Telling our Story

Posted on April 17, 2020

On Monday evening we will begin the annual commemoration of Yom HaShoah, our Holocaust Memorial Day. And while for us it is an accepted part of our calendar, this was not always the case. In 1951, the Knesset, Israel’s Government, began debating a date for remembering the Holocaust. They considered the 10th of Tevet, a traditional day for Jewish fasting and mourning, connected to the Temple destruction. They thought about the 14th of Nissan, the day before Passover, which was the day on which the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. Ultimately they settled on the 27th of Nissan, a week after Passover, and 8 days before Israel’s own Independence Day.

The selection of the date is significant for the story that Israel wanted to tell.

When the rest of the world looked for a date to remember the Holocaust, they decided upon January 27th. The International Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on the date on which Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp was liberated. It was an important moment in the defeat of Germany, and a vital moment in ending the slaughter of European Jewry. This date makes sense for the story that the United Nations and the rest of the world wants to tell, but it is not the story that the Jewish community chose.

Selecting the 27th of Nissan, the Israeli Government ensured that rather than celebrating the victories of other nations in the defeat of Nazism, they would celebrate the moment when Jews took up arms and fought back. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the moment that they wanted to remember and the day itself was given the full name: Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah – which can most accurately be translated as Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. For the fledgling State of Israel the story that they wanted to tell when remembering the Holocaust was about those Jews who rebelled and fought back against the Nazis.

The date and name of this day remind us that when we look back at history we have an opportunity to choose the story that we want to tell. Israel chose one story to tell about the Holocaust, and it’s worth noting that in the years that followed, other stories were also told and a more complicated narrative developed that did not just see heroism in those who fought back, but also recognized the heroism of those who maintained their humanity in the face of evil, and those who perished as martyrs, alongside others who survived unspeakable horrors.

It is a well known saying that history is written by the victors. Really though, history is written by the survivors who choose to tell their story, share their experiences, and make meaning out of a moment in time.

This lesson is reiterated in the festival of Passover. The entire Seder is structured so that we might tell the story that we were slaves in Egypt, but now we are free. We tell a story about God’s redemption, we tell the story of how Rabbis remembered those events, and we tell a story that we hope is compelling as a lesson for the children who sit around the table.

The idea that we were slaves in Egypt is in many ways the formative Jewish story, reiterated and emphasized throughout the Torah and beyond. We were slaves, we know what it is like to have been slaves, and so we view the world through the lens of people who were once slaves.

Often, we think about history and the stories that we tell being written in the aftermath of events that were beyond people’s control. As though the story simply emerges from the preceding time, with no real human agency to define what story will actually be told.

This is clearly not the case.

While it might seem like the choice of date for Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day came about after a survey of the past and the consideration of a variety of options. In reality, those brave men and women who led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, did so with an eye on the future and the story that would be told. One of the leaders of the Uprising Yitzhak Katznelson said: “We will fight not for ourselves but for future generations. Although we will not survive to see it, our murderers will pay for their crimes after we are gone. And our deeds will live forever.”[1]

We are living through a moment of history that will be remembered by future generations. I am certain that in years to come there will be history textbooks that will consider what we did and didn’t do as individuals, communities, nations and a world. There will judgement for the action and inaction, the response and lack thereof, and the way that people handled this crisis. And just as we are seeing so many media outlets revisiting stories from the influenza pandemic of 1918, I am sure that there will come a time when they will revisit stories of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

As we live through this moment, we might imagine that we are powerless to choose the story that will be told by future generations. We might imagine a scenario where history just appears to take shape out of a series of events, which we are currently living through and experiencing.

Or we might recognize that each one of us has the power to influence the story that will be told. Each one of us can be a part of creating the memories that will be carried forward from this moment. And each one of us can play our part in ensuring that there is a positive story to tell that brings hope and meaning to future generations.

As we face this moment, I want to challenge us all to think about the story is that we want to be able to tell when we emerge from this period.

In his ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, Stephen Covey’s second habit is to “begin with the end in mind”. For our purposes we might consider that his end is the story that we want to tell. As he elaborates: “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”[2]

If we can keep our eyes on the story that we want to tell; then we can make sure that our actions, choices, and behaviors all help to enable us to make that story a reality.

I do not want the story of this moment to be one of hoarding toilet paper, of people flouting regulations, of a society that broke down under the weight of restrictions that were placed upon us.

I want the story of this moment to be about the ways in which we overcame the social distance to maintain a spiritual connection. I want people to talk about how through the wonders of Zoom, Seder tables stretched around the globe to bring families and friends together even when they were apart. I want people to tell the story of how countless volunteers, individuals and companies, stepped forward to ensure that those on the front lines had the Personal Protective Equipment they needed to stay safe. And I want to hear people recount how we emerged from this time with a greater understanding of how intricately connected we all are with our fellow person; recognizing the responsibility we bear for each other’s well-being and the obligation that we have to protect and care for one another.

Famously, in the book Alice in Wonderland, she appears before the Cheshire Cat and asks:

‘“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where – ” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you walk,” said the Cat.’[3]

I hope and I believe that all of us care where we are going as individuals, as communities, as a country and as a world. This is a moment that can, and will, define that destination. We need to be clear in the story that we want to tell when we emerge from this moment, and then we need to do everything that we can to turn that story into reality, so that years from now it will be remembered.

[3] p89.