by Batya Podos
This was created in part by the following sources and inspirations: Martin Prechtel’s CD: Grief and Praise and David Saphier’s 5767 Martyrology. This can be read/presented/studied in a variety of ways for the Eleh Ezkerah portion of High Holiday services.
On the merit of our foremothers and forefathers, we are blessed to remember and grieve for the dead. The Mayan shaman, Martin Prechtel, tells us that it takes a whole community to grieve and that our tears are praises and blessings for those who have died. If we do not grieve, he says, the dead become ghosts and haunt us. We carry the burden of them on our backs and pass this burden on to our children and their children after them. As Jews, we know something about this burden, and sometimes it seems that all the collective tears in the world cannot wash it away. Yet still, in this moment, we gather together and remember.
We remember that the first recorded European Pogrom was in 1096 which was followed by exterminations of Jewish populations in France and in Germany. We remember that before that, there were the Romans, and every year we tell the story of Rabbi Akiva who died in flames wrapped in the Torah scroll uttering the Shema, loving G-d with all his soul as his skin peeled from his body and the letters on the Torah lifted up into the air. Let us also remember Rabbi Shimon be Gamliel who died by beheading. The Roman Governor’s daughter thought him beautiful and wanted him spared. Instead, the Governor peeled off his face and had it preserved as a gift for her.
G-d is in the shattering of bones and the smell of burning flesh.
Let us remember the stages of GENOCIDE. Let us write them on our eyelids and sew them into our hearts. We come together to praise the dead and grieve for them.
The first stage of genocide: Classification—Them and Us
We remember that during the days of the Russian Revolution in 1917, nearly 250,000 Jews were killed in pogroms and riots, and countless others displaced and persecuted. We remember in the time of Stalin, it was a crime to practice religion and that Soviet Jews were purged, arrested, murdered and exiled in great numbers.
We remember that a decade ago, on July 20, 1999, the Jiang Zemin-led Chinese Communist Party launched a persecution and propaganda campaign against the spiritual group, Falun Gong. Thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands imprisoned, and millions of families broken. Jiang ordered the Communist regime to “eradicate” Falun Gong in three months and to “defame their reputations, bankrupt them financially, and destroy them physically.”
The second stage of genocide: Symbolization—when combined with hatred, symbols may be forced upon unwilling members of the pariah group
We remember that during the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish women were primary targets and victims of torture. We remember Maria and Isabel Lopez, accused of abstaining from pork and wearing festive clothes on the Jewish Sabbath. The Lopez family was subjected to a form of water torture called “escalera” in which defendants were bound naked to a scaffold with their feet over their heads and their faces covered with headpieces. Victims experienced a sense of suffocation when water was poured over their faces and pressure progressively increased through tightening ropes. We remember what our own government has learned from the Spanish Inquisition.
We remember the Burning Times. Beginning with the period of the Inquisition but reaching its peak in Europe from 1550-1675, between 200,000 and 500,000 people, primarily women, were killed as witches. Girls as young as two and three were often made to watch their mother’s execution by burning and forced to dance on their ashes.
G-d is in the burned feet of little girls. We come together to praise the dead for their courage, for their strength against impossible odds. We praise their beauty and knowledge, the many gifts they have given us of their lives.
The third stage of genocide: Dehumanization—one group denies the humanity of the other
We remember that from April to mid-July in 1994, nearly 1 million Rwandan Tutsis and Hutu political moderates were killed within a 100 day period, as high as 20% of the country’s population.
We remember Mamdouh Habib, who was subjected to rendition by the United States. The Americans took him to an airfield, cut off his clothes with scissors, dressed him in a jumpsuit, covered his eyes with opaque goggles, and placed him aboard a private plane. He was flown to Egypt. He was beaten frequently and with blunt instruments, including an object that he likened to an electric “cattle prod.” He was told that if he didn’t confess to belonging to Al Qaeda, he would be anally raped by specially trained dogs. Habib was shackled and forced to stand in three torture chambers. One room was filled with water up to his chin, requiring him to stand on tiptoe for hours. Another chamber was filled with water up to his knees, had a ceiling so low that he was forced into a prolonged, painful stoop, and in the third, he stood in water up to his ankles and within sight of an electric switch and a generator, which his jailers said would be used to electrocute him if he didn’t confess. After a three year ordeal, Habib was released without charges.
We remember this has happened to us. We remember what is done to one, is done to all. G-d is in the hope and the hopelessness. We praise the dead for holding on to hope. We grieve for their hopelessness.
The fourth stage of genocide: Organization—genocide is always organized
We remember that from 1939-1945, the Nazis established 15,000 camps in the occupied countries. We remember Bergen-Belsen, Borgermoor, Buchenwald, Dachau, Dieburg, Esterwegen, Flossenburg, Gundelsheim, Neuengamme, Papenburg, Ravensbruck, Sachsenhausen, Sachsenburg. We remember camps in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Finland, France, Morocco and Algeria, Great Britain, Holland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway. We remember Poland.
We remember that ethnic cleansing was a strategy used in the Bosnian war between 1992 and 1995. In one event, the Srebrenica Massacre, as it is now called, more than 8,000 men and boys were killed in the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II.
G-d is in the twisted limbs and emaciated bodies; G-d is in the mass graves. We come together to praise the dead for their resistance to the systems designed to destroy them. We praise them for wanting good lives to pass on to their children.
The fifth stage of genocide: Polarization—hate groups broadcast on radio and television and use other media to polarize people through propaganda
We remember that between 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge murdered 1.7 million Cambodians.
We remember the 1.5 million Armenians murdered by the Turks during the first World War. Believing they were being relocated to safety, the Armenians went willingly into what became death marches, dying from hunger and exhaustion and being murdered by Turkish soldiers.
G-d is in curses, words like shards of glass that cut the heart and divide us from each other. We come together to praise the dead for their trust in others. We grieve for their broken hearts.
The sixth stage of genocide: Preparation—victims are identified and separated out because of ethnic or religious identity
We remember Auschwitz-Birkenau, We remember Belzec, Bierznow, Biesiadka, Dzierzazna and Litzmannstadt where hundreds of children were sent before being transferred to the extermination centers.
We remember Christopher Columbus, enslaving and murdering over 5 million of the Taino population of the Caribbean.
We remember that prior to European contact, over 12 million native peoples lived in what would become the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean.
We remember the Trail of Tears which virtually destroyed the Cherokee Nation. Over 70,000 Native people relocated. Many had their children taken from them.
We remember that 4 centuries after the arrival of Columbus, 12 million souls have been reduced to barely 237,000—95% of the original population.
G-d is in mothers crying out for their missing children, for their dead children, for the children ripped from their wombs. We come together to praise the dead for holding on to each other. We grieve for their tattered families and communities.
The seventh stage of genocide: Extermination. It is extermination for the killers because they do not believe their victims to be fully human.
We remember the Middle Passage. Between 1600 and 1800, 20 million Africans were sold into slavery. Half of them didn’t complete the journey from Europe to the Colonies. Ten million died.
We remember that since June 2003, over 2,500,000 people have been displaced in Darfur and over 400,000 lives have been taken. 100 people die every day; 1,000 die every month.
We remember Gross-Rosen, Huta-Komarowska, Krakow, Lublin, Maidanek, Plasazow, Radom, Schmolz, Schokken, Sobibor, Stutthof, Treblinka, Wieliczka, Zabiwoko, Zakopane. We remember 54,000 Jews executed in 10 days between December 21 and December 31, 1941 in Russia.
G-d is in the promise of lives unlived. We come together to praise the ordinary lives of the dead. We grieve for stories untold, teachings unheard, cures undiscovered, kindnesses unacted, books unwritten. We grieve for the lovers who will never meet, the children who will never be born, for the elderly unable to die in peace in their own beds, in the loving arms of their families. We grieve for unspeakable losses which must be spoken (and remembered.)
The eighth stage of genocide: Denial
On the merit of our foremothers and forefathers, our difficult blessing is to be a nation of priests and priestesses, to shine a light in all the darkened places of the human soul. We, who have a history of loss, are uniquely placed to find the shards of light from the Creator’s broken vessel, and to use them to help make others whole, even as we ourselves may be broken.
(responsive reading) If you are able, please repeat after me.
Today I choose to open my heart to the process of forgiveness
Today I choose to live a life of kindness and compassion
For I am a beacon of light
And my every action resounds into the universe
May I bring the Torah of Peace to every soul I meet
And may I walk in the blessing of the Shekhina