The anniversary, last month, of the Allied victory over the Nazis led Meir Soloveichik to consider the accounts of two U.S. servicemen present at the liberation of Ohrdruf, a satellite camp of Buchenwald: Dwight Eisenhower, the commander of the Anglo-American forces, and Meyer Birnbaum, a devout Jewish lieutenant from New York City. Eisenhower’s initial reaction was to bear witness—examining the camp, forcing local Germans to confront the evils that had gone on beneath their noses, and calling for prominent Americans to come see the evidence of the Holocaust. His second reaction was to appreciate the need for vengeance.
Surely, both reactions are admirable. But Soloveichik also details something very different that emerges from Birnbaum’s account of his ministrations to the religious needs of the survivors:
Because of our obligation to the past, the Jewish link between generations is the source of our immortality. The youngest survivor of Buchenwald, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, ends his own memoir by describing the bar mitzvah, in Israel, of his eldest son. A rabbi first found as a child by an American Jewish chaplain hiding behind a pile of dead bodies was now marking the achievement of Jewish adulthood by his son, who had been named for his murdered grandfather.
The Torah reading that week concluded with another verse about our eternal battle against evil incarnate: “There is a war by God against Amalek, mi-dor dor—from generation to generation.” Rabbi Lau read this homiletically: our battle against Amalek is through the medium of mi-dor dor, through the link of generations. At his son’s bar mitzvah, he said: “The struggle for the continuity of generations is the true battle, and the great spiritual-divine victory of Israel against the adversary Amalek. Our victory in the war against Amalek is that my son, Moshe Chaim Lau, is continuing the heritage of his grandfather, my father, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, who went up to Heaven in a tempest.”
Memory, war, vengeance—all of Eisenhower’s reactions to the Holocaust are important, vital. But they are, on their own, insufficient. Our Jewish response to the Nazi attempt to destroy the Jews is the perpetuation of Judaism. By this I do not mean that we engage in religious transmission only to take our revenge on the Nazis. Rather, in a sense, the opposite is true: the mysterious eternal continuity of the Jewish people, our linking generation to generation as every other nation rises and falls, is the embodiment of our eternity and the primary sign of God in history. It is this the Nazis hated, and so the battle between Amalek and us is precisely that: between the enemies of the Hebrew God, and the people whose eternity serves as the surest sign of God.