Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Holocaust Symposium in Skokie

I attended the morning session for Educators of the Holocaust symposium at the Illinois Holocaust Museum under the aegis of the ATT.  I was disappointed because until the Panel discussion, the speakers failed to address their topics - how to teach the Holocaust.

(After I wrote this post, the ATT announced that the audio would be available here, but it's not up yet.)


Rabbi Mordechai Neugroschel:  "How do we answer the hard questions regarding emunah and bitachon as we teach the Holocaust?"

I heard Rabbi Neugroschel speak in Israel 3 summers ago (in Hebrew).  He appeared businesslike and spoke to the point; he is clean shaven and looked like a businessman with a black yarmulke.  He is a first-rate speaker and I would absolutely hear him again.  Even in English, clearly not his native tongue, he is an impressive speaker.  He seemed much more emotional and gesturing rather than the stoic and businesslike posture I previously saw.  Unfortunately, he mostly told inspiring stories.  He did cite a fascinating Zohar and made some really thought-provoking he'aros about Rabi Akiva saying Shma while dying al kiddush Hashem, and about Elisha Ben Avuyah's going off the derech.  Unfortunately what I took away from his talk were some really inspiring stories but not an answer of "how to answer the hard questions regarding emunah and bitachon as we teach the Holocaust?"  See more below, under "panel".

Rabbi Nosson Scherman:  "What do we emphasize as we teach the Holocaust to our children?"

After the crescendo of Rabbi Neugroschel's closing stories, it would be difficult for anyone to talk about anything.  Rabbi Sherman did a fine job transitioning beginning with some nice stories about loving Hashem.  He mentioned this cartoon .  Then he transitioned into his scheduled topic, basically saying we must know where we came from; our history, the history of anti-semitism and how the US with the first amendment is much freer to Holocaust denial than Eurpoean countries where it is a crime, though becoming not so serious a crime anymore, and finally that Jews don't give up.  He referenced Raul Hilberg.  He also referenced other popular (or not-so-popular) culture.  In other words, he came across very knowledgeable of the world, not at all the vision one would have of the creator, master and curator of ArtScroll.  So he did address his topic; unfortunately, I don't think people will remember his points about it, but it was not his fault.

*Book to use.  Rabbi Nosson Sherman recommended several books about the Holocaust: for the history, The War Against the Jews (interesting because earlier he praised Hilberg, but according to Wikipedia, Hilberg was highly critical of this book; About American apathy, While Six Million Died; and The Abandonment of the Jews;  for Emunah issues, a soon-to-be-published ArtScroll book Tragedy and Rebirth.  He also said it must be taught with emotion, not like other history.  Not sure I agree with that.
 Rabbi Reuven Brand mentioned several: The Jew in the Modern World for its primary sources; Eim Habanim Semeicha, The Holy Fire; Shu"t Mimaakim.  I'm surprised he didn't focus more on the last source, as we can see from the questions the issues and worries that the Kedoshim were concerned about.  I have seen an English translation which I think is only a selection of teshuvos and is not a translation of the entire sefer.

*How to teach it.  R' Neugroschel spoke about through unconditional love.  Dr. Jerry Lob pointed out that a parent might be able to do that but a teacher likely won't be able.

*What to do after learning about the Holocaust - This was a good question and while Rabbi Scherman addressed it, I have no substantila content I can report.  He did say that we have to be concerned about everyone, not just Jews, though we must take care of other Jews first, before worrying about Darfur.  Great story how Chafetz Chayim asked Ponovizher Rav after the latter returned form South Africa if it is true that the Blacks are very badly treated.  Ponovizher Rav asked why is it important?  Chafetz Chayim said if there is a famine in India or earthquake in Japan or Blacks suffering in South Africa, it is a message to us, the chosen nation, to improve our behavior. Interestingly, from something Dr. Lob said before, there could be this project: visit a children's hospital.  He said this regarding a question how to tell children about so many children being killed in the Holocaust  he mentioned this as an example of children suffering in our own time.

(Rabbi Scherman is to be commended for speaking about the concern Jews must have for non-Jews.  Unfortunately there are many instances of what appear to be racism, especially among certain Chareidi groups.  But Rabbi Scherman's stories from the Chafetz Chayim show that racism does not have a place in Judaism.)

Rabbi Neugroschel had another unbelievable story about a grandson of a survivor he heard speak named Nitai - turns out after Nitai Ha'Arbeli in Pirkei Avos.  Tremendous story behind that.

Unfortunately, the following (notable) points were omitted in the program.
* General Studies teachers can teach the history, and let limudei kodesh faculty - or better yet, designated experts (since our education system fails miserably at teaching emunah issues) - teach emunah issues.

* related - most schools don't teach the ani maamins stam, neutrally, so why for one of the most difficult to comprehend issue are they now interested?

*Limudei Kodesh faculty never teach any Jewish history anyway, so why should they think they could teach the Holocaust?

*The need to know the context of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles leading to German problems, leading to Hitler's ascent, then active measures against Jews, and how the methods of murder were adapted to become more efficient; and the actual fighting of WWII on the European continent.

* Sometimes we're looking at the forest of the 6,000,000 and we're missing the trees - not each individual, but different communities - Germany vs Lithuania vs Poland vs remnants of Austian-Hungarian empire, etc.  Each has a different story regarding their suffering.  In other words, one story - or even one survivor's story - is important, but we can focus on these stories and not see the entire picture of what the Nazis did, and when they did it, and how things changed and evolved during the war.

* What other Jewish calamities do these schools teach?  Churban bayis Sheni and Bar Kochba revolts led to hundreds of thousands of Jews killed.  The Crusades.  Expulsions from European lands.  Chelminitzky's pogroms in 1649 (Tach v'Tat) wiped out a third or half of European Jewry.  Why aren't we teaching the history of those events either?

* Another item omitted was any mention of Yom Hashoah.

The capture and trial of Eichmann was a national springboard to discussion of the Holocaust.  This was not mentioned.  Hausner's Justice in Jerusalem and Ben Hecht's Perfidy (why is it so expensive?  Must be small supply and larger demand) are the first two books that come to mind about that.  Chareidi schools will have the added bonus of Hecht's harsh criticism of the Zionist leadership during WWII (and beyond), not wanting to upset the British.

Personal note: I am very excited for the upcoming publication of The Chain of Miracles by Rabbi Meyer Juzint.  Disclaimer: I ran this project - getting the manuscript translated to English, editing, layout and publishing.