This week we commemorated Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Growing up in Melbourne the Holocaust was something that was always magnified in our community due to the high number of survivors that live here and the very personal connections that so many people had, and still have, with survivors. My grandfather, who passed away just a few years ago, was my personal connection to the Holocaust and it was through him I came to not only understand why it was that our family did not have any other extended family on his side, only him, but also how our family’s experience was so similar to countless others.
We are living in the last generation of people who have had personal experiences with Holocaust survivors. As the years go on and Holocaust survivors move on from this world to the next, we are grappling and preparing for describing to future generations what it was like to have met someone who had survived some of the darkest years in Jewish history. Judaism, and by extension Jewish history, recalls in great detail the numerous traumatic events that occurred to our communities over thousands of years, with the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the Chelmniki massacres still commemorated and recalled by our historical record.
Each year on Yom HaShoah I take a moment to reflect on the wonderful country I grew up in and thank G-d each day that I have never had any firsthand experience with the anti-Semitism and baseless hatred that preceded the Holocuast. It is not something that should be taken for granted and I appreciate the fact that I personally, that my family, and the wider Jewish community have enjoyed prosperity and success in this lucky country so far from the atrocities of Europe.
Today there are threats and actions here in Australia and around the world that threaten that sense of safety and gratitude. As we remember the atrocities of the past we can’t help but fear what those who hold similar views to historical characters would do to our people, and our way of life, if given the voice and opportunity they are working so hard to re-establish. As we remember, like we do on Yom HaShoah, we must not just recall but we – as Jews and as Australians – must also heed the warnings our history teaches us and stay determined to never allow any such behaviour to happen again. We must stay proud, and strong and come together to protect not just our way of life, not just our religious freedom, but those values and virtues that we hold so dear. We must protect the values that underpin the very freedoms and safety that we, for several generations, have embraced as the cornerstones of the Australian way of life.
This week I watched a video, released in Israel, that showed 600 Holocaust survivors and their descendants singing “Chai” by Ofra Haza. The emotion coming through the screen as I watched was incredibly moving. This famous Hebrew song represents the life, elation, and optimism of those who survived the Holocaust. When we look around our thriving Jewish community in Melbourne we too can see the optimism that the very high number of Holocaust survivors brought to this city which has flourished since their arrival.
My grandfather never dwelled on the sadness of losing his family and chose to laugh when it hurt to remember all he had lost. He chose optimism as his permanent setting and forced himself to smile through the pain. Once when I questioned him about what had happened to his parents and siblings he said “this is G-d’s business, I don’t question it, I stay silent.”
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Shemini, we see a similar response by the High Priest Aaron when he is informed that his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, were struck down by G-d in the Sanctuary for burning the incense while intoxicated. The Torah records that upon hearing the news that his two sons had been killed Aaron responds with silence.
Like with my grandfather, this Parsha for me beckons the question of how the response to such tragedy can be silence. A father has just lost his children, two of his sons. It wasn’t that they had seemingly done anything wrong, rather, through wanting to experience a spiritual closeness with G-d they had been stuck down. But, “Vayidom Aaron” Aaron is silent. Was it a silence of shock? Was it fear? Perhaps the high priest, who had just lost his beloved sons, was so overtaken by emotions and that resulted in his silence?
There are countless reasons why Aaron may have been silent, but one thing I know is that silence does not equate with apathy; in fact I believe it is likely to be that the silence is the result of such intense trauma that the human body cannot do anything but essentially shut down, it becomes incapable of producing sound. But at the same time, as those learning and reading of these stories that so profoundly affected individuals we can relate so strongly to we, as a people, reflect, learn and understand as best as we can. And as we try to understand what is inherently impossible to understand, we do not have to stay silent, rather we must take heed of what history, of what the Torah, is teaching us. And we turn that into vocalising as appropriate, relevant and necessary for us today to ensure that history does not repeat.
In contemplating darkness, light stands out in contrast. As we reflect upon death we develop and express our appreciation of life. The stories of Holocaust survivors and the death of Aaron’s children should, if nothing else, enable us to appreciate all the more those of our experiences that allow us to live in Australia with our children who are alive and thriving. And at the same time re-establish our commitment to ensure that this life, these opportunities that we have, are open to our children and the generations to come.