This was my first trip to Berlin and Germany. The Berlin of my imagination was formed by images from propaganda films and espionage novels. The Brandenburg Gate festooned with swastikas and marching Nazis, and a high wall lined with barbed wire and searchlights, with but a few dangerous outlets for escaping spies and dissidents to the West, were my images of the city. While the Brandenburg Gate remains, sans swastikas, Berlin is now a united and vibrant city. Yet memories remain; they still call out and remind us of the depths of evil that are still possible within each of us.
Walking in the environs of my centrally located hotel past and present merged, reminding me of the challenges we all face in the new century. The Judisches Museum (housed in the former Berlin Museum) was a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. A menorah, a letter and a few photographs called to mind people cut off with no possible justification as they lived their normal lives. Millions were killed, most forgotten, with but a few objects to call them to mind.
While, for the most part, the museum looked to the past, it also raised questions for me (and I hope also for the large number of young people I saw there) about the world that we are creating today. Have we abandoned genocide, bigotry, and persecution? Have we been silent too often when it was necessary that we speak out? One museum installation provided a stark answer. In his work “Shalekhet – Fallen Leaves,” an aptly named Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman, created a powerful rejection of silence in the face of injustice. Over 10,000 metal faces (reminiscent of Munch’s Scream) fill a pathway. As they lie there, their voices are silenced. But, as one walks the path (it is the only way to get to the next gallery) it is impossible not to create a loud screaming noise, reminding us of the pain of persecution, as the metal faces move one against another. Through our creation of the noise, the artist calls on us to hear their silenced voices and to speak out for the innocent victims of war, persecution, injustice, and violence. We cannot be silent at the separation of families, the killing of protesters, and genocide (to name sadly but a few examples). He reminds us that silence is assent.
As I heard the voice created by the movement over the leaves, I thought a lot about silence as opposed to action. I thought about leaders and countries that refused to speak out, and leaders and countries who refused to welcome and save refugees, even some who were lucky enough to reach their borders. I also thought about leaders and countries today in our so-called “modern” world who have refused to learn from the past, and who still wall off their borders from the refugees who need our help.
Hiroshima had similar resonances and challenges. As one of the only two cities devastated by atomic bombs, Hiroshima challenges humanity to look at the destructive power that we have created and to squarely face the horrors of war. The memorials and museums stand in the centre of a modern city, with few buildings (beyond an impressive rebuilt castle) to speak to its pre-war stature. Yet, one domed ruined building, standing under the location of the very epicentre of the blast, is a symbol of the horror and devastating power of a nuclear explosion. While every other part of the city has been redeveloped, this ruined building remains as a silent remnant and reminder. Indeed, though at the centre of destruction it was one of a very few buildings which in any way survived the blast. After the bombings on August 6, 1945, it was surrounded by a vast area of rubble. Ninety percent of the city was destroyed, and more than 140,000 people were killed.
Nearby the Museum exhibitions well conveyed the destructive power of a nuclear blast and the horrors of radiation sickness. Yet, there also were mixed messages. On one hand some exhibitions clearly placed the bombing within its historical context, accepting Japan’s role in the war and atrocities committed, yet on the other hand, some exhibitions minimized context, stating merely that it was connected with a “mistaken national policy.”
For Shelley and me, our most powerful and personally devastating experience in the memorial was viewing a short documentary including testimony of parents, whose children died during the bombing. Some children were never seen again after leaving for school, while others were found after the blast, only to die from burns or radiation sickness. This film showed the human cost of war and the atomic blast, without a political overlay. It was a human tragedy, not just a Japanese tragedy. Coincidentally on my way to Germany, I watched the Studio Ghibli film ????? Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies), which tells the tragic story of two children as they desperately try to survive during the last months of the war. It too portrayed a human tragedy, both of war and the lack of care shown to those struggling to survive. War destroys lives, whether through atomic weapons, gas chamber, bullets, disease or starvation. It is therefore perhaps instructive that past mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki founded an organization in1982, not called mayors for disarmament, but rather Mayors for Peace.
After the morning spent in the museums and memorials both Shelley and I were emotionally spent. The gardens and monuments were evocative and meaningful, especially one to the children who died, but their symmetry was a bit jarring. I intentionally took a picture not allowing the monuments and garden features to line up because symmetry implies logic and meaning. For me there is no logic or meaning - just tragedy and lessons to be learned. We spent the afternoon more peacefully and mindfully amid the shrines and temples on Miyajima (an Island off the coast near Hiroshima). But even there we only began to recharge, as the horror of the human tragedy evoked in many ways is still with us.
Parshat Bo also describes tragedy, both the tragedy of the continuing enslavement of the Israelites and also the tragedy of the destruction of Egyptians through the ten plagues. The horror of slavery and the horror of the plagues are human tragedies, which call out to us even thousands of years later. Here there were many failures. Pharaoh disregarded the needs and failed to recognize the humanity of both his own people as well as the Israelites, acting only when the final plague hit his own home. To me, God also failed. Was the horror of the plagues the only way to free our ancestors? Was the suffering necessary? Was it fair to punish the innocent Egyptian peasants along with the guilty who enslaved the Israelites?
Maybe there are no easy answers to these questions, but later rabbis were challenged by them. The command to pour off ten drops of wine, one for each plague, is an explicit recognition that we regret the suffering of the Egyptians. Indeed, the Midrash teaches that God commands the angels not to rejoice as the Egyptians drown in the sea, saying “My children are dying, and you would sing songs.”
The Torah also recognizes the universality of the Exodus experience, especially the experience of slavery. Over and over we are commanded to treat people fairly -- especially strangers – because we were strangers and slaves in Egypt. Therefore, our slavery experience is universal, as is our liberation. It is not coincidental that the exodus has been a model and a symbol of hope for oppressed minorities over the ages.
Tragedies, especially those caused by poor human choices, are not the property of any one group or people (and often, though we may not remember it, affects many different groups). When a tragedy is claimed and seen as sui generis it can lose its power, as it becomes a totem and therefore is inured from teaching broader messages about human suffering. When we say “never again” it cannot and should not only be a peon against anti-Semitism and genocide against Jews, but like the lessons of Hiroshima, “never again” must be a global commitment against genocide affecting any group. When we say “never again” we should not allow it to blind us from making the same mistakes that we seek to prevent. Nor should we think that a tragedy is only ours, and therefore not allow anyone else to use its language and lessons. Kadishman’s installation is a reminder that silence in the presence of any persecution or genocide is assent.
Our tradition teaches that our history, and especially our tragedies, must be a learning experience, teaching us both not to make the mistakes of the past, but also to positively act to make a better world in which such mistakes are impossible. Our slavery and exodus, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima are global events that shape all of us. They teach global lessons of horrifying human choices which were made and horrifying human choices which we (not as Jews but as humans) must prevent from ever being made again.