A Conversation with God on the Holocaust

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For some, the problem never fades from memory. Menachem Rosensaft was born in 1948 in Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp turned into a camp for displaced persons after the war. His parents somehow survived the German Nazi attack in World War II and the Holocaust, but not his half-brother, Benjamin.

All these years later, Rosensaft published a book of poetry last year called Poems born in Bergen-Belsenarticulating his journey as the son of Holocaust survivors with the hope of educating readers about the horrors of the Holocaust and inspiring empathy for all genocide survivors.

On the eve of Yom Hashoah on April 27, the United Nations Holocaust Outreach Program hosted Rosensaft at a dedication and discussion event at the United Nations Bookstore.

JNS recently sat down with Rosensaft to reflect on his book. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Thank you very much for joining us. This book is at times heartbreaking, and at other times seems somewhat hopeful.

A: In fact, I’ve been writing poetry for a good part of the last 50 years. So these poems were developed over a long period of time, and they are really my way of communicating with the dead, of relating to the dead, and also in a different dimension of communicating with God, of getting along with God. So it’s my way of accepting an experience that’s part of my identity, which isn’t really relatable in terms of simple historical timeline and facts and events.

You don’t get the scope of the Shoah, the Holocaust, or, for that matter, any kind of genocide by just reporting it to so many people – 6 million people died – and then reporting how many people died in Auschwitz, how many people were murdered in the Warsaw ghetto. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s my way of trying to approach this part of my story through poetry, of trying to imagine what happened, how it happened, of trying to ‘imagine the ghost of a 5 1/2 year old – an old boy – my brother, my mother’s son – who was gassed with his father – my mother’s first husband – and his grandparents when he arrived at Auschwitz.

Book cover art for Menachem Rosensaft. Credit: courtesy.

He’s a brother I never knew, but who is really part of me. And I can only imagine that his soul, his ghost, is still there in Auschwitz-Birkenau – is still there among the barracks, among the ruins of the crematorium, the gas chambers. And this is my way of relating to him and hopefully making his memory part of the collective memory of the Jewish people and of humanity.

Q: Talking about ghosts: this is a very common subject in the poetry of this book. Do you talk about the ghosts that haunt you and Holocaust survivors? What is the message in this particular term?

A: I was born in [the] Bergen Belsen [displaced persons camp], which was installed about a kilometer from where the concentration camp was located. And our generation of sons and daughters of survivors is haunted. We are haunted as one haunts a cemetery. We carry within us the images, the souls, the ghosts, so to speak, of those who were murdered and whom we only know from the memories we received about them from our parents. Everything else is left to our imagination.

When I talk about ghosts, I’m talking about images in my mind of those who perished. And it can be the image of a child entering the gas chamber and trying to understand his pain, his agony or what happened to his soul afterwards. And what happened to the souls of the 1.5 million children who were murdered or, for that matter, the 6 million who were murdered. Where are they? And everything that follows is only a matter of imagination. In my case, I try to express it through poetry.

Q: There are religious overtones in your work. You include the opening and closing prayers of Yom Kippur; you insert lines from the Mourner’s Kaddish into one of your poems. Yizkor, the memorial prayer, also figures prominently. What is your relationship with God? So many Jews who somehow survived the Holocaust have completely turned their backs on Judaism or at least its religious aspect. You seem to be religiously bound but angry with God. What does that relationship look like at this point?

A: I believe in god; I am a committed Jew. I am not orthodox. I happen to be a conservative Jew; I believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful God. Because if I did, then how can anyone believe in a God who knew millions were being murdered and could have stopped it, but didn’t? But again, there is also an arrogance on the part of all of us, including the rabbis, who try to say that we know who God is or how God manifests himself. We do not know. We only believe that we know, and that, in my opinion, is arrogance.

And so, I enter into a conversation with God and an argument with God. Of course, you have to express it, but it is in a Jewish tradition. There was a Chassidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who was known to argue with God on behalf of the Jewish people. He was known to be angry with God, but that does not mean a rejection of God. It simply means that we are in dialogue.

Let me give you an example. We all know, especially when you go to a funeral, Psalm 23. It is a psalm that speaks of God: “A Psalm of David. Adonai is my shepherd; from the shadow of death I fear no evil for you are with me.In the psalm, God makes us lie down in green pastures and prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies, anointing our heads with oil “Only goodness and kindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I dwell in the house of Adonai forever.

Well, it’s a difficult psalm, very difficult to understand in the context of the Holocaust, and so I have my version of it, which is Psalm XXIII in Auschwitz:

“An empty psalm/​no shepherd/​only enemies/​no feast table/​only bitter soup/​mouldy bread/​no green pastures…he is always hungry/​she is always cold/their heads anointed/by blows/shadows walking/in the valley of death/the mist-shrouded house of Adonai/forever.

That is to say, rightly or wrongly, my attempt to agree to reconcile God with a horrible reality, essentially saying that God has a place in the debate, just as humans have a big place in the debate . And we are compelled, at least I think, to take those thoughts and take those concepts and express them in order to effectively make peace with both human beings and with God and then move forward.

Q: You note in a number of your poems more modern genocides – places like Rwanda, Darfur. You say you have to be on your guard. You refer in some of your books to the almost “ho-hum” nature of the Holocaust – portraying the Germans and others not as bloodthirsty monsters, but simply as part of a functioning mechanized system. You talk about a German guard as someone who hummed music while the killing machines rolled around. What message can you send to the world through your poetry about being on your guard when you know that genocide is not always what we imagine it to be. It’s something that’s perhaps even scarier in that it can be so mechanical in nature.

A: Absolutely. The fact is that we must first and foremost understand that when we commemorate our genocide, which is the Holocaust, we must be sensitive to others who suffer from genocide, who have been victims of crimes against humanity and to racism. We don’t live in a vacuum, and we can’t just ask others to care about our tragedy if we’re not willing to be equally sensitive to theirs.

And you are absolutely right. The perpetrators of the Holocaust were not visible monsters. They were individuals who went about their daily business and considered annihilation – the killing of Jewish men, women and children – as part of their job. And this is true for others, whether in Srebrenica, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, or today, in Myanmar. You have people murdering and killing other people because of their religious, ethnic, national, racial identity. And they do it without hesitation. They feel like it’s part of their job and part of how they progress. And by the way, it’s also true on a lesser level because genocide doesn’t start when the massacre starts. Genocide begins when racism or religious prejudice, or anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, or hatred of a minority is allowed to be expressed and people do not push back. And if one form of discrimination is OK, then the next one becomes easier and the next one easier. And by the time the killing is in full effect, it’s far too late to do anything about it.

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