By Ch, Maj Elie Estrin, USAFR
A striking conversation occurred on a cold winter’s evening in 1964, between the acclaimed novelist and social critic Harvey Swados and a man considered by many to be the most influential rabbi of the twentieth century, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, known as “the Rebbe”.
Swados recalled their meeting in an essay published in The New York Times. He writes that in their conversation, Swados asked the Rebbe whether the Holocaust could happen again. The Rebbe’s answer was as jarring as it was disconcerting. With no hesitation whatsoever, he answered in Yiddish: “Morgen in der frih – tomorrow morning.”
Let’s reflect for a moment on these two men: Swados was American born and bred; he served this country as a radio operator for the Merchant Marine during the Second World War.
On the other hand, Rabbi Schneerson was born in Western Russia. Anti-Semitic pogroms occurred in his hometown of Yekatrinoslav – a major city in the Ukraine – while he was a small child. His mother ran an aid organization for tens of thousands of Polish refugees during World War I. He was present in Russia during the upheavals of the Russian Revolution, which ended in the Communist take-over of 1918, and later lived in Berlin during the mid-1930s under the Nazis, escaped to Vichy France, and only made it to the United States on the last civilian ship to sail from France before the US declared war on Germany.
Rabbi Schneerson’s forthright response was the result of a man who had seen—with his very own eyes—even prosperous and cultured nations collapse under the weight of hatred and tyranny, time and time again.
Perhaps we, in our modern era, feel as sheltered and protected as Swados did when he was shocked by the Rebbe’s answer: “Tomorrow morning.”
I include myself in that “sheltered” comment, but I have my great-grandmother to thank for that. She took her children in hand in 1919 and left the small villages and towns outside Kiev, Ukraine, where the family had lived for generations, eventually arriving on these shores in 1925. I never thought much about it; after all, I was born in Rhode Island, and both of my parents were born in Ohio. My father’s grandparents were born here; my mother’s parents were both young children when they arrived. We’re all Americans.
But one spring, back in 1997, I told my grandmother that I was planning on spending the summer in the Ukraine working in a camp for poor children. She responded with disgust apparent in her voice, “Why would you want to go back there?!” And then she began to tell me about the cousins she had left behind: one a girl with beautiful blond hair; another cousin with a spectacular singing voice, and others. All those relatives who she’d left behind were killed in the woods of Babi Yar on 29–30 September 1941; single individuals among the 33,771 Jews killed in that ravine in just two days, buried together where they were shot, and later joined by some 100,000 other murdered victims cast into that same ravine. The murderers: Nazi soldiers, assisted by Ukrainian sympathizers – who may well have been neighbors of my cousins.
We reflect on the Holocaust not just to remember the memory of all those murdered, but to call to mind the fact that it doesn’t take much to turn a civil society into a deadly one. And to our deep concern, we are seeing many of those noxious ingredients mixing right now. If we ever want to take those words “Never Again” seriously and avoid that ominous statement, “Tomorrow morning,” it is now that we, those of us in this very room, need to take heed to the lessons of the Holocaust.
What are those noxious ingredients that I speak of?
They are: polarization and extremism; jealousy and hatred; and a disintegration of core moral values. I think all of us recognize these awful attributes scattered all over our society – in every corner. It’s not a “left-wing” or a “right-wing” problem, it’s a problem, period.
Our military leadership recognizes the dangers of polarization and extremism, as evidenced by the stand-down taken by our Air Force just a few weeks ago. And when considering the voices that promote such ideas, it behooves us to remember what Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse said: “Anti-Semitism does not thrive because of ignorance, but forms part of a political movement and serves a political purpose.” This is true of all hatred, against all distinct groups. First, condition people to put group X into a metaphorical box, and then it’s a short leap from there to actually putting them into boxcars.
With the outbreak of anti-semitism in the US, it’s obvious that we need to change tactics. We now need to be proactive, identify ourselves proudly as Jews, and point out that “otherization” is a tactic used by those who we, as a military, have fought against and won. We must stand up and call out antisemitism, even soft antisemitism, wherever it rears its ugly head. We must communicate to our fellow teammates that we are one team; a team of liberty, humanity and freedom, and we must stand united. We have powerful tools to illustrate that: the Torah recounts how all humankind came from one couple – to teach that although we now have so many differences, we all have one source. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the legendary non-Jewish MSgt Roddie Edmonds, who as a POW with a Luger held to his head said, “We are all Jews.” Do your battle-buddies know about him? They should.
Finally, we must convey to everyone around us that there are moral ideals and moral absolutes. In Jewish tradition, we are taught that Noah was given seven laws to live by, and that these seven are incumbent upon all humanity: Belief in a Higher Power, to uphold systems of law, not to steal, murder, commit adultery, or curse G-d, and to respect all living creatures by not consuming them while still alive. I submit that this code is applicable across cultures and religions. It was described by the great Dutch legal and political theorist Hugo Grotius as the “foundation for all civil society.”
Only by our consistent efforts, first with ourselves and then through our positive influence around us, can we create a tomorrow morning of peace and tranquility for all mankind.
Originally published in the 5782 Three Weeks Jewish-American Warrior