What the Holocaust Can Teach Us About Life

What the Holocaust Can Teach Us About Life

Rabbi Paul Kerbel of Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta shares a moment with two Israeli officers during a recent trip to Eastern Europe.
Rabbi Paul Kerbel of Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta shares a moment with two Israeli officers during a recent trip to Eastern Europe.


I’ve just returned from my second ever visit to Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz, Budapest, Prague and Terezin. I travelled with 10 people from Atlanta and Savannah, part of a larger group of 43 with Ayelet Tours of Albany, N.Y.  Stephen M. Berk, the Schaffer Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., accompanied us and served as our scholar-in-residence.

While the Holocaust looms large, it would be a mistake to only visit sites that remind us of the greatest tragedy of our people. The cities we visited also hold a thousand years of Jewish history, reflecting the enormous contributions that the Jewish people have made in this region of the world.

Visiting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic allowed us to see what once was, how the Holocaust impacted these communities and the seeds of revival that emanate from the Jewish communities in these countries.

Since I wrote about many of these places and my experiences last summer in the pages of the Atlanta Jewish Times, following my first visit, what I would like to do in this essay is reflect on the lessons I have learned from my journey and from years of study and reflection on the Shoah.

As the Holocaust moves farther and farther into history, how we learn, teach and remember the Holocaust becomes even more important. In the last few years, articles have been written about “Holocaust fatigue.”

Many Jews and non-Jews have turned away from learning the history and the lessons of the Holocaust. Some people are “tired” of learning about the Holocaust. Even among our people, many only know the barest facts and details about what happened to six million of our people.

I guess I have the opposite of Holocaust fatigue. I have devoted a great deal of my personal reading and research time to studying the Holocaust. And I believe that with all of the anti-Semitism in our world, with all of the attacks on Israel and the Jewish people to delegitimize our history and our presence in Israel and to ignore the contributions the Jewish people have made to make our world a better place, we need to learn as much as we can.

We also need to teach our children and grandchildren (as they grow and can understand and appreciate learning history) what happened, why it happened,  and what we have done to try to make sure it doesn’t happen to us and to others in the future.

Part of my desire to learn more came from the opportunity I had in 2006 to participate in Yad Vashem’s International Educators Course. For 17 days, we learned about Jewish life before and during the Holocaust, the history of anti-Semitism, the history of the Jews of Europe from the Middle  Ages to modern times, the history of the Holocaust, spiritual and physical resistance during the  Holocaust, religious responses to the Holocaust, how to teach the Holocaust today and the threats we now face from the radical anti-Semitism of Islam.

At Yad Vashem, there is a constant rethinking of how to teach and understand the Holocaust. Here are three examples:

Discussing the “Six Million”

Yad Vashem is encouraging educators to focus on stories about individual victims and survivors

as a way to help students understand the Holocaust. What has made “The Diary of Anne Frank” so compelling is that we see the Holocaust through the eyes of one teen-aged young woman rather than through “six million.”

Each story of one of the victims and survivors brings a piece of history alive and helps us understand the lessons of courage or survival of that one person. There were 1,000 ghettos throughout Europe. We can’t know the history of 1,000 ghettos, but we can learn the history of one of them and although each story is different we have a window into what it was like for Jews to live in ghettos on their way to the concentration camps.

Focus on Everyday Life

Every single day, tens of thousands of Jews took actions to try to survive or resist the Holocaust. Some created schools to teach the children in the most adverse of circumstances. The ghettos were filled with music and art classes, organizations and every possible interest group to help people live normal Jewish lives.

Doctors in the ghettos met to determine to whom to give the very limited  medications available in their clinics and hospitals. In the midst of chaos, physicians debated the dilemmas of Jewish medical ethics and the value of human life.

These stories show the ethical sensitivity and morality that existed in the most trying of circumstances. Eighty thousand Jews died of  malnutrition in the Warsaw Ghetto, but 400,000 survived on 184 calories per day!  How?

Every diary, every historical record, every physical act of resistance indicates the desire of many to survive, to do everything possible to live another day.

What Can We Learn About Life?

One of the goals of Yad Vashem is to help the citizens of the world understand why studying the Holocaust is relevant. What can we learn from the Holocaust and how that learning can be relevant to our lives?

Holocaust survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl, wrote, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl teaches us about the value our tradition places on the meaning of life and the value we place on living life with meaning.

Frankl suggests that many of those he interviewed and studied had “a will to live” and a desire to make sure that life had meaning. While the Holocaust historian teaches “about the  past”, the role of the Holocaust educator – and all of us can be Holocaust educators – is to make the study of the Holocaust relevant.

By studying the richness of Jewish life before and even during the Holocaust, by giving the victims faces, by turning history into “stories”, and by focusing on the everyday life of Jews in Europe, we can touch our hearts and souls. We can also make sure that the memory of what happened is not relegated to history books, but stands in a place of honor as one of the pillars of our Jewish identity and Jewish activism.

Rabbi Paul Kerbel is a rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta and is active in the Atlanta Rabbinical Association, The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.     

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