End of the Holocaust Generation

I officiated at a funeral on Friday that I realized afterwards may be a consequential moment. The deceased was in her 90s and she was a Holocaust survivor. She was a very young child when Hitler came to power. The significance is that this may be my last funeral a Holocaust survivor, as most of them have passed.

I have buried a number of aged survivors over the years and always, the funeral and internment were unique points of sacredness. These funerals have been more complex than most, with unusual layers of meaning that have been shared but will not be spoken, and with more layers of meaning that have never been spoken and will be left unsaid, even though we, the next generation, know the content. God: mentioning God at a such a funeral is a minefield of accusation, futility, anger, regret and in rare moments, reconciliation. Yet, they requested a rabbi to officiate.

Holocaust humor is an extreme form of gallows humor, which often circles around the subject of God and God’s apparent impotence to save the Jews. While gallows humor seems to transcend generations, Holocaust humor appears to be quite specific to the immediate generation. I have had this bit of Holocaust humor sitting in my files for years, waiting for an appropriate context. The piece was left unused because the humor is biting and quite frankly, the opposite of what most people consider to be humor. Even more, placing the piece between paragraphs of context before and paragraphs of explanation after diminished the stark power of this humor.

The Holocaust generation is almost gone though, and this piece, with its contradiction and condemnation, should be preserved.

“A Jew dies. He ascends to the heavens and meets God. Standing before the Throne of Glory, the Jew tells God a Holocaust joke, but God does not laugh. When he realizes that God is not laughing, the Jew shrugs and says, “I guess you had to be there.”

My younger colleagues will never know the privilege of officiating at a funeral for Holocaust survivors. It is a privilege I never wanted and one for which a person could never prepare. Their presence in my rabbinate has been a blessing.


Eight steps to genocide

As we look across the world we see terrible violence and wholesale slaughter of innocents and combatants alike. When do these egregious acts rise to the level of genocide? Genocide is not an accident and there are eight traceable steps necessary to generate a genocidal episode.

They are as follow:
1. Classification: which creates an “us vs. them.”

  1. Symbolization: which gives names and symbols to what we classify, e.g., the yellow star
    the Nazis forced Jews to wear.
  2. Dehumanization: which denies the humanity of the “other,” i.e. calling Jews pigs and dogs.
  3. Organization: genocide is done by groups, not individuals.
  4. Polarization: driving groups of people apart.
  5. Preparation: forcing groups into ghettos, separating them by religious or ethnic identity
  6. Extermination: begins and quickly becomes mass killing legally called “genocide.”
  7. Denial: always follows genocide.

I do not know which is more frightening, the point that we have had enough genocidal episodes that social scientists can generate such a list or the fact that after the Holocaust, the world continues to generate such horror.