Michael Berenbaum Writes New Foreword for my Book

Below is the moving new foreword that Michael Berenbaum, leading Holocaust scholar, wrote for my book, Never Forget My Soul.

          To confront the Holocaust some struggle with God, some with humanity and some with memory.  In this moving novel, Never Forget My Soul, Michael Milgraum struggles with all three.

            The two central characters, Adam and Joe, are both descendants of Holocaust survivors.  Adam is the child of survivors, the son of a family where memory haunted his childhood home.  His world was divided between those who could be trusted and those who could not.  The content of his Jewishness was fear and anguish.  Adam’s mother was barely functional; she internalized her pain.  His father’s aspirations were seemingly modest—safety, security, survival.  Yet only after seeing what he had seen and entering into the world of the Shoah, could one appreciate how significant an achievement that was.

            Over the vehement objections of his parents, who wanted him to avoid danger and stay close to home, Adam journeyed to Israel in the post-1967 euphoria, a pilgrimage that brought him into the presence of a Rabbi, a man of faith and learning, who despite his prior internment in the concentration camps and his life under Nazi persecution, did not lose his belief in God or in life.  He taught Adam that faith, and he modeled an alternate Jewish path as to how to grapple with memory.  Adam desperately embraced that path, but could not overcome the legacy of his past.  His religious praxis was perfect; his spiritual development arrested.  His prayers were by rote and yet he was both comforted and tormented not by his inner spiritual attainment, but by the idea that there could be one, should be one, one that was not his.

            Joe is the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, a hero, one of the few who escape Treblinka, where some 900,000 Jews were murdered and there were less than 100 known survivors.  Scott Cohen had participated in the Treblinka Uprising and escaped the death camp in its aftermath.  In response to his youth, he was living, what Primo Levi described in his magisterial work If This Be a Man, falsely re-titled to give it an upbeat feel for an American audience Survival in Auschwitz,  “the cold life of a joyless dominator.”

            Joe’s grandmother was submissive, and Joe’s mother sought to escape her father’s domination by marrying a non-Jew who seemingly was everything her father was not, yet who, as often happens in marriage, shared much in common with her father.  He was a determined dominator, yet, unlike her mother, she escaped, neglecting her children, by burying herself in a successful career. 

            Brilliant and impulsive, selfish and hedonistic, Joe rebelled, seeking refuge in drugs and sex and acts of daring, then, at least externally, finding his own way through life as a successful physician, an indifferent husband, and an occasional father, drowning himself in sex and work.   The fact of his grandfather’s survival seemed of no importance, and he last made contact with his own Jewishness when he stormed out of his own Bar Mitzvah sermon, having spoken defiantly, confronting God and Abraham and mocking those who revere sacred scripture.

            Both Adam and Joe are driven to therapy and find themselves in group sessions with diverse characters led by David, a wise and caring therapist who seems to know precisely when to intervene and when to remain silent.  The skill of a good therapist is not only in knowing what to say, but also when to say it.  As one who has done some significant counseling as a chaplain and rabbi, I always marvel at the patience required.  A scholar, writer or preacher must tell the truth that he knows; a wise counselor must guide the person being counseled to discover their own truth.  Milgraum is a therapist, and one can tell from this novel that he has grappled with these issues himself.  

            Milgraum is a gifted story teller.  Like a fine symphony, themes present at the beginning are developed as the work evolves.  There are moments of crescendo and of fortissimo, unexpected turns, but a confident direction.

            I suspect that I have been asked to write this foreword not for my understanding of literature – I am but an appreciative reader but not a literary scholar – but for my efforts to grapple with the Holocaust, God, humanity and memory and also, perhaps unknown to the author, for my appreciation of literature as an important form of theology, especially to Jews.

            The Torah, as any student of Rabbinic commentary knows, is not only a work of law.  Rashi, the great French commentator (1040-1105) wrote in his commentary on the first words of the Torah, that had it been just a book of laws, the Torah would have began with the first commandment in the 12th chapter of Exodus and not with the Genesis and Exodus narratives.  If Greeks might say: “in unity there is strength,” Jews would be more inclined to tell a story of “two dogs that killed a lion.”

            So what does this story tell of the Holocaust?

            Viktor Frankl, the eminent Viennese psychoanalyst who was an inmate of the camps, wrote of liberation:  “only later– and for some it was much later or never – was liberation actually liberating.”

            Milgraum does not choose the easy path.  He portrays the painful truth of survival, which tends to be obscured in our feel-good society.  Adam’s parents and Joe’s grandfather and mother, paid for their experience of trauma.  The Holocaust did not end for them, not in the conventional sense.  They did not overcome; they endured, paying an ongoing price for all that they went through, for childhoods interrupted, witnessing the death of parents and siblings, the murder of their entire community, the demise of a whole world.  The anguish does not end with the generation of survivors, it is transmitted directly and indirectly, knowingly and unknowingly, in ways that are acknowledged and in a manner that cannot be, to the generation after, and even beyond.

            Theologically, he offers no cheap grace, no feel-good story and no way out of the abyss, without confronting the darkness.  One must respect the integrity of the writer and of the therapist who resists the all-too-prevalent temptation in our world to retell only the good, to describe strength and not probe weakness and to offer easy triumphs.  The impact of the Holocaust is lasting, and even though survivors demonstrated manifest, dare one say awesome strengths, in the very fact of their survival, they paid a price for that survival, an ongoing price.

            Twice during the work Milgraum insists that there is only one way to confront the Holocaust and that is to go into the darkness.

            This endears him to my heart.  Permit me a personal story.  When I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation on post-Holocaust theology and the work of Elie Wiesel, I found myself drawn to the image of the void, absence where presence had been.  I considered three Jewish theologians Emil Fackenheim, Richard L. Rubenstein and Eliezer Berkovits, who were among the earliest of the American Jewish theologians to confront the twin revolutions of American Jewish life, the Holocaust and the rise of the State of Israel.  Fackenheim had achieved fame by speaking of the 614th Commandment: 

The Commanding Voice of Auschwitz says:

Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories.

They are commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish.  They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz, lest their memory perish.  They are forbidden to despair of man and his world, and to escape into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they cooperate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz.  Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish.  A secularist Jew cannot make himself believe by a mere act of will, nor can he be commanded to do so . . . And a religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him.  One possibility, however, is wholly unthinkable.  A Jew may not respond to Hitler's attempt to destroy Judaism by himself cooperating in its destruction.  In ancient times, the unthinkable Jewish sin was idolatry.  Today, it is to respond to Hitler by doing his work.

            Richard L. Rubenstein had also achieved fame by speaking of the “death of God”, not in the sense of the Christian theologians celebrating humanity coming of age, but of living in a world without a Judge and without Justice, a world in which the fear of God is no longer real and unrestrained human power had been and can be absolutely lethal.

            Fackenheim had to back away from the abyss, fearing the consequences of confronting the darkness.  See his use of the word ”lest.”  He would not allow us to go there.  Rubenstein had gone beyond the abyss, living in a godless world where humanity is the ultimate arbiter of all things.  After “the death of God”, everything is permitted – everything.  Berkovits had postponed the conflict, believing God answerable in the end of days for the anguish of the created world in which humans alone are responsible for history.  Only Wiesel, the early Wiesel, the writer before he had achieved prominence and internationally celebrity– grappled with the darkness and worked through the abyss.  He became my model, asking challenging questions, refusing falsely comforting answers, neither backing away nor resolving the issue but living in the tension.  I found in Milgraum a kindred soul.

            The denouement of the novel comes in two parts.  The first is when David finally intervenes and says to the two men:

You are both fighting against the same thing, hopelessness, or perhaps I should say that you are both trying to protect yourself from the pain of hopeless.  The only difference is that, Adam, you protect yourself against hopelessness by denying it, while Joe, you protect yourself from hopelessness by embracing it, by becoming its chief protagonist.

            Had one spoken such words of Fackenheim and Rubenstein, they might have concurred.

            The second part is the confrontation between Joe and the Rabbi, whose synagogue he stormed out of a quarter century before.  Now aging and more frail, the Rabbi too has known loss, the death of his wife and the loneliness of being a widower, but he also knows where to find consolation.

            There is an intriguing, ritualistic phrase that pious Jews recite to the mourner.” Hamakom yenachem, May the Place [a name for God] console you.”  I have often interpreted this phrase more literally: “May there be a place where you will find consolation.  That place for the Rabbi is the book of Job.

            What makes a holy text timeless is its potential to speak of each generation and each reader at each stage of his or her life as if it was written for them, here and now.  Joe barges in on the Rabbi in anguish and in despair.  The Rabbi cannot answer his anguish, but he can, like Elihu (a key figure in the book of Job), acknowledge the despair and listen to the anguish.  By listening, and by acknowledging, there is the possibility of alleviating.

            And finally, Joe and the Rabbi return to the two basic texts of Genesis, Abraham’s confrontation with God over the fate of Sodom and his non-confrontation with God over the command to sacrifice his own son, his beloved son, his Isaac.  For the Rabbi, God’s gift to Abraham at Sodom was the opportunity to demonstrate love of others in action.  “The root of all human goodness,” the Rabbi says “ is the awareness that we are not alone in the world.”

            Joe responds: “I see no gifts, only a cold world where the strong survive and the weak are crushed.”

            The Rabbi remembers the rules of counseling: “To treat the darkness you have to bear your own entry into the darkness.”  That is the inescapable beginning.

            But one need not end up in that darkness.  Some in that darkness can discover God.   God did not answer Job in the whirlwind, God addressed him.  With presence there is the possibility of meaning, without it, there may just be despair.

            And some in that darkness can discover another person and find that loneliness can be bridged with another, anguish can be shared with another.  To protest the cold cruel world, one can reach out toward the other and share the warm embrace and with that comes healing.   There may be some light out of the tunnel.

            Never Forget My Soul is a brave work that touches the soul and invites us to remember a way that can nourish and not destroy the soul.

Michael Berenbaum

Los Angeles, California

July 20, 2012 

 

 

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