Like Sheep to the Slaughter?

Lessons from the Holocaust

The main creamtaorium at Auschwitz. (Photo by Rabbi Shmuley)
The main crematorium at Auschwitz. (Photo by Shmuley Boteach)

I spent the past few days visiting the most horrible places on earth. I have been running around in sub-zero temperatures to find the original sites of the Holocaust.

It began when I joined the Knesset in its historic trip to Auschwitz, which I visited for the second time, and continued in Warsaw where I sought out the last fragments of Jewish life and remaining morsels of the destroyed ghetto.

I saw many portions of the ghetto wall, Janusz Korczak’s original orphanage, the last remaining Synagogue (which is active and in use), Umschlagplatz, the square from which 300,000 Jews were deported from the ghetto to their deaths in Treblinka, and other tragic vestiges of Jewish life.

The photo and film archive of Emanuel Ringelblum, at the Jewish Historical Institute (site of the Grand Synagogue Library), is disturbing beyond words. The discarded bodies that dotted the streets of the ghetto are haunting enough. But even worse is the footage of small children, walking alone and barefoot in snow in the dead of winter, clad in scraps of clothing and begging for bread. These images sear the soul and leave the viewer asking how G-d could have watched any of this. I was clad in many layers and was still shivering. I have no idea how these children survived for even one day.

But the most moving visit for me in Warsaw was to the mass grave at Mila 18, headquarters of the armed Jewish resistance of April-May 1943, known to us today as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There I was nearly knee-deep in snow, the only visitor in perhaps days, making fresh tracks by the monument to the heroic Mordechai Anielewicz, who headed the uprising and, surrounded by the Nazis who were about to storm the position, took his own life along with other leaders of the uprising on what is assumed to be May 8, 1943 (there were no surviving eyewitnesses).

Mordechai Anielewicz’s example presents a disturbing paradox.

Like many Jews, I was raised as a boy hearing that the Jews of the Holocaust had gone to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter.” The term was designed to convey the mass killing of innocents. But it was only when I grew older that I realized it was a pejorative which really conveyed that the Jews refused to fight back and defend themselves. Using the term was a double insult to the martyred six million, conveying both a false cowardice as well as blaming the victims for their own massacre.

I have never used the phrase “like sheep to the slaughter” again.

Who are we to judge six million Jews who, subjected to the most horrific depravations in human history coupled with the most sophisticated propaganda, gave themselves hope that being “deported to the east” meant a life that might spare their children starvation. Who are we to judge parents who knew that, were they to fight back, the first who would die would be their babies?

And yet the Warsaw Ghetto fighters did resist, once they understood that they were all to be killed. With almost no food or weapons, they realized they had no choice but to fight back. That they held out for 28 days against German heavy artillery is miraculous in itself. Then, like the Masada fighters before them who refused to be taken prisoner by Rome and subjected to torture and lifelong slavery, many fighters of the ghetto took their own lives rather than yield to the monstrous cruelties to which the Nazis would subject them.

Warsaw Ghetto Heroes' Monument in Warsaw; Mordechai Anielewicz is in the center, holding a hand grenade. (Photo by Ken Kurson)
Warsaw Ghetto Heroes’ Monument in Warsaw; Mordechai Anielewicz is in the
center, holding a hand grenade. (Photo by Ken Kurson)

Sometimes there is no path other than resistance.

The modern State of Israel largely confronts the same challenge. Iran and Khameini speak in the same cadences as Hitler and the Nazis, regularly threatening the Jewish state with total destruction. Annihilation of Israel would of necessity require a second Holocaust, which the Iranians seem perfectly willing to carry out.

At Davos I attempted to approach Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif. He walked past me several times and I walked over to tell him that my father was born in Isfahan, and that Jews had a home in Iran for 2000 years. What is your country’s problem with the Jewish state? Why are you intent on destroying it? In the end I was fortunate that as I approached him his security, seemingly scared of a short guy with a yarmulke and beard, whisked him away quickly.

And why was I lucky? Because speaking to him means legitimizing him. There is no one to talk to in Iran’s government. They are a brutal bunch who shoot women in the heart to stay in power, as the world witnessed with Neda Agha Soltan in June 2009. And, like ancient barbarians who have survived to the modern world, they stone women to death and carry out mass hangings of their own people in city squares. According to the UN, in the same month that Rouhani made his triumphant speech at Davos about being a moderate, his government hanged 40 people in public back at home.

As for the Palestinians and John Kerry’s peace initiative, it behooves us to remember that Mahmoud Abbas speaks only for West Bank Palestinians. He has not stepped foot in Gaza since 2007, presumably because he too might not make it out alive. How then can he do a deal on behalf of the Hamas terrorist organization, which calls for a genocide of the Jews in their very covenant? Hamas, like Iran, calls for Israel to be wiped off the map. What these negotiations will lead to is not a two-state solution, but a three-state solution, with Hamas, which until 2010 received most of its funding from Iran, in all likelihood, taking over the West Bank quickly as well.

It behooves the current leadership of the Jewish people, from political to religious, to recognize that a nation that experienced genocide in the 1940’s, and is threatened with it again seven decades later, must ultimately rely only on itself for protection.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, America’s Rabbi, is founder of This World: The Values Network, which seeks to promote universal Jewish values in the media and culture. He is the international best-selling author of 30 books including, most recently, The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Like Sheep to the Slaughter?