Friday, April 5, 2013

Do Not Forget

“No good film is too long.  No bad movie is short enough.” –Roger Ebert

On Thursday, Roger Ebert succumbed to his 10-year battle with cancer.  For the last two days the news has been inundated with stories of Ebert and the lives he touched.  There was an incredibly touching eulogy for him in the Chicago Sun-Times, the paper for which he reviewed movies for 46 years.  I heard NPR’s movie critic remember him tenderly this morning in place of the usual Friday morning film critique.  Even those who would rather experience the movies than listen to the critics (like me) will notice a hole next week when his reviews are no longer there.  Roger Ebert and his iconic thumb have been all over the media for the past two days.

But something else started two days ago that has gotten significantly less press.

Two days ago, teens from Miami, New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and all over America left for a ten day journey from which none of them will return quite as they left.  Right now, more than 10,000 students from all over North America are in Poland, participating in the March of the Living.  This year is the 25th March of the Living, as well as the 65th Anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, and the 70th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  This Sunday evening will begin Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, inaugurated in 1953 by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

The participants in the March will walk from Aushwitz to Birkenau, a silent, 3-Kilometer walk that follows the same path the Nazis forced over 750,000 prisoners to take toward the end of WWII.  As the web site explains, “The March of the Living serves as a hopeful counterpoint to the experience of hundreds of thousands of [prisoners] forced by the Nazis to cross vast expanses of European terrain under the harshest of conditions where many of them perished.”

I do not need to stand here and retell the atrocities committed in the concentration camps and ghettos of WWII Europe.  The Holocaust has had such an impact on Jewish life today that it served as the reason my parents sent me to Religious School—so the Holocaust will never happen again.  In the Reform movement our practice for reciting Mourners’ Kaddish was changed by the Holocaust—we all stand together for those who have no one left to stand for them.  The Jewish people regularly remember the 6 million on Yom Hashoah.

On Sunday and Monday, the students in our religious school and day school will participate in memorial ceremonies for Yom Hashoah.  My father-in-law, a Holocaust Survivor himself, will speak to our students about his experiences.  Every year at Yad Vashem, six survivors are chosen to light memorial torches, one for each million who perished.  The Holocaust Documentation and Education Center is constantly trying to record the memories of survivors, as is Steven Spielberg’s Film and Video Archive of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.  We are at a critical moment in history.  Survivors are more and more willing to tell their stories as fewer and fewer of them remain to tell them.  Soon we will have only their memories in the form of their children and grandchildren relaying their stories.

And telling stories is what we do best.  From the Torah to today, Jews have thrived on our stories.  We love to tell tales of good vanquishing evil, the few overcoming the many, and the small defeating the large, to paraphrase our own liturgy.  So perhaps it is fitting that Roger Ebert would leave this world on a week when we are remembering so many stories.  He reviewed over 300 moving stories a year, and very often got to the heart in only a few paragraphs.

To quote from three reviews in particular, we can understand how he related the message he took from the movies and made it applicable and poignant to modern viewers:

"Life Is Beautiful is not about Nazis and Fascists, but about the human spirit. It is about rescuing whatever is good and hopeful from the wreckage of dreams" (Chicago Sun-Times, 1998).

“There has not again been evil on the scale of 1939-1945. [But] The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not only about Germany during the war…. It is about a value system that survives like a virus” (Chicago Sun-Times, 2008).

“The film's message is that one man did something, while in the face of the Holocaust others were paralyzed. Perhaps it took a Schindler, enigmatic and reckless, without a plan, heedless of risk, a con man, to do what he did. No rational man with a sensible plan would have gotten as far” (Chicago Sun-Times, 1993).

In his own way, Ebert reminded us, “Do not forget.”

Zichornam Livracha.  May all of the individuals from the six million martyrs to the Schindlers among them be remembered for a blessing.  May those who follow in Roger Ebert’s footsteps continue to tell our story, and allow us to honor theirs.