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Justice for the Six Million?

Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day) is today. It is a day filled with special services, concerts and public ceremonies. But no commemoration can adequately mark this tragedy. Still, it was not always the case that such services marked our calendar.

Sixty years ago, Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and secreted him to the state for trial. Eichmann was one of the principal architects of the Nazi final solution. David Ben Gurion made the startling announcement to the Knesset and the world at large. So many years later we still fail to recognize the significance of Eichmann’s trial and the historic shift it represented. It was pivotal in our understanding of the Holocaust and our formulation of modern Jewish identity. It was the day that survivors’ stories began to be told—and heard.

In 1961 Holocaust museums did not dot the landscape of American cities. Yad VaShem was only established in 1953 and Yom HaShoah declared that same year. The Eichmann trial brought the Holocaust to the world’s attention. The Nuremberg trials that immediately followed the end of World War II did not do the same. With the Eichmann trial the recent victims, now embodied in a fledgling state, tried their former tormentor. With this trial the memory of the Holocaust was forever tied to the State of Israel.

Attorney General Gideon Hausner proclaimed: “In this place, where I stand before you, judges of Israel, to serve as the prosecutor of Adolf Eichmann, I do not stand alone. With me, here, at this very moment, stand six million prosecutors.” One hundred survivors shared riveting testimony in order to add human faces to the millions of victims and the crimes committed by the accused.

One of the most famous of these survivors was Abba Kovner, Israeli poet and leader of the Vilna ghetto’s resistance. While the intention of showcasing the testimony of survivors was noble and most certainly served to humanize the innumerable victims, it also gave rise to unintended consequences. The parade of survivors suggested that the modern State of Israel represents justice for the Holocaust.

We have been living with this unfortunate linkage ever since. We must stop perpetuating this myth. The modern Jewish state is not recompense for the suffering our people endured in the Holocaust. Israel is not about justice for the Holocaust. It is about an end to Jewish homelessness. It is about our return home. By contrast there can never be justice for the Holocaust.

Yes, we must pursue Nazis and their sympathizers (as well as their modern-day reincarnations) until they are no more. We must redouble our efforts to recover stolen Jewish property. And we must always remember the Holocaust, but not as justification for the State of Israel.

Instead, we must remember so that we may forever prevent another holocaust. When others suffer, we must speak out. We must bring the likes of Eichmann to trial not so much in the pursuit of justice but instead in the service of memory. Remembering is ennobling and humanizing.

Punishment for our tormentors: yes. Justice for the millions of victims: impossible. There can never be justice for the six million. There can only be remembrance. The modern State of Israel must never be seen as justice for our suffering. There can never be adequate payment or recompense for suffering.

Eichmann was found guilty, hanged and his ashes scattered in the Mediterranean Sea, beyond Israel’s territorial waters, thus denying a grave for his followers to pilgrimage and a country to claim his memory. May his memory be erased by the ocean’s waves.

Abba Kovner wrote of his sister who was murdered during the Holocaust:
My sister, in her bridal veil, sits at the table
alone. From the shelter of the mourners
the voice of the bridegroom draws near.
without you we shall set the table
the ketubah will be written in stone.
May the memories of our murdered millions serve as a blessing, calling us to bring healing to our broken world. And may Israel continue to grant us the feeling of home.