If you asked my grandma Rosie, aleha ha-shalom (may peace be upon her), about the old country which she left when she was eight years old, she would dismiss the question by waving her hand and saying, “Eh! Life was terrible, the Russians hated us, and we left.”
They thought of themselves as being in Russian territory, but when she and her older brother and her mother left their shtetl in Volhynia in 1921 to meet their father who was already working in Boston, they were actually leaving Poland.
Today, that region is part of Ukraine.
There was not much affection or nostalgia for the Pale of Settlement on the part of most of the Jews who left there due to persecution in the late 19th and early 20th century. They fled pogroms, forced conscription, and all manner of indignities.
But every now and then, I open Google Maps and take a look at that little town, today called Butsyn, not much more than a few roads and fields, and I wonder, What was it like for Rose’s family? What is it like today? If I were to go there, would I see anything connected to the Jews who are now gone? A cemetery, perhaps? An old synagogue repurposed as a church, or maybe a convenience store? God forbid, a mass grave wherein the Nazi Einsatzgruppen disposed of those who failed to leave in time?
When we consider that the residents of Butsyn in Volhynia might at this very moment be fleeing for their lives, I suppose the ancient fears and grievances associated with the anti-Semitism embedded in those lands and those peoples might fall away.
We might be able to remember that even the descendants of those who made our ancestors’ lives miserable in those far-away towns are still people who are trying to eke out a life, to raise families and work the land and maybe occasionally take a vacation.
We should recall that nobody deserves to have their nation, their democracy taken away from them.
And we should pray for peace, as we do at the end of every Amidah and just about every Qaddish:
Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve’al kol Yisra’el, ve’al kol yoshevei tevel, ve-imru amen.
May the One who makes peace on high bring some peace upon all Israel and upon all who dwell on Earth, and let us say amen.
This week, after a few decades, I re-read Maus, the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman which tells the true story of his father’s survival of the Shoah, and it is as powerful as it was when it came out in the ‘80s. And, curiously enough, this was the appropriate week to read it: in volume I, Spiegelman references Parashat Terumah! When his father Vladek is a Polish Army POW, he has a dream in which his grandfather appears, wearing tefillin, repeating “Parshas Truma! Parshas Truma!” over and over, meaning that he will be released from the Nazi prison camp on Shabbat Parashat Terumah. As it turns out, the dream actually comes true. And not only that, but Vladek realizes after the fact that his wedding before the war had occurred during the week of Parashat Terumah, and that his son Art (the author) was born during the week of Terumah after the war in 1948, and thirteen years later was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah on Shabbat Parashat Terumah.
So it is completely appropriate that Maus hit best-seller lists again this week! Go figure.
That the Pulitzer Prize-winning books were banned from a state-approved eighth-grade curriculum by a 10-0 vote of the McMinn County (Tennessee) Schools Board of Trustees is, of course, laughable, but mostly because of their reasoning. What they found “objectionable” was not the truths of the Nazi horror – rounding up Jews en masse and placing them in concentration camps, mass shootings, public hangings, gas chambers, crematoria and so forth – but a scant few four-letter words and cartoon nudity. Apparently, the ten Tennesseans on this Board were untroubled by the scene depicted in the book, when the Nazis are deporting Jews to Auschwitz, they picked up screaming children by the legs and swung them through the air to slam them into a wall, to stop the screaming.
In response to the news, Art Spiegelman himself said that it sounded as though the Board was saying, “Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?”
The books are among the best teaching tools that we have regarding the Shoah, and of course by the time I read them I was already well-schooled. Not only did we have a unit on the Shoah in my Hebrew School that was honest and in-depth, but I had also read the diary of Anne Frank, Night by Eli Wiesel, and other titles. And I had discovered the wealth of Holocaust reference material, a full shelf it at the Berkshire County JCC, which included truly disturbing imagery, still imprinted in my head: the piles of naked bodies left behind after the Allied takeover, being bulldozed into mass graves, the Nazis own records of how many Jews they had killed and which lands under their control were already “Judenfrei,” cleaned of Jews, the shots of barbed wire and train depots and piles of shoes and human hair, the people humiliated in the streets, the Torah scrolls desecrated.
And of course, there was my mother, who reminded us all on a regular basis that we must be committed to Judaism and marry Jews and have Jewish children so that we would not “give Hitler a posthumous victory.”
So I did not really need Maus. But there may be millions of people who were exposed to the depth of the Nazi atrocities for the first time through Spiegelman’s work. I suppose the ludicrousness of this particular controversy has yielded the remarkable benefit of a new generation of readers, which will extend its reach to an audience of the likely uninformed.
And, speaking of uninformed, there’s Whoopi Goldberg, who failed multiple times this week to acknowledge that, while most Jews may be thought of as “white” in today’s world, that was certainly not the case until very recently. Qal vaḥomer, all the moreso, the Nazi understanding of race absolutely put Jews in a distinct racial category which declared them “subhuman”; so too Slavs and Roma. The Nazis even created a whole area of pseudo-scientific inquiry to demonstrate that certain characteristics made so-called “Aryans” superior and everybody else inferior, which of course enabled them to accomplish what they did. In Nazi ideology, the Shoah was absolutely not something that took place between white people, as Goldberg characterized it. It was racialized oppression, dehumanization, and genocide, wherein one group held all the power, and others were annihilated.
Now, I must confess that I have never seen “The View,” which is apparently some sort of topical news discussion program. And I am grateful that Goldberg apologized profusely, and even invited the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt onto the show. Nonetheless, she did seem to double-down on the idea that the Shoah was something that was merely between “white” people, and therefore not racialized. But she is incorrect. To this day, I am still not sure whether or not Jews are “white” (you may recall that I spoke about this a few years back, when there was a kerfuffle surrounding the Israeli actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman).
But it seemed to me, in the clips that I saw of Whoopi Goldberg, that she dug herself into a hole out of which she could not gracefully exit. And, while it seems that her intentions were not malevolent (in fact, the ADL issued a statement in which they accepted her apology), she fell into an all-too-easy trap: failing to understand that our concept of race has changed, that while Jews might be perceived as many to be “white” today, they certainly were not in Europe during the middle of the last century. Yes, the Jews lived in Germany, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, and so forth, and in some places were highly integrated into the non-Jewish population, but they were definitely not German, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, or anything other than Jewish. The Nazis, in defining their racial categorizations, were only building on existing anti-Semitism in European society.
Back to Parashat Terumah for a moment. Easily the best-known line in Parashat Terumah is Shemot / Exodus 25:8:
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.
Here the Torah is referring to building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary and altar, the building of which is described in painstaking detail for almost all of the last third of the book of Shemot / Exodus.
The mishkan was the focal point of the Israelites for their forty years in the wilderness; the center of ritual, the center of meeting, the place from where God’s voice emanated. It was the physical manifestation of the spiritual glue that held them together as a people as they made their way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel. God’s in-dwelling among the people, as the verse indicates, necessitated a physical building.
Eventually, of course, the mishkan was replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem, which served the same purpose for about one thousand years.
And then, when the Romans destroyed that Temple in the year 70 CE, we had nothing left but books – the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible, of course, and then everything that came from it in subsequent centuries – the Mishnah, the Gemara, the midrashim, the commentaries, the halakhic literature, and so forth. In absence of that physical building at the center, we have carried these books with us for two millennia of exile and dispersion, of expulsions and persecution, of blood libels and pogroms and forced conscription and ultimately attempted genocide.
We have carried these books with us from continent to continent, and they have enabled God to continue dwelling among us, even without a bricks-and-mortar center. Our books have taught us how to live, how to think critically, how to inspire hope for the future when all is lost. They teach us our history and our wisdom, which continues to help us find our way in an ever-changing world. The Muslim world dubbed the Jews, “the People of the Book,” a moniker which we have adopted for ourselves, and wear with honor and pride.
The banning of Maus in McMinn County, Tennessee is only one particularly shocking example of a skyrocketing fervor of attempted censorship which has taken hold in America, sweeping up left and right in an attempt to sanitize, to obfuscate, to control the narrative.
We, the Jews, know just how dangerous this movement is. The 19th-century German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine said, “Wherever they burn books, in the end they will also burn human beings.” Heine had no idea indeed how prescient he was. Thank God, nobody’s burning copies of Maus, as far as I know. But ladies and gentlemen, we should be listening and watching very carefully to see what happens next.
I was somewhat surprised that ABC decided to suspend Whoopi Goldberg for two weeks; my sense is that, uninformed as she is, she made an honest mistake. I would hope that, during her two weeks off, she spends some time learning. She might even want to read Maus. (I hope some enterprising fans have sent her copies.) And, given Ms. Goldberg’s ample platform, perhaps she will help many more uninformed people learn about the Nazi horror, so that we can hear the mantra of “Never again” repeated in all quarters of the world. Suspending her, like banning Maus, seems to me the wrong approach, and perhaps might only serve to further divide us.
Veshakhanti betokham, says the Torah. “And I shall dwell among them.” We shall surely continue to fashion the metaphorical mishkan and to build that space that enables God’s presence among us by revisiting our texts, ancient and modern. And we must continue to learn, to teach, and of course to read.