Toronto 1964 was very different from the Baltimore I knew. It was the first time that I saw people with concentration camp tattoos on their arms. The butcher had one. The baker had a number. My dentist's number was right in my face as he worked on my mouth. Some of my teachers had numbers tattooed on their arms. I learned that people referred to those who died as "Kedoshim," holy people, who died for the sanctification of God's Name.
I observed Mr. G, who emanated vapors of indifference in all that he did, even when interacting with his children. I experienced the anger tightly coiled in Mr. E's skin the minute he entered and filled the classroom with tension and fear. I sensed Dr. S's cold heart whenever he laughed at my terror of his dentist's drill. I was convinced that only those who had died at the hands of the Nazis could be described as Kedoshim; the survivors I met did not seem very holy to me. That is, until I spent a Shavuot in a large Toronto synagogue.
All the survivors who frightened me joined a pre-Yizkor ceremony that I will never forget. Indifferent Mr. G spoke of his first wife and their children who were murdered before his eyes. Angry Mr. E with tears of unimaginable suffering described how he watched his mother, father, brothers, sisters, and their children shoved into a cattle car on a Shabbat morning. Cold Dr. S could barely finish his tearful tale describing how his younger siblings were yanked from his arms as soon as he jumped off the train that landed him in Auschwitz. There was no indifference at that moment. There was no anger in that room. There was no coldness in that gathering. There was, above all the pain and agony, a sense of a commitment to live and carry on. All the people who scared me were living not only their own lives, but the lives of all those they had lost in the worst nightmare in human history.
Mr. E turned to me, his student, with tears in his eyes, without any need to hide those tears. I will never forget the look in his eyes at that moment, as if I could overcome my fear of his anger just by looking into those wet eyes and seeing the world as did he. I understood at that moment that it was not only those who had died who were Kedoshim; all the people who continued to live and hope and build a future had achieved the deepest sanctity of life. Each moment they lived was a choice of life over death. I saw this sanctity beneath the indifference, anger, and cold demeanor. I saw the holiness underneath the tattoo.
This Shabbat we will read the portion of Kedoshim, in which God challenges us to live sanctified lives. Perhaps, before we can truly understand what is necessary to live a life of sanctity, we must first appreciate the holiness underneath the tattoo; the commitment to live despite having witnessed the most horrible evil. The choice to live with hope. The sense that each life lived well is a victory over evil.
Sunday, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, will have fewer tattoos than last year. There are fewer Kedoshim, Holy Survivors, alive to remind us of the real sanctity of life. Unfortunately, there are far too many people who are suffering terribly, to whom we can look to remember the holiness of living despite evil; the lesson underneath the dark and pained eyes, the lesson under the tattoo.
I share other reflections on Yom Hashoah in "Surely Not Paradise
I wish all of you a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of Holiness, and Healing.
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg
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