Teaching Jewish Heritage: The Ultimate Act of Resistance

What a memorable week it has been for me!  For over a year, I have been following the impressive work of Professor Danny Ben-Moshe, from Melbourne, Australia, and communicating with him, over email, about ways to bring a documentary he produced to a wider audience.  (This documentary, entitled Rewriting History, tells a compelling story about Holocaust revisionism in Lithuania and the hazards of such efforts.)  I finally had the chance to meet Danny, in person, when he appeared at a screening of his film at George Washington University, last Tuesday, and participated in a panel discussing the film's significance.  Yesterday, I was able to talk with him at length, as we drove from Washington, DC to Richmond and back again.  (My time with him was prolonged by the slowest southbound traffic on I-95 that I had ever seen.  But it was all for the best, because it was fascinating conversing with him.)  The purpose of our trip was to be discussants at a showing of Rewriting History, at the Byrd theater in Richmond.  The event was coordinated by Jay Ipson, a Holocaust survivor, founder of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, and lecturer on Holocaust-related issues.     

Danny impressed me as a man with a strong sense of integrity and a passion to speak out against injustice, combined with intelligence, warmth and an infectious sense of humor.  He also multitasks like a fiend.   As we drove, he phoned reporters (who were fact checking stories about his work), scheduled interviews, discussed how to get funding for his continuing work and revised his travel plans.

Danny and I arrived at the stately, beautifully ornamented Byrd Theater in Richmond, shortly before the film started showing at 7:00 pm.  After the showing, Danny and I discussed our work and fielded questions from the audience.  (We also had a chance to sell copies my book Never Forget My Soul  and DVD's of Danny's film.)   In his remarks, Danny stressed that the Lithuanian government has been trying to whitewash the brutal attacks on Lithuanian Jews by local Lithuanians during the war, some of which occurred before the Germans even arrived in these communities.  He said that many of these Lithuanians are regarded as national heroes for their resistance of Soviet occupation, and that it is an inconvenient truth that they also took part, with great enthusiasm, in senseless killing of Jewish men, women and children in Lithuania.

In my comments I emphasized that we need to remember not only the devastating cruelty and loss of life that occurred in this region, but we need to honor the culture that the European anti-Semites and the Nazi's wished to eradicate.  I made reference to the fact that Lithuania was famous, during the pre-war period, as the location for some of the finest Jewish religious academies (Yeshiva's) in the world.  In Vilnius, Lithuania, rabbis and their students spent day and night studying the holy texts of the Jewish people (the Torah, Talmud and treatises of ethics, spirituality, character development, and law).  These teachings had a defining impact, over the centuries, not only on the Jewish people, but on Western culture as a whole.

Just to name a few of these Jewish teachings that helped form Western culture: the inalienable rights of the individual that are not to be dismissed or impinged on in service of state interests, that human sacrifice is abominable, that kindness to the poor, disempowered and animals are not just nice things but non-negotiable have-to's (commandments from God), that murder is wrong whatever one's recent trendy  -ism that is justifying it, that the pursuit of pleasure without seeking a meaningful life is a wasted life, that it ennobles a human being to immerse himself in learning, that literacy is desirable for the population as a whole, that society must be governed by the rule of law and a non-corrupt court system that not even a king is above, that we are responsible for making the world a better place, and that there is one loving, benevolent God– not a mish-mash of random forces fighting against each other who could care less about the well-being of man.  

I told the audience that Holocaust education is in a state of crisis.  Now that we are numerous generations out from the Holocaust, many young people are just not interested in the subject, and, if we look at it objectively, why should they be?  It is depressing, and the barbarism of mankind has not eased at all in the seventy years since the war.  I said that if we want people to remember and learn from the Holocaust, then we cannot just focus on the loss.  We must give them a clear and active agenda for the present, something positive to focus on.  In this regard many people focus on speaking out for political justice, which is something that I applaud.  However, I would add to that and urge Jews to familiarize themselves with the incredibly rich source of teaching to be found in traditional Jewish sources.  There is such a wealth of information out today, making traditional Jewish literature and teachings accessible to those with little to no formal Jewish education.  One can attend classes, read books or peruse the almost endless sources of information on the Internet.  In that regard, allow me to suggest one very helpful website: http://www.aish.com/.  

Let us honor the memory of those who were lost, by paying attention to the richness of Jewish tradition and teachings, something that Hitler tried to eradicate.  Learning Jewish heritage and teachings will be our most lasting act of resistance against the enemies of democracy, tolerance and peace.  

© 2013 Michael Milgraum

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