The Forward, SEPTEMBER 28, 2001
Ashes Adrift in a Gentle Wind
By MENACHEM Z. ROSENSAFT
Thousands of men and women slaughtered, many of them incinerated, their bodies never to be found. Ashes, the remains of loved ones, friends and neighbors, drifting in a gentle wind for miles. Auschwitz, 1944, or New York City, September 2001? The stench of death making it impossible for anyone in the vicinity ever to claim that he or she was unaware of the carnage. Bergen-Belsen, 1945, or New York City, September 2001? No, there is no comparison. But there are echoes.
On August 4, 1943, on arrival at Auschwitz, my mother was separated from her parents, husband and five-and-a-half year old son. My brother’s last words to her were, “Mommy, are we going to live or die?” My mother had no answer. She was haunted by this memory until her own death four years ago. Like millions of others gassed and burned in the death camps, my grandparents and my brother have no graves. My mother must have wondered, as she walked through the camp, whether the air she was forced to breathe contained her parents’, her child’s or her husband’s ashes.
Zachary Stern, a student at Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, told his father that he felt that the silver dust gleaming in the sunlight as he and his school mates were being evacuated on September 11 was made up of thousands of souls. In the tons of rubble, ashes and debris that rescue workers have had to walk through for the past two weeks are the remains of victims whose bodies will never be recovered. All New Yorkers have been physically enveloped by the dead and death.
It is only natural to ask how God could have allowed this newest cataclysm to happen. The simple answer is that, like the Holocaust, it was perpetrated by human beings, not by God. Nonetheless, I believe God was at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, just as God was present at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. But God was not in the killers.
God was within every Jewish parent who comforted a child on the way to the gas chambers. God’s spirit was within my mother as she kept 149 Jewish children alive in Bergen-Belsen throughout the winter and early spring of 1945. The divine spark that characterizes true religious faith was within every Jew who helped a fellow inmate in the death camps, just as it was within every non-Jew who defied the Germans by risking death to save a Jew.
Similarly, God was in all the New York City firefighters, police officers and rescue workers who risked or gave their own lives to save others. God was in the heroic passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 who overpowered the terrorists and sacrificed themselves rather than allow the hijackers to reach their target. God was in the man who remained in the World Trade Center with a friend confined to a wheelchair. God was in every victim who made one last telephone call to say, “I love you,” or whose final thoughts were of a husband, a wife, children, a parent or a friend.
On September 11, we witnessed both absolute evil and absolute good. As a nation, we must now make a choice: We can become obsessed with revenge, allowing a justified hatred of the terrorists to poison our own souls, or we can try to reshape the world according to the ideals that the murderers sought to destroy. After the Holocaust, its survivors, while never ceasing to remember and mourn, rebuilt their lives and created new families in a collective act of defiance. During the difficult days and weeks ahead, their example and their ability to overcome the most extreme suffering of all times can serve as a lantern for New Yorkers and all Americans.
Mr. Rosensaft, a partner at the law firm of Ross & Hardies in New York, is the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.]]