When the world was upside down

To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Jan. 27, Mark Rothman was invited by the Krakow Medical Society at Jagiellonian University Medical College in Krakow, Poland, together with the university’s Centre for Holocaust Studies,  and Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to address their commemoration in Poland via videoconference. The following is an edited text of his remarks.

As I address you today, I am both bereft and optimistic. I am bereft for the obvious reasons one feels the deep, unfathomable sense of loss for what the Holocaust represents: the taking away from this world of 6 million innocent Jews; the destruction of the European communities and cultures they represented; the murder of approximately 3 million other victims persecuted by the Nazis; the political assassination of 3 million Poles; the death of the rich history of Jewish life in Poland; the severing or even amputation of Jewish-Polish coexistence; and more. I could easily go on.

But I am also bereft, a word which I use today to emphasize my lack of a certain, specific word to describe the reversal of nature, the turning on its head of a natural order, that existed during the Holocaust. In this reversal, leaders entrusted with the welfare of entire nations pursued paths that brought their people to ruin. In this reversal, children became adults in an instant, and adults became childlike in their impotence to act. In this reversal, religious leaders that had inspired us to act as if we were angels to beat back evil too often chose paths of devilish complicity with it. In this reversal, the innocent people were the prisoners and the bad people built the prisons and threw the innocent in them.

I am bereft because I cannot find a word to describe this upside-down logic. I am bereft because 67 years have not been enough to explain to me how this could happen. I am bereft because I don’t think in 67, 670 or 6,700 more years a satisfactory explanation will emerge. I am bereft because the only way to fully understand the Holocaust is, in fact, to admit that we are bereft, and we always will be bereft of any complete understanding of how and why the Holocaust happened.

I am sure each of you, as people of science and the empirical analysis upon which science relies, can particularly appreciate what it means to confront the truly unknowable. Your work and your lives are dedicated to pushing back the frontiers of what we don’t know, of what we can’t treat, of what we can’t learn to do to improve the lot of our fellow beings. The unknowable is an affront to everything you stand for. And, paradoxically, to truly fathom the Holocaust is to realize this is exactly as it should be when we consider the worst event in human history.

But I am also optimistic. I am optimistic because of what this commemorative conference represents. When I first met representatives from the Jagiellonian University Medical College when they visited the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust I was deeply impressed that a medical college took such a keen interest in this period of history. Usually, visitors have a much closer obvious connection to the work we do at the Museum; they are scholars from departments of history or Jewish studies or genocide studies or specifically Holocaust studies. Or they are artists committed to expressing the emotions brought out by the Holocaust. Or they are direct colleagues, such as your esteemed director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Dr. Piotr Cywinski.

The fact that Kraków Medical Society makes such a commitment, together with the Centre for Holocaust Studies and Auschwitz-Birkenau, to memorialize the events of 67 years ago proves to me that another reversal is taking place. This is a fundamental and necessary reversal of history. The only way we are going to ensure the 21st century is better than the 20th century is for us to acknowledge and embrace the tragedies of our past and, in doing so, rededicate ourselves to the future. Thus, while the cause for the commemoration today leaves me bereft, the fact of the commemoration fills me with optimism, and even a hint of joy. Optimism because I can see a vision for a brighter future; joy because we are taking an actual, concrete step toward it.

To those of you with us today who were at the center of that storm 70 or so years ago, who were the innocent persecuted by the criminal, the witnesses to the great reversal that has no explanation, I ask you to join me as much as you can in my optimism. I ask you to see all of us here today as more than just participants in a conference to commemorate the events of your suffering. I ask you to see us as the witnesses to the witnesses. We will hear your stories and we will carry them forward and we will remember them and we will retell them. You are giving us the gifts of your stories. We cherish them and we will pass them on, the same way my grandfather passed to me stories that I pass on to the great-grandchildren he never had the privilege to meet. He lives on through those stories, and you will live on as well through yours.

There is a phrase in Judaism that a truly righteous act is a Kiddush Hashem. Its literal translation is ‘a holiness to God,’ but I find particularly beautiful the broader translation, that the act is bringing God’s essence of goodness into the world. Whatever your particular understanding of God, that is what you are doing today. You are bringing God’s goodness into the world. You are commemorating the day 67 years ago when the great reversal of the Holocaust was itself reversed and the natural balance was restored. You are noting the moment when a world that had shut out God’s essential goodness for 12 years, finally let it back in. We will always find ourselves bereft, empty and lacking when we consider the Holocaust. But your actions today provide us a spark of goodness to at least illuminate the void. l

Mark Rothman is executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.