Empty-ness is not a good history teacher: Musings on the removal of Confederate monuments

by Walter Ziffer (Holocaust prisoner # 64,757) 

As a Holocaust survivor, the recent huge anti-slavery protests sparked by the brutal police murder of George Floyd, have deeply impressed and concerned me. One of the consequences of the protests has been the public’s demand that monuments honoring important Confederate personalities who were slaveholders should be removed from public places. As a result of these requests, officially sanctioned removal of such monuments has taken place in various localities leaving the pedestals on which these men were mounted, empty.

As a survivor of three years of daily death threatening slavery, I fully understand public outcries for the removal of these monuments. I would be shocked and scandalized seeing men like Hitler, Goering or Himmler and many other Nazi leaders publicly honored and memorialized by statuary on Germany’s streets and plazas. Fortunately this is not the case. But seeing the removal of Confederate leader statues being done by people under the influence of what seems to be a kind of mass hysteria and in a fashion akin to vandalism strikes me as unfortunate, short sighted and counterproductive.

With future generations in mind, I submit that an empty pedestal or the disappearance of a statue just is not educational. Furthermore, the removals should not only express protest about the past but also convey anti-racism education for the future.

This said, I would suggest that the statues of Confederate slave holders and advocates of this kind of systemic racism be dethroned from their physically elevated position and placed next to the pedestal that had previously supported them. This procedure would not only convey to the public how we today think about the shamefulness of supporting the institution of slavery and how we today regret attitudes held in the past.

History should not and cannot not be erased, because it happened. Trying to erase it by silencing it means engaging in dishonesty. Some of our past history was shameful and therefore must not be glorified, By proceeding as I suggest, the empty pedestal and lowered statue next to it on ground level would not only attract the eyes of the passerby and invite her or him to read the brief explanation of what happened here, engraved on the now empty pedestal, but would also provide a much needed lesson about a part of United States history then, which now we regret and condemn.


If you have any responses or comments, please email me here.

On respecting divided opinions

Gail and I recently had an interesting experience I want to share. After navigating hundred twists and turns on the road between Weaverville where we live and Lake Lure we arrived after an hours’ drive at the Lake Lure library where I was scheduled to speak earlier this month.

We did not know what to expect in terms of audience size. Our guess was a maximum of 40 people, perhaps less. Entering the program hall I was stunned to see every chair taken and a number of people standing on the periphery of the venue. Even the entrance hall was filled to capacity. It was time for me to start speaking.

The program’s title was “Witness to the Holocaust.” When I related how prior to our deportation to concentration camps our family was ripped apart I had to stop for a moment, as is usually the case notwithstanding the decades that have gone by since then, because it is that moment that emotionally is probably the hardest one for me to speak about. I was 15 years old. Men and women were separated from each other and each group was then further divided into old folk, middle aged people and youngsters. When this happened to our family, my mother ran after me, pleading, “Walti, do not leave us!” as if I had any choice in this matter. Before reaching me a SS man hit her over the shoulder and brutally pushed her back into a group of women. There was no time for either a hug or a last kiss.

“Now isn’t this is precisely what has been going on at our southern border, minus the lashes of the SS – of course! I.C.E., Mr. Trump’s lackeys, have also been tearing families apart, right? What a sham!”

The explosive applause by the audience stopped me in my tracks. It prevented me from continuing. “There are still decent people around,” I said to myself and then went on with my talk.

My lecture having come to an end, I asked for questions and comments.

The first person responding was a woman in the third row right in front of me wearing under her open jacket a T-shirt with the inscription “Yeshua” written in Hebrew script, meaning Jesus. She began trying to explain about how I.C.E. is doing only what they are ordered to do but did not get very far with her comment. A veritable explosions of shouts and boos cut her off. She did not have a chance. When the hubbub quieted down, the library person in charge of the program, ignoring her, asked for the next question and the program went on to its end without further incidents.

In retrospect, alas too late, it occurred to me that I should have calmed the group, reminding them that in a democracy all voices need to be heard unimpeded. I am so very sorry to have failed in this respect. I was stunned by the audience’s loud reaction but probably also carried away by satisfaction that there are still folks who stand up for compassion and decency and express it publicly. I’ll know better next time, I hope.

This incident also reminds me of the importance of having relations with others regardless of what their political orientation might be. “The Other” is not an object but a subject, just as I. It is “the other” for whom I must be grateful because it is only this vis a vis that makes it possible for me to be who I truly am.

The Jewish term mitzvah derives from the verb “to order” or “to command.” Interestingly, the word also means doing “a good deed.” During my several stays in Jerusalem I was struck with people approaching me and soliciting money. They do this in unabashed manner and I must admit that it turned me off. In Jewish tradition, doing a mitzvah is regarded very important. This raises a question. How would it be possible to perform a mitzvah were it not precisely for these men and their solicitations? Should one not be grateful for them for giving us an opportunity to be generous and to perform a good deed? On the other hand, does not doing the mitzvah also alleviate the poor person’s and his family’s suffering? All this suggests that, according to the Jewish tradition, both the giver and the recipient of mitzvah are blessed.

Needless to say, most of those beggars in Jerusalem probably have not considered the theological aspect of giving and receiving. Some undoubtedly are sincere with their requests for help. Others might not. But who are we to judge?

In any case, even at age 92 it is not too late to learn a lesson.

How fast, we Jews, forget!

The shameful treatment of would be immigrants to our country continues. While I have no high opinion of Trump, an understatement, it is beyond my understanding why he nurtures this venomous hatred against these people who flee to preserve their lives and the lives of their children. Is it all in the name of his white supremacist attitude, best expressed in the slogan of “Make America White Again?”

As a Holocaust survivor, I cannot help but compare Trump’s racism to that of Hitler’s who, in similar manner, sized up the threat of Judaism as a threat not only to Germany but to the world. One of his more famous antisemitic mentors, Richard Wagner, the great composer, expressed the threat of Judaism and the Jewish people by coining a new word: Verjudung, meaning something like “jewishing” the otherwise pure world…I hate to think what a totally white America would look, feel and act like!

Because of Jewish ethics and more particularly because of our past history in which we came to experience and hopefully to learn what rejection for ethnic reasons feels like and produces, Jews must not and cannot turn their back to migrants fleeing for life.

I am disappointed that on the local, national and international level few Jewish voices have been heard to condemn our governments’ treatment of these poor refugees at our southern gates. Have we forgotten what rejection feels like?

Here then are reminders:

Back in 1938 the plight of the Jews in Germany had become known. Rumors had it that Jews in Germany were sent to concentration camps. Auschwitz had not been built yet and so the worst had not yet happened. There was much talk about the necessity of creating safe havens for the Jews but talk did not suffice. There was need for action.

It was on President Roosevelt ‘s initiative that an international meeting was convened in July 1938 in Evian-les-Bains, France, to request commitments from the assembled nations to accept Jewish refugees from Germany.

And so 32 nations came together joined by 24 voluntary organi-zations that participated as observers. Also 200 journalists attended. Hitler endorsed the conference and even allegedly promised to help the Jews leave his country. It was reported that he said, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [the Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

The conference ended in failure. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic which offered help, none of the other participating nations made a commitment about accepting Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. For Hitler this was a victory as it seemed to demonstrate that no one desired an influx of Jews to their country. Useful propaganda!

Two months after Evian – the Sudeten was given to Hitler by British prime minister Chamberlain. 120,000 formerly Czech Jews became stateless. In March 1939 Czechoslovakia was occupied and 180,000 more Jews came under Hitler’s rule. Then came Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On September 1, 1939 WW II broke out. Holocaust and 6 million Jewish dead followed. Have we, Jews, learned anything from Evian? Do we not remember?

Our treatment of the refugees at our southern border is a test of American humaneness and civilization and we are flunking it.

The story of the Saint Louis Ship should be an other reminder for us Jews of our history of a people fleeing from destruction and being refused to be given a haven of safety and a secure life.

During WW II the ship, the St. Louis, owned by the German Hapag (Hamburg-America Line) was a German luxury ocean liner that carried over 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in 1939 trying to escape the Holocaust. The ship’s destination was Cuba in the hope that the refugees would debark and settle there. Having arrived there, the ship docked in Havana’s harbor but the refugees, with the exception of some Spaniards, Cubans and US citizens with Cuban visas, were not allowed to disembark. US government officials interceded with Cuba but to no avail. What now?

The ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, a seemingly very decent human being, now took the ship to the US and to Canada, trying to find a nation that would accept these Jewish refugees fleeing for their life. Both nations refused the ship’s landing in their respective harbors.

In view of these refusals, no alternative was left for the captain but to return to Europe. The UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and France accepted a few of the ships’ refugees. Unfortunately, the Nazis in their lightning fast war caught up with these Jewish refugees who thought they had escaped the clutches of Hitler. Statistics show that 254 of those who were forced to return to Europe were murdered during the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Sobibor. The rest died in various slave labor camps, in hiding or in attempts to evade the Nazis.

Let me end this blog by reminding ourselves that we Jews, too, were once on the run from death. Should not our empathy for these folks at our southern border motivate us to speak out loudly against their mistreatment?

I do not understand that Melania Trump, a mother herself, has not been willing or able to speak out for a more humane treatment of these suffering folk. Jared and Ivanka Kushner, both allegedly Jews, have remained silent. I do not understand that the fathers and mothers, employed by ICE, lend themselves to such inhuman treatment as separating children from their parents.

America, where are we headed?!

For all those who search for God and have not yet found him.

Shabbat, two weeks ago, I heard a remarkable sermon by Justin, our rabbi. He introduced it by saying that this time he would be sharing his “theology” with us. I am not aware that he ever gives a title to his sermons but were I to give a title to that sermon it would be “Beware of Jewish hubris or chutzpah.” I told him afterwards that I had been waiting for this sermon for 26 years – the number of years that Gail and I have been members of this congregation.

It takes courage to say what he said, namely, if I understood his words correctly, that it is chutzpah to think or let alone say that our faith is superior to other faiths. It is chutzpah to think or let alone say that our service of God is superior to that of non-Jews. It is chutzpah to think or let alone say that we know more about God than other religions. To think and to voice these kinds of attitudes is proof that our thinking is flawed.

Who are we Jews to make such statements given that we are an infinitesimally small portion of the world population? How is it that we have come to such a conclusion? According to the rabbi, this thought pattern of superiority has been handed down to us by our rabbinic predecessors who voiced this flawed mode of thinking for centuries.

I must make a confession: I am always appreciative of being honored by an aliyah, but the words of the blessing before the Torah reading tend to stick in my throat because of their intimation that we Jews are a “chosen” people.

I once shared this feeling with a rabbi-friend who suggested, “Why don’t you say instead of asher bachar banu mikol ha’amiym, “chose us FROM all the peoples,” asher bachar banu im kol ha-amiym, meaning, “chose us with all the peoples?” While “from all the peoples” sounds to me like a lot of chutzpah, somehow with all the peoples” does not quite make sense.

I always appreciate the honor of an aliyah but I am stuck with this portion of the blessing which goes against my belief.

But my problem is even more deep-seated than what concerns these few words.

As a Holocaust survivor, thinking just about daily about the murder of the Six Million among whom were fourteen members of my family, can I say the opening words of every b’rakhah as well as those of the Amidah, barukh atah adonay – Praised are you Adonay? And then continue honestly proclaiming, haEl haGadol, haGibbor vehaNorah, El Elyon– the Great, the Powerful and the Awesome God, the highest god?

The late Elie Wiesel suggested in his writings that during the Holocaust the “onlookers” who saw the tragedy and did not raise a finger to protest, let alone to stop the slaughter, were just as guilty as the perpetrators of the murders. I totally agree with Eli Wiesel. Now this raises, of course, the frightening question about him who, in the Amidah and in many other biblical texts, is called “great, strong,and awesome.” We encounter in English Bible translations the word el-shadday, translated as “Almighty,” as a title and an attribute of God. After the murder of the Six Million, the frightening question arises why this almighty God did not intervene, but let the smokestacks of Auschwitz belch out the smoke of hundreds of thousands gassed and cremated innocent persons.

In short: was the God whom we worship the most guilty of all bystanders by letting this tragedy and many other tragedies happen?

Who is this God, really? What kind of god is he? Or, is there such a god at all?

I have been chasing after the reality of the biblical God pretty much all my life long because I want to know!

The fact is that we know nothing about this God, just as the prophet Isaiah wrote in Isa. 55:8-9:

“for My thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways my ways, says Adonay. for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.”

This said, I would think that all human speculations about God, preceding Isaiah and following Isaiah’s pronouncement, are human words and human characterizations of this very God. They are guesses – they are human responses to human feelings about events we humans are unable to explain at the present.

Renown Rabbi Jehudah heChassid or Judah the Pious of Regensburg who died in 1217 during the time of the deadly Crusades, in his beautiful shir ha-kavod or “Hymn of Glory” that in some synagogues is sung when the Torah scroll is taken from the aron ha-kodesh, proclaims:

“Without having seen you, I declare your praise:
Without having known you, I laud you and your ways.
They have imagined you, but never as you are;
They tell of your deeds, to portray you from afar.”

This, in my opinion, is precisely what you and I are trying to do here: we imagine and we portray from afar.

And this is precisely what the folks and practitioners of other religions are doing as well and honestly so. So, it is very much wrong to see ourselves as specially favored to know and to do better. Doing so is chutzpah.

Having heard these my words, you may wonder, what I am doing here in this Jewish congregation. So let me explain.

I am here for several reasons.

  • I believe in community and especially in Jewish community. The term synagogue, a Greek word, means (lead-together) and this means “community.”
  • I love the people of this community, past and present, – who have been providing for Gail and me a spiritual home and all that goes with it, namely friendship and fellowship and care.
  • I love the Hebrew language which I have taught for decades, the language heard in this place very often .
  • I have made peace with the words I do not believe-in because they are beautiful and well-intentioned words, albeit fallible and flawed.
  • I am able to use the word “God” with all its adjectives FINALLY again, and it is here that enters my theology I want to share with you.
  • I love Judaism because of its teaching-values which I admire and consider indispensable for the ongoing life of our planet. So – -when we sing al-shlosha devarim haOlam omed, al ha-Torah, veal ha-Avodah veal gemilut chassadim, “The world stands on three principles: on Torah, on work avodah (which in Hebrew also means worship), and on good deeds,” I believe this with all my heart and try to live by these values.

But this change in my attitude became possible thanks to my many years of study and reflection on biblical and other so-called holy texts. I finally arrived at the conclusion that the term GOD is really a metaphor for these great Jewish values that I admire and try try hard to live by, the greatest of which is LOVE which I consider to be a synonym for the word God.

Now a few words about God and LOVE.

How do you and I define God and love??

If I were to ask you individually how YOU define God, I’d probably receive as many answers as I would ask people – perhaps a few more, because we are Jews.

Now if I were to ask you to define LOVE, I’d also receive many answers, And this makes sense, because all I would receive are definitions couched in human words.

It is virtually impossible to define either Love or God by means of words because words are unable to express all that the nouns”God” and “love” contain.

How do you express with words an emotion like the breaking of your heart when you stand at the grave of a beloved person or when I see on TV the little skeletal kids in a coma or dying of starvation, say in Yemen? This kind of experience makes my upper chest to physically contract – cave in – to the point that it hurts physically.

How do you describe with words the laughter that wells up in you? How do you describe in words your sexual attraction to a person? How do you explain your fear standing by the bed of a person fighting for her life?

There simply are no adequate words for any of these emotions.

But does that mean that the lack of our ability to adequately express our feelings or emotions suggests that these emotions are not real? I do not think so and I am sure you probably agree with me. In fact there is nothing more REAL than these feelings that well up within us on such occasions.

What I am suggesting then is that the word G-O-D or the word L-o-v-e are realities that defy description and definition.

Neither one of them are NOUNS! Grammatically – YES, of course. In their truest and deepest sense – NO!

Here then is my theology —

The word GOD is a metaphor. It expresses for me the values of Judaism. When I say adonay , I do not think of a person or some embodied spirit. Instead, I think of the biblical values such as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!” which have come to us from our ancestors in the faith, to be shared with the rest of humanity.

The words “God” and its synonym “Love” – are not static expression. Words can never convey what they really mean. They have to be lived and only by living them can we hope to transmit their life-giving richness to others.

And so, in my opinion, both Love and God, while grammatically nouns, are in their deepest and truest sense verbs.

Love and God-liness is something you do.

Shabbat shalom!

A 10th grader responds.

After one of my recent Holocaust-related talks at UNC-A for a large group of Middle School through College students, I received from a 10th grader the following essay which I thought was worth sharing with you.

“My heart is pounding, and I am on the edge on my seat. I can feel the energy around me as I graciously listen to his words. Seventy-eight years have passed, yet he is telling his story as if he is the same thirteen-year-old boy living in treacherous misery. His name is Dr. Walter Ziffer, and he is a Holocaust survivor. Dr. Ziffer speaks of many hardships that morning, and I am clinging on to every word. The pain, the fear, the agony, that he must have gone through, alone. He was just barely a teenager when the Nazi soldiers brought down their wrath, murdering six million of his brothers and sisters.

I had heard of the Holocaust, but I did not know what it was until I was about 12 years old. I remember sitting there in that history class thinking, “A person really did that? A person really tried to eliminate an entire race? Why would he do that?” Here I am, years later, thinking the same thing. Before now, I had read stories and memoirs, and I have even watched a couple of interviews. But there is something so incredibly breathtaking about being in that auditorium, hearing that sorrow in his voice, feeling the passion in his soul growing louder and louder. Dr. Ziffer explains that it hurts him, even now, to recall his past and speak about it. But, he says, he must. He must let young people like me know what really happened, and he must bring awareness to the topic. In that auditorium, there are kids as young as 11 and 12. And Dr. Ziffer doesn’t sugar coat anything either. He speaks of being ripped away from his family, of men and women being raped and killed, of being worked nearly to death at the camps, of all the murder that surrounded him. Everyone is touched by his words. As nothing but humans, our differences seem irrelevant now as we listen to him speak.

Here’s what I think. Without a doubt, I am more than in awe of people like Dr. Ziffer. I am beyond thankful for Elie Wiesel, Samuel Bak, Primo Levi. In Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference” speech, he inspires members of the twenty-first century to never show indifference to others, and to always possess compassion. This is key. These survivors have witnessed and experienced things that most people only have nightmares about. They use that to inform young people about this monstrosity. Adolf Hitler, former chancellor of Germany, responsible for the death of over 6 million people. But here we are today, united as a people at least on the opinion that the Holocaust was simply evil. It was inhumane and wrong. We have to learn to effectively communicate, especially when we disagree. The is precisely why Dr. Ziffer’s story needs to be told.  In America, we are fighting about politics, religion, civil rights … everything. But we can all join together on this, and never let it happen again.”