My Fellow Jews:
Welcome to the concluding session of our annual plenary. You have come to listen to a report that sums up the progress we have made over the past year. As your president, and by long established custom, it is my duty tonight to provide you with such a report. It is my duty as well to outline the tasks and goals that we have set for ourselves in the period ahead. For many decades, indeed for nearly a century, that is the kind of speech which your president has delivered at the final meeting of our yearly convention.
Ladies and gentlemen, that is the speech you have a right to expect, but it is not the speech that you are going to hear.
Please bear with me.
This Jew who stands before you, who has occupied the office of your president for seven years; who has travelled the world meeting Jews in every country where they reside; who has met on your behalf with scores of national leaders, and spoken in your name at countless international gatherings; who has, she sincerely trusts, served you with all the efficiency and dignity that you require from your leadership - this Jew now asks for your attention. She asks for your patience and indulgence.
Please be assured that my conduct on this occasion, and the choice of words about to be spoken, are the result of the most profound meditation and careful deliberation.
The ideas that you will soon hear go to the very heart of what it means to be a Jew. My decision to advance them from this podium may strike you as incompatible with my role as your president. You will be right. The ideas that you are about to hear have nothing to do with the office to which you elected me. In addition, these ideas will represent a solemn contradiction of beliefs held sacred by a great majority in this hall. The ideas soon to be expressed may well inflame instant disfavor and even aversion among many of you. Accordingly, my letter of resignation, signed a little over one hour ago, has been put into the hands of our executive director. The resignation becomes effective immediately upon conclusion of this address. As you will realize shortly, no other path of action would be appropriate.
And now, with humility and a measure of apprehension, but with a certitude ratified by all of my intellectual honor and motivated by my self-respect as a person and as a Jew, let me tell you my story.
Austrian Nazis and local residents look on as Jews of Vienna are forced to scrub the pavement.
Date: March 1938
Photo courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
It begins with a book.
An old and long forgotten book. A book that was obscure even at the time of its publication in the middle of the last century, some years after the Second World War. The slim volume was chanced upon in an antiquarian bookshop and read on the eve of Passover during an airflight from Jerusalem to New York. The book tells the story of Avrum Kantowitz, a Polish Jew from the city of Lodz who was born in the year 1906. His father was a baker, as was his grandfather and his grandfather's father before him. Avrum too, after some years of rudimentary education in the local yeshiva, went into the family trade and took his place in the community. The book relates that he was a short man, stocky, and richly bearded. When agitated he would stutter; when delighted he would bellow with unaffected laughter. He had a temper, which on occasion erupted, but he was a decent, hardworking, amiable, good man. Throughout his life he wore a skullcap and tzitzit. He attended synagogue regularly, and observed the holy days faithfully. Far from being affluent or even moderately prosperous, he nevertheless contributed as best he could to those worse off than himself. Certainly he never brought harm to anyone on the earth.
Avrum Kantowitz married Leah Perlman in 1927, and in each of the three following years a daughter issued from their union. Avrum adored and cherished his daughters more than anything else in the world - save for God. He valued God even higher, because he thanked God for everything the world held, and he most especially thanked God for his wife whom he loved and for his three blooming daughters.
The city of Lodz, located halfway between the German border and Warsaw, boasted a population of well over 200,000 Jews before World War Two. It was the second largest center of Jewish life and culture in Poland. After the German invasion of Poland the Nazis designated a single section of Lodz as the Jewish ghetto, and ordered into it all of the city's Jews. This was in April, 1940. Walls of brick, hooded with barbed wire, were erected to seal the ghetto's limits. Jews were forbidden to leave the ghetto unless assigned to work gangs. Within the ghetto they were not permitted to walk the streets between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.
The attrition of atrocity immediately began to take its toll. The extinction of the Jews of Lodz commenced. They died of hunger and typhoid. They died of forced labor. They died from beatings, shootings and hangings. They died by their own hand. Suicide became epidemic.
In the microcosm of Avrum Kantowitz and his family is reflected the gigantic misery inflicted by the Germans upon the Jews of Poland. Forced from their three room flat because it was located outside the boundaries of the ghetto, clutching what possessions and pathetic baggage they could carry, the family of Avrum Kantowitz took up a new life in a windowless cellar measuring twelve feet by fourteen. Try to imagine the stifling confinement, underlined by fear of the unknown at this still early stage of the Nazi terror. Try to imagine it, and you will fail. No one can imagine it.
Try to picture, try to feel, try to share in some small way the constant state of loss, murk, hunger and desperation in which Avrum Kantowitz and his family lived. Grief and mourning were a constant condition, because news of death was a daily caller. Fear was the very shirt or dress that each of them put on at the break of day, because they could never be sure what new degradation or deprivation the day might bring. Numbness was a fixed state, because otherwise the mind could not cope. Try to imagine it? In our liberty, in our customary plenty, in all of our cushioned comforts - we cannot imagine it.
We will forever fail to know what it was like for Avrum Kantowitz to watch his wife and daughters wither from hunger and grow haggard from the relentless tightening of the Nazi noose. And yet, for a long while, for over three years, Avrum Kantowitz and his family were among the fortunate Jews of Lodz. Textile mills operated in the ghetto. German uniforms were manufactured. Avrum Kantowitz's wife and daughters worked in sewing shops, where they hand-embroidered military insignias. Avrum Kantowitz himself was permitted to continue his work as a baker. This is what brought the family their food rations. This is what kept them from the trains. Until the final deportations began, the family held together. A spark of hope remained alive. Meanwhile, each month brought increased wretchedness, lower rations, greater risk of disease, news of more death.
When the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto was ordered in the summer of 1944, Avrum Kantowitz was thirty-eight years old, his wife thirty-six. His eldest daughter had just observed her sixteenth birthday. His youngest daughter was twelve. The order came for all Jews to gather in the central square "for transport and resettlement in a work camp in the east."
History tells us from many sources what took place in Lodz on that August day in 1944. From each source we learn that the full fire of hell broke out in the ghetto on that day, although by then the ghetto was no stranger to all manner of licking flames. From the source named Avrum Kantowitz we learn that even hell hosts extreme corners. Even hell has its hell.
Avrum Kantowitz and his wife and three daughters chose not to obey the general order. They did not report to the central square. They concealed themselves behind a false wall in their cellar. Of course the attempt to avoid transport was ill-conceived, feeble, futile. To hide was courageous and right, but the family's only strength lay in its desperation. Exposure and capture were inevitable. Five Germans came into the building. They had been sent with dogs to sweep the block. The dogs found Avrum Kantowitz and his family. The dogs sniffed them out. The frenzied barking of the dogs at the frail wall prefaced the savagery to come.
Once routed from their hiding, incensed shrieks and commands rained down on the cowering family. A German in black yanked Avrum Kantowitz's wife by her hair. Another seized his eldest daughter by the throat. A sudden hot mist clouded Avrum Kantowitz's eyes. He felt as if his limbs were on fire. For a blinding moment he lost all reason and knew no fear. He forgot who he was, and who his tormentors were. He lunged at the German who had seized his daughter.
What was this? A Jew resisting a German? A Jew attempting to obstruct or harm a German? This unheard of defiance singled out Avrum Kantowitz for special treatment, for special recreation. The Germans rained vicious blows upon him with the butts of their rifles, then gagged him and roped him to a chair. These were Nazis. In regard to Jews no laws, no ethics, no ordinary emotions restrained them. If they had been merely angry upon finding a nest of Jews behind a fake wall, now they were irate because a hand of the pestilence had dared to touch them. When provoked by a Jew they were entitled to imitate the Devil himself if they wished, and now they so wished. They would make supreme fun of this impudent scum. They bound Avrum Kantowitz to a chair and gagged him, and then in front of his eyes in the tiny dim cellar in the Lodz ghetto, they stripped the clothes from his screaming wife and daughters. They held the women down, and made sport with their knives and bayonets. With a cry of crazed mirth one of them cut off the ears of Avrum Kantowitz's wife. Then they turned on the oldest daughter. With less hesitation than they would betray in skinning a rabbit, they hacked off her breasts. Into the face of Avrum Kantowitz they threw the blood-streaming flesh of his wife and daughter, and they laughed at the red-dripping sight of him. They did it as a show, as a satanic entertainment, all the while bellowing with rapacious malice. Then they flung their dogs onto the two younger girls. They loosed the snarling fangs of the dogs onto the girls. They made a spectacle of this too, a taunting orgy of retribution for the proud bearded papa Jew who had shown the effrontery to defy a German, to attack a German.
The innocent baker who had prayed to God all his life sat in muffled screaming witness as a gang of blood-drunk Germans and a pair of black dogs ripped and tore the life from his loved ones. His arms and legs were bound, his savage howls choked. The screams that issued from the throats of his dying wife and daughters formed a species of scream that could be produced only in a place beyond any notion of humanity. Avrum Kantowitz's fatherhood and manhood, all hope and all future, every fragment of the world's sanity and every particle of reason for living, were being extinguished in front of him. In the horror-frozen clarity that remained a part of his mind, Avrum Kantowitz waited for the blow or bullet that would end his own life, and he prayed that the merciful bullet or blow would come quickly, quickly.
But at this point in the story of Avrum Kantowitz, something capricious and grotesque occured. At a time in the history of Europe when living Jews were becoming miracle Jews, the Germans perpetrated what was perhaps their greatest cruelty upon Avrum Kantowitz. They left him alive. They spared his life. They left him to endure with the images and sounds of the butchery of his wife and daughters. They frog-marched him, still gagged, onto a truck collecting able-bodied men for an iron mine in southern Poland.
It may be true that a man's story goes on for as long as his heart and mind go on. But now the story of Avrum Kantowitz continued only because his lungs still drew breath, and because his arms and legs still functioned, and because his body went on converting scraps of sustenance into mechanical, productive slavery. Otherwise his heart and mind had become extinct organs within him. His soul too had dried into a cadaver within him. His existence descended to the level of a caged beast's routine. For seven months underground, never once seeing the sun, he lived the mindless routine of an animal in harness, except that few animals are made to suffer the humiliations and habitual beatings that he endured.
Avrum Kantowitz lived, breathed and functioned, but he was absent from life. His faculty of self-awareness hung by a slender thread. He preserved only one remnant from his prior existence, and it was perhaps this remnant that kept him human. Avrum Kantowitz counted the days. He kept track of the number of nights that turned into mornings. This became the only meaning of his being. If there is a connection between state of mind and immunity of the body, then this was Avrum Kantowitz's bridge to survival: he counted the days. To see the next morning, then the next, and the next - not for any pleasure of living within the morning, but simply to count it - this was his means of sustaining the existence of will, of preserving the ability to accept a continuation of life. He stored the number in a distant inviolate corner of his mind. He took satisfaction from the number's predictable march, its steady growth. This was his only resistance to the tormentors who had taken away everything else. They could not breach, or even be aware of, this one unyielding citadel in his consciousness. He counted the days.
Avrum Kantowitz's number reached two hundred and nine.
When the war ended for the onetime husband, father and baker, he was a ghost of his former self. If liberation had been delayed a few weeks longer, he likely would not have survived. He weighed just over a hundred pounds and could not endure the light of day. Every night of his sleep for seven months had been filled with the agony of memory. His journey through the Holocaust was monstrous, abominable, incredible, and yet not unique in the scale of its foulness and anguish. Similar stories came out of the war in great number. How could they not? The Germans had set out to degrade and kill every single Jew on the soil of Europe.
Avrum Kantowitz told his story to a Yiddish-speaking journalist from England in a displaced persons camp outside of Frankfurt in 1946. The journalist, Joseph Mankiewicz, was the son of Polish Jews who had emigrated from Cracow before the war. Mankiewicz relates in his prologue that often during their meetings, in the course of telling his story, Avrum Kantowitz would look at him from the depths of unbearably cheated eyes, open his emaciated hands to the empty air, and cry out: "V ken es zine?"
How can it be?
A mass grave at Mauthausen.
Date: May 10, 1945
Photo courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
This was the title that Mankiewicz gave to his book. Written in Yiddish, it was published by a little known house in England in 1951 and drew scant notice. Twenty-two years later a Canadian doctoral student from Winnipeg, the daughter of Lithuanian survivors, happened upon a copy during her studies in London. She took upon herself the task of translating the book for an English-speaking audience. Again the story of Avrum Kantowitz was published, but it attracted only limited review, mainly in the North American Jewish press. Less than a thousand copies of the book were sold. Decades later, a copy of this edition found its way to a dusty second-hand bookshop on Yavitz Street off the Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. There, an American Jew, this Jew who stands before you, came upon it, purchased it for a paltry sum, and read it aboard a Boeing 787 on an April night of last year. Such was the chain of events which helped give rise to this address, and which will result in my imminent resignation as your president.
The effects upon me of Avrum Kantowitz's story proved profound. Many Holocaust memoirs had gripped and moved me, but none had similarly imposed a hold or conquered my consciousness quite as this one. You see, the Jew before you has also been favored with three daughters. This Jew before you treasures and worships her daughters above all else in the universe. This Jew before you cannot imagine continuing in this world should events befall her daughters, befall her own eyes, the like of those events which destroyed the family and the life of Avrum Kantowitz. There is horror in abiding the thought. There are some thoughts that consciousness cannot speak, permit or contain.
For Avrum Kantowitz the unspeakable became reality. He lived what our minds dare not approach. And his story was but one of countless such stories.
This Jew before you came off her airflight last April with an agitation that would not yield. Something new had entered her psyche, something oppressive and insistent. It was not guilt, but it was related to guilt. It grew from an abiding feeling that she and the rest of her surviving nation had never done enough to engage the depths of Avrum Kantowitz's suffering. We had never done enough to acknowledge his experience, or answer to his grief. We have written about him and about thousands of others just like him. We have built special buildings to tell the world his story. In universities around the globe we have made the Holocaust a special course of study, a veritable branch of history. All these instruments of memory are truly good things, but none of them adequately answer Avrum Kantowitz's tenacious question. This Jew before you keeps hearing a voice crying out from the black hole of a betrayed life:
"V ken es zine?" How can it be?
And then came the first night of Passover.
No one here needs a reminder of the place that Passover holds in the Jewish tradition, and no one here need be told of the centrality of the seder night within the consciousness of our nation. For thousands of years we have been celebrating the events of the Exodus from Egypt and relating those events to an all-powerful God who had made us His chosen people. The Haggadah of Passover is the very touchstone of our faith. The seder night is foundational to our existence as a people.
My fellow Jews, all through that Passover night the experience of Avrum Kantowitz dominated my thoughts. As the Haggadah reading went on, contradictions joined battle in my mind. The story of the Exodus from Egypt simply could not be reconciled with the story of the extermination in Europe. Questions pulled at my conscience. Questions such as this: If God's intervention in Egypt was an eternal testimony of His love for us, and of his assurance to us that we shall live and prosper, then what was the testimony of God's silence and absence during the 20th century in Europe? And questions such as this: If the recounting of the Exodus from Egypt stimulates faith, then what do we stimulate when we recount the Holocaust in Europe?
The questions kept coming, rising up like challenges - or accusations. If we re-live the Exodus during the seder night, why do we not re-live the Holocaust on some other night? If we consume bitter herbs during Passover to remember the harshness of our slavery in Egypt, then what should we put on our tables, or not put on our tables, to remember the genocide in Europe?
As we remember the events of the Exodus from Eygpt, we raise a cup of wine and recite the following: "Therefore we are obligated to thank, praise, laud, glorify, extol, honor, bless, exalt, and acclaim the One Who has wrought all these miracles for our ancestors and for us; He has taken us from slavery to freedom, from agony to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to great light, and from enslavement to redemption. Let us sing for Him a new song of praise. Sing God's praises."
My fellow Jews, if our ancestors in the ghetto of Lodz or the death camp of Auschwitz could have held a seder on Passover night, could they have uttered those words without embarrassment or hypocrisy? The answer is yes, they could have, because they were still alive and could still hope for deliverance. The Jews in Auschwitz while they yet breathed and dreamed could hold out for rescue, but what of the Jews who gathered on Passover nights after Auschwitz, who knew that Auschwitz had existed and that no deliverance came for the vast, vast majority of Jews there?
Far from having altered the poetry of our devotion, we post-Auschwitz Jews on Passover nights still begin the after-feast expression of gratitude with these words: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who sustains the entire world in His goodness, with grace, loving-kindness, and compassion."
My fellow Jews, remembering the six million, with what degree of intellectual integrity can we defend that utterance? Remembering the six million, would it not be more reasonable to ask: did God at some point in history leave the arena of human conduct entirely to human agency? If this is so, then why do the prayers and blessings in the synagogue and during the festivals and during the seder night go on extolling the very interventionism that He has forsaken?
We speak of redemption during the Passover night. The Haggadah tells the story of a great redeeming. Well, what is the opposite of redemption? The opposite of redemption is earthly hell. A deliberately created and brutally sustained earthly hell existed for the Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. The Jews of that era on that continent were unredeemed. They were unsaved. Would you blame Avrum Kantowitz if he dared you to look into his eyes and still speak of an all-redeeming One? Would you find the power to dispute Avrum Kantowitz, to contradict or condemn him, if he cried out to you that in a world that created Hitler, that nurtured the Nazis, that gave mastery to the Germans, that permitted the camps and the crematoria, and that hosted the torment that was his life - that in such a world no merciful God can possibly exist?
Please. . . order.
Kindly bear with me.
No, no. . . shouts from the floor will not be answered. Those of you who are refusing to listen and who are leaving the hall - your reaction is understandable and accepted. But this Jew will go on. Be reminded that she will remain your president for only a short time longer. You may then dispose of my remarks however you wish.
Here is my thesis, which rests at the base of everything said in this address: we have failed the six million. Allow me to repeat: we have failed the six million. We have defaulted on our obligation to remember the Holocaust. It is grossly improper that the German genocide of 20th century Jews has not taken precedence in our customs over the Egyptian enslavement of ancient Israelites. It is not right - in truth, it is disgraceful - that the enormity of the Holocaust has failed to influence, much less transform, our traditions of devotion. We must face these issues, and then we must be bold in our actions. If we are to bring justice to the memory of the six million, a decisive alteration in Jewish custom must come about. Otherwise hypocrisy will haunt our Passover nights, as it has haunted every seder held since the death camps of the 1940s spewed the black smoke of our charnelized kinsmen.
The texts of Judaism are not immutable. They cannot be considered infallible through all of eternity. If new evidence comes into the world - when Avrum Kantowitz's story holds sway in a consciousness such as my own - old beliefs become subject to revision.
For millennia, through the Haggadah, we have been telling the story of the Exodus to transmit and perpetuate our faith in God. This Jew before you is saying that in her home the time has come to tell another story. She is saying that an event more significant than the Exodus, incomparably more significant, has occurred in history, and that it dictates a new Haggadah. Who will write the new Haggadah? That is not for this Jew to say. This Jew can only say that someone must write it. She can only say: Shame on the leadership of the Jews for having let it remain unwritten for so long. Shame on the Jewish clergy for having pretended for so long that it need not be written.
What shape will the new Haggadah take? That too is not for this Jew to say, but surely the new Haggadah will relate how the Jews of Europe were deserted and left to their fate. The new Haggadah will show that modern Jewish history, far from signaling the presence of God in the affairs of men, actually tends to confirm the antithesis.
Order. . .
My fellow Jews, when we relive the Holocaust and plunge deep into the history of it we cannot help but cry out from the tilt of our own minds, from the dizzying sway inflicted by the materials of our remembrance. Travelling across this continent of nightmare we may begin to wonder if we have left the world of plausible reality. The Holocaust could not have been real, because our imaginations lack the power to process and accept it. But the Holocaust was real; it was real. And as much as the stories and recollections of survivors might help in painting a picture of the horror, no amount of vicarious memory can enable us to see and feel the horror for ourselves. This gigantic evil, this people-grinding horror, it could not have taken place on an earth populated by moral consciousness, or in a world that had ever been familiar with simple rectitude. But the heinous events did take place; they did take place. And it is our obligation to remember them, not least because by doing so we may help the world forestall their recurrence.
When we make ourselves serious students of the Holocaust we must regularly recuperate from our study, go out into the sunlight, partake in the peace and cheer of today. Look: the sun is shining, the season is changing, lives are being lived. But when we return to the books and the testimony, we enter once again the truth of a time when Jews cringed in death camps like beaten animals, eating with a feral rush what little they were given, and knowing in the words of Primo Levi, "that in a few weeks nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some near-by field and a crossed-out number on a register." My fellow Jews, when we journey into Holocaust remembrance and stay there for an extended time, we cannot come out the same persons we went in.
We are more likely to come out and ask, in angry incredulity, "V ken es zine?"
A mass grave in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Date: May 1, 1945
Photo courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Many of you will no doubt tell this Jew that she has lost her way, that understanding of the true nature of God has slipped from her consciousness. You will tell her that we must trust in God's strategy, have faith in His grand design. That is an old, old story, and it has always been a good story, but it no longer reaches this Jew. She finds no answer, release or comfort in it. No comfort at all when remembering that infant children were torn from their parents' arms to be smashed upon paving stones; that grandmothers and grandfathers were stripped naked and lined up at the edge of muddy pits to be machine-gunned into mass graves; that nearly half of our total nation was herded and sheared like worthless livestock to be gassed and burned.
Those scenes were painted on the canvas of history. They must now be made imperishable in our consciousness, and taken as a lesson - and a turning point.
This Jew who stands before you will no longer give herself over to inherited devotion. Does that mean that this Jew has ceased to be a Jew? You may say so; she will not. She remains as proud a Jew as anyone in this hall. But if we are to ask for the centuries ahead what kind of person a Jew ought to be, and ask what kind of actions a Jew ought to take, then the suggestion being made here is that recent history, meticulously recorded and knowable, rather than an ancient legend accessible only through faith, is infinitely more serviceable in determining the answer to those questions.
Esteem is owed to any person who meaningfully pursues a spiritual purpose, be it in the context of trust in God or otherwise. This Jew makes no claim upon any conscience but her own. It is not her wish to convert others from their beliefs. She continues to respect unreservedly fellow Jews who pay homage to the ancient Jewish idea. But is that respect not a two-way road? Is respect not also owed to the Jew whose honest and rigorous pursuit of meaning yields opposition to the old habits of faith?
May mutually regardful voices meet at the intersection of debate. May the debate be civil, and may the result be a more informed people, an enhanced Judaism, and a better world. Let that be the final counsel of the Jew who was, until this very moment, your president.