Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, established to correspond with the date when the first units of the Red Army reached Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945. The horrors are unspeakable; many, including the second generation, feel more shocked, bewildered and bereft year by year. We live as Jews in solidarity with our own people and with victims everywhere.
This year’s theme is ‘Ordinary People.’ As the home page of the HMD website says:
Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group (eg, Roma, Jewish community, Tutsi).
I don’t think the Bible has such concept as ‘ordinary people’. A ben adam, a human being, is, without exception, made in God’s image. The Mishnah (c. 200CE) elaborates: every person is yechidi, createdunique. I’ve stood by the broken concrete at Birkenau and wondered: who did each of these people love, for whom did they long, as they were forced toward those chambers?
Yet the words ‘ordinary people’ ring true. We are all other people’s ‘ordinary people’. In an excellent talk, Dr John Launer noted how so many ‘ordinary’ individuals allowed the Nazis to come to power. Then, speaking of bystanders in general, he said with brave frankness that the older he gets the less he feels like the judge, and the more he feels among the judged.
The Torah forbids us to be bystanders: ‘Don’t stand idly by your fellow human’s blood.’ (Vayikra 19:16) ‘If you know that someone intends to threaten another person’s life, you have to speak out,’ explained Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816 – 1893), head of the Volozhyn Yeshivah destroyed half a century later by the Nazis.
This is incomparably easier said than done. It leaves the discomforting question: whose bystander, whose ‘ordinary person’, am I?
Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, was famed as a Torah educator. Who am I? he asked, before answering: I am those aspects of my potential self which my experiences have drawn out of me. That’s why it’s essential to live in environments which bring out the best and deepest within us.
He reminds me of when I was a guest of the church in Germany the 1990s. ‘Had the visit left me angry?’ I was asked on my return. In truth, something quite different had gripped me: relief that I lived in a country whose laws prevented me from doing the worst of which I might prove capable. How would I have behaved had I been an ‘ordinary’ Aryan under Nazi rule? How could I be sure? The consciences of so many people were so deeply infiltrated by the vicious yet alluring discourse around them that they failed to perceive they were doing evil.
But today? I’m less confident our society and world is helping prevent the worst in us.
I stress one hundredfold that there is no comparison with Nazi or other such evil regimes. But I fear the atrophy of conscience. Are we supposed to accept homelessness in our streets, the drowning of refugees in the Channel, the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, or mass food insecurity? What’s being done in the name of my own good country? What racism do some utter, profaning the name and true values of my beloved Judaism?
The Torah speaks not of ‘ordinary’ but of ‘holy people’, anshei kodesh. They aren’t priests or anyone special, but you and me. Anshei, from anoosh, indicates open-heartedness, empathy, humility. Holiness means being truly deeply human.
We can’t help sometimes being bystanders. There’s simply too much wrong. But we must never become inured to it, let alone make it worse. We must seek the courage to be, at least sometimes, not just ‘ordinary’ but ordinary holy people.