermath of the Holocaust, perhaps I may one day be able to speak it from a place of truth in myself.

It is the prayer I will take with me this year into Holy Week. I don't want to so much to understand it as to live it.  It helps me to make sense of the teaching of Jesus that we must forgive "seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:22).

We have decided to end our Interfaith Observance of Yom HaShoah with the Rabbi saying Kaddish, that remarkable prayer for the dead which never mentions death or grief. Rather, the focus of the prayer is on the glory of God, who calls us into life and then calls us home again. The Rabbi reminded us that, in this prayer, we also pray for peace - from apparently the only One Who can guarantee it - peace between nations, peace between individuals, and peace of mind.

She also said that, although Jewish Law requires that the Kaddish be recited during the first eleven months following the death of a loved one by prescribed mourners, and on each anniversary of the death (the "Yahrtzeit"), and by custom in the State of Israel by all Jews on the Tenth of Tevet ("Yom HaKaddish HaKlali'), it is also most appropriate to recite it on this occasion.
Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for usand for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen
The congregation will be responding with the poem by Judy Chicago. It will be the other prayer I take with me into Holy Week.

It was written about the time she created “The Dinner Party,” her massive, and often maligned, installation, completed in 1979, of a triangle of tables with elaborate, personalized place settings for thirty-nine historical female figures, from Ishtar to Virginia Woolf.

The poem is called "Merger" and it represents, for me, what is possible when one finds forgiveness.
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then will cherish life's creatures
And then all will live in harmony with one another and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
I suspect there are a few sentinels that sit before the gates of Heaven. One is named "Remembrance" and the other is "Forgiveness".

Which is why this will be the focus of my work during Holy Week.

I can already feel the knot in my stomach beginning to take shape.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Robert: I am doing you a favor and not posting your note to me. As the folks in the 12 Step Programs say, holding onto resentment and anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

I hope you are able to find peace.

it's margaret said...


And most all of the folks I live among refer to the American Holocaust --the conscious, programmatic, purposeful butchery of their relatives created and endorsed by the government of the USA, the sequestering of The People in concentration camps (reservations), the suppression of their religion and the relentless breaking up of families... the effects of which are still rampant and present....

I understand your Holy Week knot. Truly, I do.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Margaret - I can't imagine the challenges you face in Holy Week, living with and among the descendents who still live the effects of the American genocide.

You will be lifted up in prayer.

Anonymous said...

I too am preparing to speak on Yom Ha'Shoah at Middlebury College on Sunday. I'm really struggling with the to speak into the depth of the Shoah is preplexing. In my head I keep going back to Mark's account of the passion.
Oh, and thanks for the prayer it begins give us a way to leave the silence

Dzeni said...

Was thrilled to see an image that I created on your blog. If you are after more images, feel free to visit my "Chag Images" set on flickr. Images in that set have been made available to the wider community. Everything else is protected by copyright :)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dzeni - Which one so I can give you credit and link to you site?