Holocaust Observances

Holocaust commemorations have--and should have--some common elements.

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Non-Jews in the Shoah and Holocaust Commemorations

The seventh candle has been designated differently in various communities. Some have honored righteous Gentiles who died in the Shoah trying to help Jews; some paid tribute to the righteous Gentiles whether or not they died; some have lit the light in memory of non-Jewish victims (for example, gypsies and Poles killed in Auschwitz). Inclusion of non-Jewish victims has been criticized as a dilution of the Jewish character of the Holocaust, an attempt to evade the uniqueness of the Nazis' demonic decision to wipe out every last Jew.

The critics point out that mass killings of other groups were connected to "rational" objectives (killing of political opposition, annihilation of Russian POWs, genocide of Polish intelligentsia). In this view, the evil of such crimes should not be mitigated, but they should not be lumped together with the "final solution" of the Jewish problem, whose total nature defied logic, economic advantage, and even military need.

The matter is complicated and highly emotional. There is a danger of so stressing the uniqueness of the Holocaust that it is turned into a solipsistic event with no consequences or meanings for others. Excess in interpretation can even turn talk of the Shoah into a covert claim of superiority (I suffer, therefore I am better than you). On balance, legitimate use of analogies and comparisons to other events is possible, although the distinctions must be kept clear, perhaps even underscored, at such moments.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).