Monday, May 6, 2013

Names and Numbers / B'midbar

Sefer B’midbar (the Book of Numbers) opens with two chapters recounting names and numbers related to a census of the Israelites conducted in the second month of the second year of their Wilderness experience. I associate names and numbers, and counting up people, with the Holocaust. Human beings in a moral wilderness reduced to mere numbers tattooed on their bodies, and we now collect and memorialize their names.

Names and numbers: The National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, features a breathtaking exhibit called the “Tower of Faces.” Some 1,500 images taken between 1890 and 1941 of the 5,000 Jews of Ejszyszki (also spelled Eishishok) in Poland (now Lithuania) massacred by the Nazis in September 1941 tile the walls of the tower. The Tower of Faces is the work of Brooklyn College professor Yaffa Sonenson Eliach, who was born in the town. Of the 500 Jews who escaped slaughter, only 29 survived the war. Eliach has “rebuilt” Ejszyszki in photographs, preserving their names and memories.

Tower of Faces at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
More names and numbers: At Yad Vashem in Israel, the “Hall of Names” memorializes the Six Million. It houses short biographies of the victims. The center hall has a domed ceiling filled with 600 photographs of the Six Million.

Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Israel
Both the “Tower of Faces” and the “Hall of Names” try to restore both names and faces to the dehumanized victims of the Nazis. So much time and effort has gone into cataloguing the names of those who perished in order to preserve their sacred memories. This is as it ought to be. We can do no less in response to a travesty that tore people’s names from them and left them only with numbers.

The Nazis are often likened to Amalek, the quintessentially evil nation that attacked the Israelites during their march through the Wilderness (Exodus 17:8-10). Amalek’s unforgiveable sin was not in fomenting war. The Amalekites attacked not the soldiers at the head of the line, but rather attacked from the rear, slaughtering the most vulnerable: the elderly, the infirmed, and children at the back of the line. For this reason, the Amalekites become the paradigm and symbol of unredeemable evil. Torah tells us:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, [they] surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

What a peculiar and seemingly contradictory requirement: to remember the Amalekites, and yet to blot out their memory. How do we explain this? Purim provides a hint. According to tradition, Haman, who set in motion a plan to kill all the Jews of Persia, was descended from the Amalekites. We read Haman’s name in the Megillah many times but also drown out his name with noisemakers.

What’s in a name? Should we seek to wipe out the names of the worst of the worst: Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Himmler? Do they belong with Amalek and Haman yimach shemam (may their names be blotted out)? Perhaps here is where the Torah’s subtle wisdom rises to the fore: we are also commanded to remember.

Now we have another and surprising reason to recall Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, and Hitler. Each of them — the very quintessence of human evil — has a Jewish descendant in his family tree.

Colleen Rosenblatt is the granddaughter of Magda Goebbels, wife of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Colleen converted to Judaism at the age of 24, married a Jewish man, and raised a Jewish daughter. Today she lives in Germany where she designs jewelry.

Matthias Goering, a physiotherapist, is the grandnephew of the Nazi Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goering. Matthias grew up in a virulently anti-Semitic family yet he found his way to Judaism. He is reportedly in the process of converting. He lives an observant Jewish life, keeping kosher, observing shabbat and wearing a kippah, among other practices. He has said, "I used to feel cursed by my name. Now I feel blessed."

Katrin Himmler, great-grandniece of the SS commander Heinrich Himmler, architect of the Holocaust, published The Himmler Brothers: A German Family History in 2007. That same year, she told an interviewer: “Many times during my research it was quite difficult for me to go on. As things were revealed it became more and more shocking. We descendants were left in no doubt about what Heinrich had done. But his actions cast a large shadow that the rest of the family were standing in, many of them hiding in there.” Katrin Himmler married (and is now divorced from) an Israeli, the child of survivors, whose father was in the Warsaw ghetto.

And then there is Dr. Michael Mach, professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University, who claims to be a descendant of Hitler. It’s a rather complicated story, so hold on for a rough ride. The account goes like this: Adolf Hitler had a half-brother named Alois. Alois had an illegitimate son named Hans who married a woman named Erna after Erna’s divorce from her first husband. Erna was thrilled to have married into the Hitler family and remained a die-hard anti-Semite throughout her life. Her daughter (from her first marriage) is the mother of Prof. Mach. In order to avoid conscription into the Germany army, Mach pursued a theology degree that brought him to Israel for six weeks in 1970. "I felt at home. I was no longer living in a conflict. I didn't have to reject the older generation. And I thought I had met for the first time a nationality that at that point in history — today it is more problematic — still had good reasons to be proud of itself." He stayed and converted.

Strangely, the Talmud records that another honorary descendant of Amalek converted to Judaism. Amidst a longer account of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Romans, we are told:
He [the emperor] sent against [the Jews] Nero the Caesar. As he was coming, [Nero] shot an arrow towards the east, and it fell in Jerusalem. He then shot one towards the west, and it again fell in Jerusalem. He shot towards all four points of the compass, and each time it fell in Jerusalem. He said to a certain boy: “Repeat to me [the last] verse of Scripture you have learned.” [The boy] said: And I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel [Ezekiel 25:14]. [Nero] said: The Holy One, blessed be God, desires to lay waste the House [i.e. the Temple] and to lay the blame on me. So [Nero] ran away and became a proselyte, and R. Meir was descended from him. (Gittin 56a)
Talmud is telling us that not only did Nero, himself, convert to Judaism, but the great R. Meir was descended from him.

Not long ago we thought the names Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler should be blotted out, yet now they are attached in various ways to Jews. Would you ever have imagined?

What’s in a name? Sometimes just what we thought, but sometimes far more.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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