Discussion Guide for "Embracing Auschwitz"

The following can be used as a discussion guide for book groups and courses, and can be adapted as suggested interview questions for the author.


Chapter 1:

1)   For most of my life, I felt that the Holocaust took up far too much Jewish bandwidth, that it smothered joy and suffocated Jews with guilt and resentment. It posed questions that were unanswerable. It eclipsed centuries of Jewish achievement and it brought out the worst in people. It gave us an excuse to hate—and it gave our children the excuse to opt out of being Jewish altogether. Who would want to be part of such a hopeless, hapless people?

Do you agree that the Holocaust has been overemphasized in Jewish life?  Has its impact been primarily negative? Has the Holocaust been a positive force in the development of your religious / cultural identity?

2)    One criticism of the “March of the Living” and similar programs is that it has fostered an attitude of victimization among impressionable teenagers.  Has the Holocaust’s treatment in Jewish educational circles been primarily negative and parochial, or has it emphasized the universal lessons of the event?

Chapter 2:

1)    After seven decades of grief for what was lost—and so much was—Yisrael’s tale of triumph over tragedy, of life over death, is an early indication that the Holocaust narrative is beginning to shift, from a story of abject despair to one of astonishing, incredible and miraculous (though not necessarily divinely ordained) survival.  Yisrael Kristal might be Exhibit A that, for the Jewish people, at least, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

Do you believe that the mere fact of survival is heroic?  What of “survivor’s guilt,” which has haunted Holocaust survivors for decades?  Has that guilt begun the process of melting away – into something more akin to pride?

2)    And we can now understand Deuteronomy 30:19 from the perspective of the survivor: “Choose life, so that you and your children may live.” For the survivor, the directive is to choose life in the most literal sense, by having children. Here’s one more way the commandment from Deuteronomy 30, to “choose life,” plays out in the Torah of Auschwitz: through the survival of Yisrael—not Yisrael Kristol the individual—but through Israel the collective, the Jewish people.  

How do you interpret the commandment to “choose life?”  Do what degree is your interpretation influenced by the Holocaust? To what degree is it reflected in your personal life journey?

3)    We are all survivors—and maybe God is a survivor too. But after Auschwitz, perhaps the God of Psalm 16, the one whom we place before us, is survival itself, that life force that drives us to breathe and to love and to find hope among the ashes, if only we will choose life.

Can you imagine God in this way, as a life force? 

4)    In the Torah of Auschwitz, perhaps Auschwitz itself must be the place where a true divine vision can best be seen—not the Auschwitz that existed in 1944 but the Auschwitz that today exists for the sole purpose of remembering that prior incarnation.

Can Auschwitz ever be transformed into a symbol of the triumph of that life force, despite all the horrific things that occurred there?

Chapter 3:

1)    Long before the Holocaust, Jews were already a glass-half-empty people. Born of slavery, perpetually exiled and perennially hated, there is good reason for Jews to be prone to cynicism and despair. We have a dark side and it is not something that can be easily exorcised— this is a major lesson of the Torah of Auschwitz.

Do you feel that the Jews too often succumb to pessimism and negativity?  Can this be exorcised?   Has it been?

2)    Even as we struggle to forge a feel-good vision for a new age, we will never stop dancing with Amalek. Perhaps that is for the best, because we’ve gotten pretty good at it, and we can teach others how to keep those dark forces of resentment and victimization in check.

Do you agree with this assertion?

Chapter 4:

1)    It has been axiomatic in Jewish history that approximately seven decades after an enormous disaster has occurred (and there have been many), new, creative expressions of faith surface as a new generation comes of age. It’s uncanny how often this “seven-decade rule” has borne itself out.

Does this rule play itself out in individual lives as well, that great disruptions, say, the death of a parent or spouse, or a financial loss, or a health setback, are often followed by times of great creativity? 

2)    Jews break glass at weddings to recall one of our saddest moments, the destruction of the temple.  Rituals have developed to memorialize the Holocaust, such as the lighting of a yellow yahrzeit candle on Holocaust Remembrance Day.  But as yet we’ve not, for the most part, brought Holocaust memorial rituals into everyday activities and sacred moments that are not in and of themselves connected to the Holocaust.  Can you think of ways Jews (and others) can do that?  Should we?

Chapter 5:

1)    The Jew has an obligation to remember, but then to shed confining casing of resentment and despair, and to transform the disaster into an embrace of life and a relentless pursuit of justice and dignity for every human being. For a Jew is responsible not merely to be a witness, but to dream, to imagine a better future—despite the darkness that surrounds us.

Do you agree?  Do most Jews agree?

2)    The Hebrew word for soul, neshama, has the word shem—name— right at its heart. Jews are, after all, Semites—descendants of Noah’s son Shem—so Jews are literally “Name-ists.” And the hater of Jews is, by definition, an anti-Shem-ite—the “Denier of names.” One who defiles God is one who perpetrates what is called a “Hillul ha-shem,” a desecration of the Name; and one who dies the holiest of deaths, as a martyr, dies,“Al Kiddush hashem,” in an act of ultimate sanctification of the Name. To be named is to be—and even more, to be holy.

What are the ways that totalitarian regimes try to deny the basic humanity of their enemies (and quite often, their own people as well)? 

3)    How does this chapter’s reinterpretation of the command, “Zachor!” (Remember!) stray from the original meaning.  Name several ways this commandment has been reinterpreted in light of the Holocaust and discuss whether it has become the most important commandment, aside from the mandate for saving life itself.

Chapter 6:

1)    The experiences of the Holocaust can help us confront a dizzying world where everything has been turned on its head; where everything we thought was true turns out not to be; when “new normals” become what’s normal.

How can the experiences of the Holocaust – the testimony of witnesses, the poetry, the essays, the philosophy of people like Elie Wiesel, Primo Levy and Viktor Frankl – inform those experiencing the enormous disruptions of the early 21st century, including technological change and most recently the Coronavirus crisis?  Do we experience these more recent disruptions differently, having “been” through the Holocaust?

2)    There is no greater task for post-Holocaust Jews than to teach humans how to live with hope and dignity, like Naftali Stern and those who prayed with him on that fateful Rosh Hashanah in 1944. How to rise above the raging torrent, how to survive with grace and love, and how—as I learned so painfully on a cold night in Krakow—to appreciative the regenerative powers of each breath and to never stop growing.

Apply those lessons to your life experience.  What lessons of perseverance, hope and dignity can you teach the world?

Chapter 7:

1)    We are moving, in a sense from Kosher to Kesher. These nearly identical Hebrew words signify the old ways and the new. The laws of keeping Kosher are, like the rest of the Sinai laws of holiness, built on distinction, on drawing lines of separation. Kesher, on the other hand, is the Hebrew word for connection, calling on us to dissolve distinctions…. “We are not leaving Kosher behind, but now we need to look at it through the prism of Kesher; because in the end, we are all one human tissue, as we were at Auschwitz.”

This is among the more radical assertions made in this book.  With a world-wide battle intensifying between forces of nativism, xenophobia and other strains of radical nationalism (as opposed to good old fashioned national pride) and those seeing the underlying connections between all people, I clearly stand on that latter side.  I also assert that the Torah of Auschwitz does as well.  What do you think?  Has Judaism – along with other faith traditions – evolved to a point where we’ve begun the journey from Kosher to Kesher?

2)    Many people bemoan the fact that more gentiles, in Poland and Hungary especially, didn’t do more to save Jews. There is some validity to that, but I am amazed that anyone would have risked their lives to help a people who, since early childhood, they had been taught to despise, who, they had been taught for many centuries, had killed their god. Anti-Semitism was thoroughly ingrained in their culture and especially in the church. But still, some were able to bypass centuries of prejudice and get right back to the core values that spawned Christianity in the first place. Something was able to cut through it all, something innate and good, and it led thousands of people to acts of incomprehensible risk and selflessness.

It's far easier for me to take this glass-half-full approach to righteous gentiles, focusing less on their rarity than on my amazement over the fact that there were any at all.  Especially when compared to other situations – like Egypt in Exodus, when no one raised a finger to help the Israelites.  Where do you stand on this issue?

Chapter 8

1)    Before the Shoah, when the earth still belonged to God, we, who had once experienced Paradise firsthand, could only imagine Eden’s opposite. As David Grossman writes in his masterful novel, See Under: Love— “We always pictured hell with boiling lava and pitch bubbling in barrels,” until the Nazis came along,“showing us how paltry our pictures were.” Now, nothing is left to the imagination. The earth is ours and we are utterly responsible for all that happens to it; all of it—the people, and the flowers, too.

Has God ceded control over the destiny of the earth to humanity?

2)    Es brent…It is Burning" is a Yiddish poem–song written in 1936 by Mordechai Gebirtig. The Yad Vashem website states, “The song became a prophetic song of the impending Holocaust, describing the burning of the Jewish shtetl. The poet calls upon the Jews not to stand idly by, but to be proactive and put out the fire that is consuming their precious town. They should extinguish the fire and demonstrate to the world that they can take care of themselves.”

This song calls on Jews to take matters into their own hands, before it is too late.  Would you say that the Jewish people or others have become more proactive in the decades since the Holocaust?  Have our politicians learned to take the long view?

Chapter 9:

1)    We are drawn to theological speculation as moths to a flame. Some say we have a “religious instinct,” asserting that if there were no God we would be compelled to invent one. Whether or not that’s true, it’s worthwhile to explore new ways to imagine God, ones that do no shame to the memory of the abandoned martyrs.

Do we try too hard to salvage God’s reputation after cataclysmic events, especially this one?  Would we be better off simply leaving God out of the conversation for a generation or two?

2)    Do any of the ideas offered here resonate with you?  Have you come up with a theology of your own that takes the Holocaust seriously?

Chapter 10:

1)    The Torah of Auschwitz makes clear that the commandment to remember the Holocaust is about keeping alive the essence of all objective truth. The dilution or outright denial of this truth is the nullification of all truth. The Holocaust was objectively, verifiably, utterly—and not alternatively—a fact. That fact is one of the pillars of our epoch, a fundamental truth, and a foundation upon which we are trying to reconstruct a civilized society.

If you could put together a top ten list of self-evident truths, along the lines of the Declaration of Independence’s “we hold these truths…” would the fact that the Holocaust happened be right at the top?  What else would be on that list? Would these truths have to be scientifically verifiable – or can they rely on faith? Why is it important to have such a list?

2)    Would you have killed baby Hitler? 

Chapter 11

1)    Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal and evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of Reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

How is it possible that racism still exists after the Holocaust?  It seems like the world took a deep breath after witnessing genocide first-hand (and doing nothing to stop it), spent a couple of worthy decades coming up with a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, spawning a United Nations, liberating some colonies and creating states like Israel, and then eventually getting around to ridding the world of Jim Crow and South African apartheid.  That was a pretty good half century, but we are far from rid of racism. Why is it that so many of the questions on the U.S. Census form revolve around an artificial construct called race?

2)    Can a symbol of hate like the swastika be reclaimed by its original owners as a symbol of love?  Can you design a new symbol of global unity and equality, along the lines of the ubiquitous “Coexist” bumper sticker?

Chapter 12:

1)    Rather than giving Hitler a posthumous victory by our dissolving into irrelevance through infighting and apathy, we can achieve Hitler’s ultimate posthumous defeat by using his plan for a Final Solution as a blueprint for a worldwide Jewish renaissance.

So what do you think?  Can using the Nuremberg Laws, one of the most racist, anti-Semitic acts of legislation in history - as filtered through the Law of Return - turn the tables on the Nazis and be the ultimate slap in Hitler’s face?

2)    Do you have a better idea? Or is the unity of the Jewish people no longer relevant?

Chapter 13:

1)    For Jews and others who take on the responsibilities of the Torah of Auschwitz, it is our responsibility to bear witness to the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. And it is our responsibility, as a people who stands in Covenant, to open ourselves up to the flow of divine love and to bring light and blessing to the lives of others. That is what it means to bear witness.

What does it mean to you to bear witness to the Holocaust?  Will that change in another generation or two?  In a thousand years, how will the Holocaust be recalled?

2)    How can we acknowledge that the time to weep has yielded, as always, to a time to dance—not with the shadow of Amalek, but with an eternal life-force, with renewal and hope—while acknowledging that these tears will never completely go away? How can we enable the anguish and the anger to be absorbed into the realm of ritual and story, despite the pain, despite the continued presence of anti-Semitism and hate in our world, and thereby enable the Holocaust to become transcendent and ever-present?

That’s the question I leave you with.

I invite you and perhaps your class or book group to continue this conversation, by emailing me at joshuah@tbe.org.

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