Streaming the Holocaust

Growing up, a secret society met in our home. Members included husbands or wives sneaking away from their spouses, parents shunned by their children. Individuals long forsaken by society would come to our house because they possessed one unifying character trait: they loved sweet and sour tongue. My mother prepared the dish, and as witness to this prep I no longer have the stomach for the dish. The group was known as the “lashon tov” club, meaning “the good tongue” club, a play on the prohibition to gossip, aka to speak lashon hara, or “evil tongue.”

I learned a lot about Lashon Hara as I prepared for my Bar Mitzvah, Shabbat Hagadol, Parshat Metzora. In a strange quirk of our triennial cycle, this week we “read” Tazria Metzora, but because it’s the 1st year of our cycle, we don’t actually read from Metzora itself. And our haftarah is the special haftarah for Rosh Chodesh. So while we don’t speak these words this shabbat, it’s important to hear their message.

In Parshat Metzora, we encounter a skin ailment that spreads, just as gossip spreads from person to person. Our Rabbis concluded that there are different types of gossip so I’d like to take a moment to explore 3 in particular:

Lashon hara is defined as saying something negative about a person- through face-to-face conversation or by letter, email or text. These comments are mean spirited, but true. It’s because of that mean spirit that a local rabbi has a bumper sticker that says in hebrew “Lashon Hara- Lo Mdabeir Alai.” By contrast, motzi shem ra (lit. “putting out a bad name”) – is slander or defamation. Lies. Motzi shem ra is a greater sin than lashon hara. Lies are much easier to come by. We learn this in our weekday morning tractate of study:

The letters of the word truth (emet) rest on two legs [aleph -mem -, tav – ], while the letters of the word falsehood (sheker) have only one leg [shin -, kof – , resh -]. Truthful actions stand firm; actions based on falsehoods do not. The letters of emet are far apart [the first, middle, and last in the alphabet], whereas the letters of sheker are bunched together. Truth is hard to attain, but falsehood is readily at hand. III YALKUT SHIMONI, GENESIS, 3

And finally, there are times when a person is permitted or even required to disclose information whether or not the information is disparaging. For instance, if a person’s intent in sharing negative information is for a to’elet, a positive, constructive, and beneficial purpose that may serve as a warning to prevent harm or injustice, the prohibition against lashon hara does not apply. 

Speaking up and speaking out against injustice and slanderous speech is not only allowed, it’s an imperative.

This could be a sermon about a whole boatload of contemporary topics and current events, from defamation suits to the unfortunate heavy workload of the Anti Defamation League, but I wanted to focus this Shabbat, as Tazria Metzora falls on Rosh Chodesh Iyyar, on something very specific. 

The First Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel took place on December 28, 1949, following a decision of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel that an annual memorial should take place on the Tenth of Tevet, a traditional day of mourning and fasting in the Hebrew calendar. In 1951, the Knesset began deliberations to choose a date for Holocaust Remembrance Day. On April 12, 1951, after also considering as possibilities the Tenth of Tevet, the 14th of Nisan, which is the day before Passover and the day on which the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943) began, and September 1, the date on which the Second World War began, the Knesset passed a resolution establishing the 27 Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, a week after Passover, and eight days before Israel Independence Day as the annual Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Remembrance Day


This past Tuesday was Yom Hashoah, and this upcoming Monday night, our community gathers again to commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, followed by Tuesday night, Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. Having Yom Hashoah in the month of Nisan is strange to some- a month in which we omit tachanun, our daily supplication prayer, because we are on a spiritual high having left the bondage of Egypt en route to the promised land. Having a week “buffer” between the nationalist holidays of Passover and Independence Day means we Yom Hashoah does not get lost in a laundry list of “yoms.” And just as a yahrzeit can fall on any day of the Jewish calendar, from Purim to Hanukkah to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Hashoah falling on a day amidst joy reminds us to stop, reflect, and remember. 

As a child, our local kids choir, Kolei Shira, sang at one large performance each year in front of hundreds and hundreds. That was Yom Hashoah. Yom Hashoah also meant hearing the stories of Pinchas Gurevich and Rabbi Baruch Goldstein, two Holocaust survivors from our Jewish community in Massachusetts.

Amidst my own childhood, a number of seismic shifts happened in Holocaust awareness and observance in the late 80s and early 90s. Since 1988 in Poland, a memorial service has been held after a three-kilometer walk by thousands of participants from Auschwitz to Birkenau known as the March of the Living. The group just commemorated their 35th March a few days ago. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the places of memory- the sites where synagogues once stood, the sites where communities thrived for generations, the sites of ghettos and death camps of nazi occupied Europe, became more accessible. Visiting these sites became a powerful way to remember what Nazi propaganda led to. On this date, April 22, 1993, the US Holocaust Museum opened its doors, enabling each visitor to personalize in a small way the experience of someone who lived, and in many cases died, during the Holocaust.  

Places of memory. Museums to teach generations to come about the atrocities of the Shoah. These were two ways to remember and to tell the true story of what took place. A third was found in the world of cinema, as 1993 was the year that the movie Schindler’s List was released. Over the next 10 years, Hollywood would see a trio of Holocaust related movies recognized for the stories they told- Schindler’s list, winner of 7 Academy Awards including best picture, Life is Beautiful, starring Academy Award winner Roberto Benigni, and The Pianist, starring Academy Award winner Adrien Brody. All 3 stories humanized the victims of the Shoah. 

Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a second seismic shift in holocaust education with the death of most survivors alongside the rise of antisemitism and new forms of propaganda. And so how do we connect to the holocaust so it doesn’t become just another page in Jewish history’s novel of martyrology? 

I mention these examples, created in my formative years, because they all had varying impacts on my life. To visit places of Jewish history- of life and of loss, was the most impactful Jewish experience of my life. Watching the Academy Award nominated films? Not so much. Not for me at least. But their importance on spreading truth to the masses is undeniable. And it reminds us that there can never be an oversaturation of Holocaust related resources to teach the next generation. Because we all connect in different ways.  

For some, it’s trying to understand the number 6 million, just as children in Whitwell Tennessee did when they collected 6 million paper clips some 20 years ago. Or it’s a statistic that sticks out- walk roughly 3 miles a day,  each foot representing a name, a person, and it would take you an entire year to name 6 million Jews who were killed. Truth is in a number.

Truth is even in fiction. 

The play Leopoldstadt is currently running on Broadway through July 2. 

Set in Vienna, the play takes its title from the Jewish quarter. This passionate drama of love and endurance begins in the last days of 1899 and follows one extended family deep into the heart of the 20th century. 

By focussing so much of the play pre-1933, the audience is able to better understand the culture and stories of those who were lost, especially those who thought they were too assimilated to be in danger when the Nazis arrived. 

Truth is in fiction, as in comic books! Comic books have long had Nazis as villains, so it’s no surprise that the TV show Agents of Shield focused on an evil Nazi network known as Hydra. When Agents of Shield wrapped up filming in 2020, so began a time in which every major streaming platform has produced a Holocaust centered tv show.

On Amazon Prime: Hunters is a conspiracy drama focusing on American Jews who literally hunt Nazis following WWII. Dark and gory, but very different from Prime’s other hit, Man in the High Castle, an American dystopian alternate history television series, a world in which Nazi Germany had prevailed. While I watched every episode of Hunters, I never got beyond the title screen of Man in the High Castle which depicts a map with the Nazi flag spreading throughout Europe and into America.

As I was halfway through writing this sermon, Journalist Lior Zaltzman, wrote an article, entitled “There Is a Lot of Excellent TV About the Holocaust Right Now.” She states:  

Earlier this month, we got a new, incredible limited Netflix series from Anna Winger, the creator of “Unorthodox,” which itself touched on Holocaust memory in present day Berlin. Her new series, “Transatlantic,” retells the story of Varian Fry and the ERC, the precursor of the modern day IRC, which helped rescue over 2000 anti-Nazi refugees from Europe — including Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt.

And next month, “A Small Light” from Hulu/Nat Geo/Disney+ will be premiering. Jewish filmmaker Susanna Fogel is involved in the production of the show, and it stars Jewish actress Bel Powley as a non-Jewish Holocaust heroine, Miep Gies (khees), the Austrian Dutch secretary who helped hide her boss, Otto Frank, and his family, including daughter Anne, in that secret annex in Amsterdam.

A show based on the incredible book “We Were the Lucky Ones” is also slated to come to Hulu sometime soon, directed by Jewish “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail, who is also working on an upcoming “Fiddler” movie. It tells the unlikely story of survival of one family.

These shows aren’t focused on the usual Holocaust imagery we’re used to — barbed wires, concentration camps, emaciated Jewish bodies, the kind of visuals that have almost been fetishized at this point. These shows also don’t give us an idyllic World War II narrative about American heroism versus Nazi evils. They don’t romanticize Nazis or make them more relatable or likable. They do give us heroes that are human and flawed.

Truth is in numbers. It’s in fiction. And truth is…truth. 

On Tuesday night, PBS began airing the documentary How Sabba Kept Singing. Musician David “Saba” Wisnia believed that he survived the horrors of Auschwitz by entertaining the Nazi guards with his beautiful singing voice. The documentary joins David and his grandson Avi (a classmate of mine at NYU) as the pair embark on a journey exploring the mystery of Saba’s past. The movie is now available for free on PBS with an extended Director’s Cut on YouTube. PBS re-aired the documentary Traces: Voices of the Second Generation” by our very own Stacey Goldring following the premiere of How Sabba Kept Singing.

WJCT’s Brendan Rivers writes, 

“Stacey Goldring, filmmaker and founder of Searching for Identity, produced “Traces, Voices of the Second Generation” to inspire all of us to join the resilient “second generation survivors” and ensure these stories and their influence on the next generation are remembered. The resilient “second generation survivors” share their parents’ remarkable accounts of surviving history’s darkest evils. They reveal how the Holocaust affected their lives through its generational and inherited effects.”

Many familiar faces are featured in the film, available this past week on our local PBS. Stacey’s Second Generation group shares stories that are honest, raw, and the new truth of having 2nd generation survivors be the torch bearers of this legacy. Third generation groups like the organization “If You Heard what I heard” continue the collection of stories. From their website:

In May of 2020, after seeing yet another news report of an antisemitic incident at a los angeles area synagogue, we thought about our grandparents’ stories, and how if more people today knew about the holocaust, perhaps these incidents would not be so prevalent. 

We thought about how our generation would be the last to hear our grandparents’ stories firsthand, in the same room, over the course of decades, directly from them. 

We knew we had to do something, and we kept thinking, if you heard what I heard, you would never forget. from the desire to make our grandparents’ stories relevant  and relatable for today, this project was born.

Some of us are film lovers, others are fans of a good book. And many times, we are not in control of what moves us or doesn’t move us. As we move from this week of memory to the next, I hope you’ll challenge your sensitivities to see, listen to what’s out there to teach the legacy of the Shoah. There are so many mediums to choose form. Find the story, the medium that you find most meaningful- and share it- on social media, with your co-workers, with your families. Have difficult conversations. Speak and spread the only allowable Lashon Hara- through sharing of a difficult past, we will ensure that hate and injustice have no place in our future. 

Posted on April 24, 2023, in Hazzan's Monday Morning Quarterback. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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