What Is Heroism: Some Final Thoughts on Holocaust Memorial Day 2023


Many of our congregants, both in person, and via Zoom
attended our moving Holocaust Remembrance Service last Sunday.  Before I
share some of my thoughts about it, I would like to say a few words about the
origins for the idea of creating a Commemorative Holocaust Day. 


 In 1951 the government of Israel passed a law
designating the 27th of Nisan as “Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Remembrance
Day.” In 1953, the day was officially named “Yom HaShoah ve-Ha-gevurah” –
Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. Why “’Holocaust and Heroism’ Remembrance Day”, instead of simply “Holocaust Remembrance Day”? The answer can probably be
found in surveys taken in Israel in the 1950s that showed that
Israelis had little sympathy for Holocaust victims.  Most of the
participants in surveys believed that the victims of the Holocaust passively went to their deaths like sheep to slaughter. The Israelis admiration and sympathy, instead, was directed toward those who were able to
take up armed resistance against the Nazis – the fighters of the Warsaw
Ghetto  and other Ghettos, The Israelis admiration and sympathy also
focused on the Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis in the
hills and forests of Europe. In other words, we were to remember
victims and heroes, two different groups, but it was those who took up
armed resistance that were admired and held out as models to be emulated.


Of course, today we understand that the “victims” – those
who ended up in concentration camps – and “heroes” – those who took up armed resistance,
are not two different groups at all.  Today we recognize the concept of
“spiritual resistance”, the refusal of victims to acquiesce to the
dehumanization of their Nazi tormentors. This heroic resistance took the form
of holding on to one’s human dignity in the most unbearable and
unspeakable of situations. Our speaker on Sunday, Joyce Wagner, , never held a
gun in her hand. She never killed a Nazi. Yet this petite, frail, determined
woman, now age 100, is a true heroine, as true a heroine as those
heroes who fought and died in the Warsaw Ghetto. We were privileged and honored
to listen, in her own words, about the experience of this remarkable Holocaust


When do we call someone a hero? A hero is a person who
displays extraordinary courage, selflessness and nobility of character in the
face of danger. A hero is someone who maintains their moral integrity when they
are faced with corruption, deceit and depravity. A hero is someone who
perseveres in the face of immorality and degradation, wickedness and


I doubt if Joyce Wagner considers herself a hero. If we
asked her about that, she would probably tell us that she was just doing what
she had to do as a daughter and as an older sister. She came to speak to us as
a personal witness to the atrocity that was the Holocaust. She came to remind
us, and to warn us, that the unthinkable is possible. That we need to be
vigilant. That we must do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening
again, not to Jews, not to anyone.  That love is more powerful than hate.
She taught us all that. And she showed us what a true hero looks like. She
taught us what heroism is. 


There were many moving parts of her story. One of 11
children, she was the only survivor. She vividly described How she hid her
sisters  and brother from the Nazis in her neighbor’s attic. How she
risked her life to bring a little food and money to her parents and two
sisters, Hava and Haya, ages 10 and 11, who were living on the Polish-Czech
border, hoping to be more protected from the Nazis.  In her book. A
Promise Kept to Bear Witness,
  she tells about a time she resisted the
amorous advances of a Nazi guard who promised her a few days of freedom outside
of her slave labor camp in exchange for a favor.


The part that I feel will stay with me forever is how,
after losing everything, her home, her  parents, her beloved siblings, her
friends and extended family; after having been imprisoned and beaten and
starved and humiliated and almost worked to death, she had the opportunity to
reach out and touch the electrified wire of the concentration camp and to end
it all. Joyce  tells us that the face of her father appeared to her, her
father, a religious man, and her father said to her, “God gives life and God is
the only one who can take it away.”  And she pulled her hand away from the
electrified wire and chose to live. To choose life over death, to love deeply
while surrounded by dehumanizing  barbarity, to continue to believe in God
when the evidence of God’s existence is nowhere to be found, to rebuild a life
after years of  despair  – that is the ultimate  act of
heroism, I believe. 


I want to close by sharing the remarkable words of Aharon
Appelfeld. He was a famous Israeli writer who was born in Romania in 1932. When
he was eight years old, his mother was killed, and he and his father were sent
to a concentration camp. He escaped and spent three years in hiding, a child
alone moving from village to village. He reached Israel in 1946. 

He writes: 

“My reminiscences of the war, of the second world war—I
hope it will not surprise you—are of love, endless love. Anyone who was in the
Ghetto and saw mothers protecting their children, mothers not eating but
feeding their children, young boys staying with their parents, defending them
until the last minute, will understand. Asking myself from where do I derive my
writing force, I know that it is not from horror scenes but love scenes that
existed there, everywhere. My world was not formed by the executioner, it is
not dominated by an irreparable, endless evil; I remained with people, and I
loved them.”

Shabbat Shalom