Posts Tagged ‘What do you want the world to be’

Today I received two timely comments on the last book I wrote. You can get it here.

I just finished A Train Near Magdeburg. Very powerful and well written, I thought. Couldn’t help but think about recent events. Hmmm. A good day to finish it.
Veterans Day.


I’ve read and read about the Holocaust the last few years. To the point that family and friends have questioned whether or not it’s”healthy” to do so. So much death and despair. I’ve questioned myself, as well. But as this book has made me see, I’ve barely touched on the history of the Holocaust or WW2. With the world we live in and political winds shifting so much, it is important to learn and to teach. I loved this book and learned so much more and I would recommend anyone with an interest in this history or someone just stumbling across it to read it cover to cover. Thank you!!

As you may be aware, we had an election here in the United States this week. You may or may not be satisfied with the outcome, but in the end, there are plenty of lessons to be gleaned through the prism of time, of historical experience, of detached analysis, of serious study, and yes, maybe of immediate emotion. Some of my profoundest insights spring from moments of intense personal emotion.

Today I’m offering up a chapter near the end of the book, the genesis of which was written on my blog this summer as I studied in Israel. I’d like to think that there is a lot of food for thought in the book, and a lot of ways at looking at ourselves, too.  Like a friend said when she paraphrased Churchill, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going. Otherwise you just stay in hell.’ A nod to the soldiers out there on Veterans Day. My guys in the book called themselves ‘fugitives from the laws of averages’ —’just keep going’ was their mantra. Their friends were being killed. They were killing. Their president had just died on them. And then they stumbled upon this mysterious train.

Maybe we need to remember that sense of purpose, even when we think we have none.


‘What do you want the world to be?’

I reached some of my final revelations in the summer of 2016 as the writing of this book drew to a close while I was studying in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. My fellow educators and I heard from dozens of excellent scholars and presenters in the field of the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; of antisemitism through the ages, and learned from the nuanced dissections what we thought we knew about the Holocaust. One of our final lectures was from was Dr. Yehuda Bauer, who at age 90 I consider to be the godfather of Holocaust historians. Sitting six feet away from me was a man who narrowly escaped the Holocaust himself, coming with his family in 1939 to the Palestine Mandate before the window closed. He became active in the resistance to British rule, and later fought in Israel’s War for Independence. Early in his career he was challenged by Abba Kovner to study the Holocaust when few others were doing it. He mastered many languages and it was he, after years of research, who concluded that the Holocaust was a watershed event in human history.

Dr. Yehuda Bauer. Palmach fighter, 1944-1949. Cow milker on Kibbutz, 41 years. Historian and I dare say, philosopher. Honored today to be in his presence.

Dr. Yehuda Bauer. Palmach fighter, 1944-1949. Cow milker on Kibbutz, 41 years. Historian and I dare say, philosopher. Honored today to be in his presence.

Today, sitting in his presence, and listening to him, I got the feeling that I was listening to a philosopher, one who also had been milking cows on a kibbutz for the past 41 years.

So the question came, as it always does—

What is the overarching lesson that we should take away from the study of the Holocaust?

To paraphrase his answer, he simply said, ‘There is no lesson, except not to repeat it. The Shoah is used, all the time, for various agendas and causes…okay, fine. But there is no lesson.’

And I think I get it. When we talk about the Holocaust, its sheer magnitude and ‘unprecedentedness’ denies us the comfort of walking away with an overarching ‘lesson’. ‘Bullying gone wild’ it was not. Instead, he continued, ‘maybe the real question to ask yourself, and ask your students, is this—What do you want the world to be? And then, maybe it is time to introduce them to the study of the Holocaust, because maybe the Shoah is the exact opposite of what they envision for their world, unprecedented in scope and sequence—but it happened, which means it can happen again.’


When we got back to the hotel to pack our bags and have a final evening to ourselves, we found out that for a few hours, we could not even cross the street to go back out—our hotel was now right on the route of one of the largest ‘gay pride’ parades in the world, right through Jerusalem. Security was tight; last year, a religious maniac stabbed six, and one teenage girl died here. But standing on the second story hotel balcony, I could hear Dr. Bauer’s words echoing in my ears, reminding us that democracy is not only very fragile, it is hardly even out of the cradle in the backdrop of world history. But what sets democracy apart from every other experiment in history, in its pure form and in theory, is its defense of minorities. It doesn’t exist yet, but maybe this form of government needs to be protected, and nourished. And maybe this is what the soldiers were fighting for. The world does not have to be united, and in fact it never has been and never will be. We argue and we disagree all of the time. That is as it is, and as it should be. At the end of the day, we either kill each other, or we live, and let live.

We decide.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

I had never seen a so-called ‘gay pride’ event before, so as I watched, there was another revelation. For over an hour, my fellow educators and I witnessed miles and miles of this parade of young and old, of men and women, smiling and cheering and singing; I’m quite sure that many participants, and maybe even most, were in fact heterosexual. And for me, this experience became a metaphor for our common experience here in Jerusalem—from that hotel balcony, we were witnessing what in fact simply boiled down to a massive celebration of life. In studying the Holocaust together, we have plumbed the depths of the abyss that humanity is capable of, but not because of a fascination with evil and death; rather, it is because of the opposite, because of our commitment to humanity. For me also there is this burgeoning sense of righteousness in promoting the men who made a difference with their sacrifices in slaying the Nazi beast. And these American soldiers who encountered the Holocaust were not some kind of super-action heroes who arrived on the scene to save the day, just in the nick of time. As you have read, there was no plan, and they had no idea. What matters more is what they did when they encountered this trauma deep in a war zone with people still shooting at them, and later committing themselves in their sunset years to reaching out to others, so that, in Dr. Bauer’s words, the formally ‘unprecedented’ watershed event is not repeated. And maybe it’s time for a good long look at the world we live in today.

I have been on a journey that has consumed half the career that I never even set out to have. I have been joined by many along the way, and I thank the reader for also sharing it with me; that afternoon in Jerusalem, I parted with my educator friends with a final word in our closing discussion:

We are the new witnesses. We bear an awesome responsibility when we become aware, when we teach, when we communicate with others; now, more than ever, what we do matters, especially in entering this world of the Holocaust—because there is no past, and it is never over.

We are shaping human beings. We are cultivating humanity. There are always the children, the young; there is hope amidst all the darkness in the world. The tunnel can lead to the light.

You decide.


Read Full Post »