Tag Archives: Holocaust

Hitler’s war against the Jews is not up for revision

23 Oct


As I have noted on various occasions over the years, there is a trend among politicians that has become increasingly repulsive to me. That is when they exploit the Shoah to score political points.  I think this does great injustice to the victims. I’m very much influenced in this approach by Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, the renowned Holocaust historian, who wrote a sharp critique of remarks made by Prime Minister Netanyahu this week on the Holocaust that represent revisionist history. More about that shortly. We all know that invoking the Holocaust for political gain did not begin this week. At least two presidential candidates in America, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson, did this recently and were widely rebuked by a cross-section of the Jewish community. We also know that the Holocaust is exploited at pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests where it’s common to see participants carrying placards accusing Israelis of carrying out a Holocaust and describing the current prime minister as the equivalent of Hitler or even his “clone.” One might totally disagree with Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. But to speak of a Holocaust or Hitler bears no relation to historical or contemporary reality.


Lipstadt notes that it’s possible to argue that since neither Huckabee nor Carson are well versed in the history of the annihilation of European Jewry, they should not be too roundly condemned for their cheap analogies. Similarly, one could say that anti-Israel protestors are so infused with hatred and anger that they too have lost sight of any historical reality. But what can one say when the leader of the Jewish state relies on this tactic?


Earlier this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the World Zionist Congress that the idea for murdering the Jews was the brainchild of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.  According to Netanyahu, when Hitler and the mufti met in November 1941, Hitler had not yet thought of exterminating the Jews but simply wished to expel them. When Husseini complained that expelled Jews would all come to Palestine, according to Netanyahu, a perplexed Hitler asked, “So what should I do with them?” The mufti supposedly responded, “Burn them.” And so the Holocaust ensued.



Lipstadt writes: This claim doesn’t make sense. The murder of the Jews began in the summer of 1941, five months before this meeting. By the time Hitler and the mufti had their tete-a-tete, hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children had been shot. At Babi Yar alone, the Germans murdered 34,000 Jews in September 1941, over two months prior to the meeting, without any encouragement from the mufti. Gas wagons were already in use prior to this meeting. Someone who wishes to only expel a people does not rely on mass shootings and gas wagons.

This is not the first time Netanyahu has made this assertion. Lipstadt brands him a revisionist. Netanyahu’s revisionism, reassigning blame for the Shoah from Hitler to the mufti, is to score political points.


Lipstadt notes that the mufti was no innocent, and enthusiastically supported Hitler. Al-Husseini unambiguously encouraged his audiences to murder Jews. In December 1942, at the opening of the Islamic Institute in Berlin, he declared that the war, which had been “engineered by the Jews,” gave Muslims a “unique” opportunity to “get rid of their enemies.” In a March 1944 radio address he exhorted Muslims to “kill the Jews wherever you find them.” He assisted the Nazis in organizing Bosnian Muslims into a unit of the Waffen-SS. While historians may differ on the degree of influence he wielded among Nazi leaders, they do not question his delight that Jews were being annihilated.


Netanyahu, however, did not paint him as a supporter of the genocide of the Jews. He credited him with coming up with the idea. There is a vast difference between the two. Historians continue to debate who originated the idea of the Final Solution. No serious historian, however, has ever laid the decision at the feet of the mufti.


Netanyahu’s remarks this week came in the midst of a serious security situation in Israel in which Palestinians have gone on a rampage attacking innocent Jewish civilians for several weeks. I spoke last week about Palestinian lies about the situation including Abbas’s claim that Israel killed a Palestinian teen who actually was alive in Hadassah Hospital after he had gone on a stabbing rampage. There is evidence

that the Palestinian leaders are being called to account for their blatant lies, even in media outlets not traditionally recognized as pro-Israel. So, it was a blow to pro-Israel advocates to have to shift attention this week to Netanyahu’s ill-considered remarks. But we cannot ignore them. We cannot demand truth from our enemies without demanding truth from leaders of our own people.


Our Torah portion today reminds us that our leaders are not infallible. They are human. They make mistakes. We must learn from mistakes and not repeat them. Parashat Lekh Lekha, introduces us to Abraham, a great but imperfect leader whose flaws the Torah does not try to hide. Immediately upon settling in Canaan as God had instructed, Abraham uproots himself and brings his household to Egypt. The text says vayered Avram Mitzraymah, Abram went down to Egypt, suggesting that he lowered himself to the moral level of that society. What happens next is particularly disturbing. Abraham is afraid that the Egyptians will kill him and take his wife Sarai and ravage her. What does he do? He says that Sarah is his sister. She would be vulnerable to being kidnapped and assaulted, but at least he would live. This is not a shining moment of chivalry in the life of our patriarch. Clearly, in this environment of danger and depravity, we can understand Abraham’s fear that led him to deceive others to save himself. While we can understand his fear, we cannot justify his actions, and that is the Torah’s point. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, the Torah continually portrays its leading figures with all of their flaws, perhaps to teach us that we too can be good people without being perfect people. Look throughout the Bible and we find one hero after another, each of whom we meet as flawed human beings.


The Torah was not given to angels. It was given to human beings with the intention that we would be inspired by its teachings to improve ourselves and our world. The major characters of the Torah are flawed human beings who, despite their limitations, or perhaps because of them, are able to succeed despite their natural human fears and desires. We can and should condemn individual acts of behavior that get in the way of bringing godliness into the world.


These are scary days in Israel. Arabs, some of whom have been incited to act by religious and political leaders, have stabbed, hacked, and stoned Jews. Others have mowed them down with cars. As Deborah Lipstadt notes, however, this inexcusable barbarism does not legitimate rewriting of the past. The Holocaust was a crucial moment in history. Forgetting would be a tragedy; twisting and revising what happened to fulfill ancillary goals, equally so.


My prayer is that our people will come through this challenging period by upholding truth. Adonai oz l’amo yitein. Adonai yevarech et amo vashalom.


Alice Herz-Sommer: An Inspiration Across Generations

28 Feb
Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest pianist and world's oldest Holocaust survivor, died at 110.

Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest pianist and world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, died at 110.

On Sunday night, the Academy Awards ceremony will take place. Many of us will watch the coverage of this glitzy annual spectacle. I’m sure if we polled the congregation, we would hear about a number of films that we hope will win an Oscar. Let me tell you what I’m rooting for. In the category of documentary shorts, one of the nominees is a 38-minute film titled: “The Lady in Number 6: How Music Saved My Life.” It is about the life of Alice Herz-Sommer, a renowned concert pianist and survivor of of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. She was known as the oldest living survivor of the Shoah, that is until she died last Sunday at the age of 110. Friday’s New York Times carried her obituary.

Herz-Sommer devoted her life to channeling what she regarded to be divinely inspired classical music through her hands playing a piano. She played up until her death. Well past her 100th birthday, one finger in each hand became immobilized, and she reworked her technique to play with eight fingers.

In reading about this feat late in her life, I was reminded of a text in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, and accompanying commentary.

As the Book of Exodus draws to a close, we read about the completion of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The text tells us:

Just as The Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. (Exodus 39: 42)

The text continues:

And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks–as the Lord had commanded, so they had done–Moses blessed them (43).

Absent from this verse is the text of the blessing that Moses offered to the Israelites as their new house of worship was opened for business. Rashi cites the Midrashic work the Sifra that posits that Moses offered the following blessing:

“May it be God’s will that the divine Presence rest upon the work of your hands.”

The rabbis do not pull this blessing out of thin air. In fact, there are 11 Psalms in the Book of Psalms that begin, Tefillah L’Moshe, a prayer of Moses. In Psalm 90, we read:

May Adonai our God show us compassion; may God establish the work of our hands. May God firmly establish the work of our hands (90:17).

Alice Herz-Sommer was a modern day embodiment of the divine presence resting upon the work of her hands. She was born in Prague on Nov. 26, 1903, one of five children of a cultured, German-speaking, secular Jewish family. The family traveled in artistic circles and were friendly with Franz Kafka and Gustave Mahler, both of whom Alice remembered. In fact, she remembered Kafka attending her family’s seder. Alice began piano lessons at five and at 16 began conservatory studies. Before her 20th birthday, she was giving well-received concerts throughout Europe. She married a businessman, Leopold Sommer, and they had a son Stephan in 1937. In 1939, many family members fled Czechoslovakia for Palestine, but she remained in Prague to look after her mother. In 1942, her mother was deported to Theresienstadt and was soon after killed in a death camp. She described this as the lowest point of her life, and she turned to music for solace. She resolved to learn and master Chopin’s Études.

In 1943, Alice, her husband and son were deported to Theresienstadt. Despite the deplorable conditions there, the Nazis used this camp for propaganda. Many Jewish artists, musicians and intellectuals were interned there. The Nazis allowed in the Red Cross three times a year where they would find orchestras playing concerts and leave thinking the Nazis were treating the Jews well. Alice was forced to play on a broken, out-of-tune piano. Through it all, the music sustained her. She performed over 100 concerts in captivity, including all of Chopin’s Études from memory. She said that the music kept her, and the other captives who listened to it, alive. Tragically, her husband was deported to Auschwitz and later died in Dachau.

Alice and her son survived in Theresienstadt until the end of the War. She returned to Prague, but moved to Israel in 1949, where she was a renowned teacher at what is now the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Stephan grew up to become an accomplished cellist, and in the mid-1980s, Alice followed him to London to be near him. Tragically, he died of an aneurism in 2001 at the age of 64. Once again, she coped with her loss through her music. In her London apartment building, where she occupied Flat No. 6, her neighbors heard her practicing piano constantly. Thus emerged the title of the film that is up for an Academy Award: “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.”

Whatever happens at the Oscars on Sunday, Alice Herz-Sommer will remain an inspiration. In the film, she says that it was music that gave her hope in her darkest days. For her, she says, “Music is God.” Indeed, Alice Herz-Sommer mastered one particular expression of Divine energy and channeled it through her hands on a piano. In the time of the Torah, Moses blessed the people by praying that the Divine Presence would rest upon the work of the hands of the people. Let us be inspired by the words of Moses and the music of Alice Herz-Sommer that each of us can bring the Divine Presence into our world through the work of our hands. Our hands may feel broken at times, and the world is often unforgiving, but we can perform the work of our hands literally or figuritively.

May it be God’s will that the Divine Presence rest upon the work of our hands.