It is Easter season and many of us are still pondering the joy and the challenge of the New Creation, demonstrated through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thoughts about the chronological overlap between Passover and Easter, especially this year, coupled with recent events in the Ukraine and in Overland Park, Kansas, have prompted the following thoughts. I am offering this short homily today during a Yom HaShoah remembrance service in Perkins Chapel at Southern Methodist University.
Many years ago as a freshly minted college graduate, I headed off to a small town in Southwest, Kansas to take my first teaching job. After I had been in town a few months, in the middle of a Saturday night/Sunday morning three young men, two recently graduated from high school and the third still in high school, came to my house. They were drunk and angry about something they thought I had done.
In the darkness of the night, I did not see the first punch coming and it all but knocked me out. And for the next few moments, I took a beating. Fortunately, it didn’t last long and it really didn’t do much damage. But for months after this event, I lived in a state of apprehension – jumpy every time a car drove slowly by my house late at night. One of the three was known to be a drug user and he seemed to have a vendetta against me. I remember that cold fear gnawing in my gut every day, wondering when those guys might come back and do it again.
Compared to what we gather to remember today, it’s almost insulting to mention such a momentary and light affliction. But it did come to mind in the wake of recent chilling events.
I have imagined the apprehension of Jews living in the Ukraine – and, of course, around the world – upon hearing the news of a pamphlet stating that “all citizens of Jewish nationality” over the age of 16 must register with the Donetsk People’s Republic or face deportation and confiscation of property. Jews leaving the synagogue on Passover were met by masked men handing out these pamphlets. “Deportation:” such an ominous word. I can only imagine…
We also remember Sunday, April 13, 2014, as an elderly Ku Klux Klan leader murdered three people in Overland Park, KS. He intended to kill Jews. Although the death of anyone is tragic, fortunately he failed in that goal. None of the three victims was Jewish.
These chilling recent events give us a contemporary reason for why we gather to remember, making it even more compelling that we commemorate today the deaths of 6 million and more of God’s beloved people. Let us never forget.
In truth we’re here to do more than remember. We come here to imagine, to envision a world governed and guided by God’s shalom. But first, we remember.
900 miles to the Northwest of Donetsk, Ukraine lies Warsaw, Poland. The National Holocaust Museum tells the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In the summer of 1942, in about a two-month period, Nazi authorities killed or deported 300,000 Jews in Warsaw. The vast majority of them were murdered. Only roughly 11,000 were deported. In response, several Jewish underground organizations began to work together to form a resistance group within the Warsaw ghetto.
In January, 1943, after Heinrich Himmler issued the order to liquidate the ghetto and send all remaining able-bodied residents to forced labor camps, when the German SS and police units began rounding people up to start the deportation process, Jewish fighters who had infiltrated the columns of people lined up to leave, killed some of the German police. Though most of those fighters died in this incident, it forestalled the deportation process at that time. In April, 1943, hearing that the remaining of their people were to be sent to death camps, the resistance prepared for a stand-off.
On April 19, when German authorities entered the ghetto, they found the streets deserted. Thus began the uprising in which people living in desperate conditions demonstrated their courage and dignity in the face of overwhelming hostility. Even after virtually all the, as it were, military combatants had been killed or captured, the people continued to resist. As the Holocaust Museum feature states it:
The Germans had planned to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto in three days, but the ghetto fighters held out for more than a month. Even after the end of the uprising on May 16, 1943, individual Jews hiding out in the ruins of the ghetto continued to attack the patrols of the Germans and their auxiliaries. The Warsaw ghetto uprising was the largest, symbolically most important Jewish uprising, and the first urban uprising, in German-occupied Europe. The resistance in Warsaw inspired other uprisings in [other] ghettos.
We will never forget those murderous times. We confess the human penchant for hatred. It comes in many forms. The most egregious seem often far from us. But less extreme forms live much closer to home, sometimes even in our own hearts.
But the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising also challenges us to see the great capacity for valor, courage and community. We therefore come face to face with a mysterious feature of memory, something that commemorations like today teach us. Memory is not just about the past. Memory provokes imagination. The horrors we remember are not inevitable. It’s not the way it has to be. In the worst of situations, instead of losing all hope, a people can begin to see a new and different world. It is as if something deep from the image of God in which humans are created refuses to give up on God’s shalom. We cry out for the Age to Come.
The prophet Isaiah offers one of numerous illustrations. In view of exile, of a nation crushed, when all seems entirely hopeless, a vision: “The Lord makes a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters” (43:16), reflecting a memory of the Exodus, but a vision for the future. “Remember these things, O Jacob and Israel, for you are my servant…You will not be forgotten by me.” (44:21). Or from the prophet Ezekiel, who preached to a valley of dry bones and began to see the life of a people restored. This is holy imagination. Without the belief in a good and loving God, it seems ridiculous, preposterous. But with God, anything is possible.
Imagining a future filled with God’s shalom does not diminish the searing memory. But it does not end with the memory. Rabbi Herbert Bronstein puts it well – The Holocaust gravely wounded the Jewish body. But the work of remembering continues. Otherwise the Nazi intent to destroy the Jews will have been successful. To remember…is to engage in rebuilding the Jewish soul.
This is why we come together today. To remember, and somehow, in remembering to help rebuild. Let us never forget.