Rewrite The Past?
Rewrite The Present!
And Now Some Words
From Our Sponsor
RABBI ROBERT L WOLKOFF SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH NEWS
ELIZABETH APPLEBAUM ASSOCIATE EDITOR
rm not a big fan
But there are
some TV com-
mercials — all
sponsored by the Church of
the Latter Day Saints — I re-
One shows a little girl who
runs home from school, eager
to tell her parents about some-
thing wonderful that hap-
pened to her. Her mother is too
busy to listen. Her father
doesn't have time. Finally, the
girl asks her dog, "Do you want
to hear about school today?"
In another commercial, a
girl (clearly too young to dri-
ve) is playing in the family car.
She shifts the car out of "park"
and smashes into some prop-
erty. Her father asks, "Did you
"Yes," she admits.
But instead of yelling at her,
the father says, "I'm glad you
told me the truth."
At the risk of sounding
hokey, because there's noth-
ing I loathe more than senti-
mental drivel, I always watch
those commercials with quiet
pleasure. I feel good about the
world and the future and
mankind when I see them,
and let me tell you, if I were
someone with no religion, I
would seriously consider giv-
ing the Mormon Church a call
All the values portrayed in
the Mormon Church's com-
mercials are intrinsic to Ju-
daism: family, compassion,
love, kindness, patience.
"To help a fellow man may
be to tip the scales of God's
reckoning for the entire
world," the Talmud teaches.
But I can't say rve ever seen
anything quite like these
commercials from the orga-
nized Jewish community.
Oh, there are the self-serv-
ing "Let's pat ourselves on the
back" kinds of things — pic-
tures of Jewish youth working
with seniors or new immi-
grants, invariably accompa-
nied by a request for money.
Of course, this is promoting an
organization, not Judaism.
There also is a plethora of
"You better not" notices. "Be
sure the food you eat has a re-
liable heksher" and "Go to the
mikvah" — as though Judaism
were merely a laundry list of
what you better do or not do.
But I'm having difficulty
thinking of a message from the
Jewish community that real-
ly captures the essence of Ju-
here is probably no princi-
ple more widely held by the
Jewish community than
the principle that any at-
tempt to rewrite history is im-
moral. And dangerous. Thus the
justifiable indignation when
Louis Farrakhan distorts the his-
tory of the Jews and blacks, when
Holocaust deniers utter their ob-
scenities, when haters of Israel
twist the historical record.
But Jews, too, sometimes be-
tray this principle. We seem to
forget that any attempt to rewrite
history is immoral. And danger-
ous. Certainly it is inappropriate
to distort the past for the sake of
the present. But it is also inap-
propriate — immoral and dan-
gerous — to distort the present
for the sake of the past. And this
nearly always happens when the
topic of modern Germany arises.
We seem to have trouble dis-
tinguishing between 'Them" then
and "them" now. They are not the
same. Not even remotely close.
And thus, when
grants, it is a
distortion of his-
tory to say,
of thousands of
mics, clergy (the
racism and de-
They have, in-
that, to howev-
er vaguely hint
that deep down, today's Germans
are Nazis, is immoral and dan-
gerous. Not only does it demean
and dehumanize living human
beings. It obfuscates the horrify-
ing reality of what the Nazis tru-
ly were — a reality which for the
world's sake must be understood
with crystal clarity.
Several years ago, in the midst
of the racist riots, a political car-
toon showed two men looking
upon Germany. One praised the
advanced German society, and
said, "What more could you ask?"
The other responded, "That they
read The Diary of Anne Frank."
As if "they" don't, more than
any people in the world. As if
"they" need it more than anyone
else. As if "they" somehow belong
to a moral universe distinct from
"they" still belong to it.
There was a Library of Con-
gress exhibition, assembled by
the German government, titled
"Against Hitler: German Resis-
tance to National Socialism,
1933-1945." According to Marc
Fisher, writing in the Washing-
ton Post, there were accusations
that the German government
was "intent on rewriting the
past." When, in point of fact, the
rewrite seems to be in the other
direction: There is an attempt to
erase the significance of German
resistance, as if a few points of
light could somehow eradicate
the infinite darkness.
Is it fair, is it moral, to insist
that the White Rose student pro-
testers, von Stauffenberg and his
co-conspirators, and thousands
of nameless politicians, workers,
and "little people" who stood up,
in ways great and small, against
the Nazis is it fair to insist that
these people never be raised
above the status of a footnote?
courage. You're taking the excep-
tion and making it the rule," she
claimed. "Where is the context?"
"The rule?" Do any German
scholars, German government of-
ficials, or man-on-the-street Ger-
mans (outside of radical fringe
groups) seriously maintain the
proposition that resistance to
Hitler was "the rule'? None that
I have ever heard of.
And is there any German who
is unaware of "the context'?
It is obviously a lie to claim
that all Germans except Hitler
were 11 years old during the war.
But it is also a distortion of his-
tory to forget that not one person
in today's Germany younger than
age 60 could have participated in
the war. And these millions of
people — innocent people, decent
people (at least as decent as any-
one else) — have the same right
as all other people to build an im-
age of themselves based on their
To do that, of course, requires
the enemy was
No one, except
better than the
ago, I spoke at a
There I heard a
his class history
student was to
pick a Jewish
family and trace
its history: what
they did, where
they lived and
Yes, it is true that it was too to them.
little, too late — and too few. Yes,
As he was speaking, I thought
it is true that it was mere thou- about the insipid project that I
sands compared to millions. Yes, did in my history class. It was
it is true that even the good were something about a local Indian
less than pristine. There is much tribe. I wrote about how they had
that argues for the footnote.
lived, but somehow I never got
But there is another side. around to asking why they
Many of these people gave their weren't around anymore.
lives in the struggle against
The word genocide didn't ap-
Hitler. Is their memory never to pear in my term paper.
be allowed a moment in the sun?
There are reasons to admire,
Should not the German people of and to pity, that young student
today be allowed to build their fu- and the millions of his compatri-
ture on the values they so coura- ots who are forced to ask terrible
questions. It is beneath our dig-
Without doubt, this is a moral nity to denigrate them as if the
minefield. But when Sybil Milton, Germans as a whole are a nation
senior historian at the Holocaust of murderers. Germany was a na-
Museum, received "thunderous tion that was once ruled by mur-
applause" for claiming at an ex- derers. Once, but no longer. To
hibition seminar that German re- pretend otherwise is to rewrite
sistance had been "exploited" in history.
Or, more accurately, as if order to blur history, a moral
And any attempt to rewrite
boundary was crossed. "There history is immoral. And danger-
Robed Wolkoff is a rabbi in
were a few Germans with some ous.
daism, simply offering that
message for its own sake.
If I were to wake up tomor-
row and find myself head of
the entire Jewish world, the
first thing I would do is go out
and hire an advertising expert
and ask him to take a good,
long look at the commercials
produced by the Church of the
Latter Day Saints.
"We're losing Jews every
day," I would tell him. "Let's
make something along those
lines, something that tells what
Judaism is really all about."
Then I would take him to
my home, and ask him to look
with me out the window
where, every Shabbat, I watch
boys help a blind man on his
way to synagogue.
I would introduce him to a
young man whose sukkah I
once visited. One is not sup-
posed to touch the sukkah dec-
orations during the holiday;
when, forgetting the rule, I did
so at this young man's home,
the boy, to save me embar-
rassment, reached up and did
"Do you want
to hear about
Then I would take this ad
expert to see neighbors of mine
who, despite the fact that we
have two small children, reg-
ularly invite us to their home
for Shabbat lunch. And when
one of the children spills some-
thing, the neighbors say,
"Don't worry! Who cares? Your
children's feelings are much
more important than the car-
pet." And they mean it.
Yes, Judaism means mak-
ing charitable donations and
Yes, Judaism also means
going to the mikvah.
But most important, it is a
way of living. It is how to be
kind to your neighbor, Jew
and gentile. It is how to behave
when a neighbor's family
member has died. It is thank-
ing God for the good fortune of
having enough to eat. It is giv-
ing tzedakah, anonymously,
to an anonymous recipient. It
is following God's command-
ment to honor one's parents.
It is how you speak with your
Maybe someday somebody
out there will make a televi-
sion commercial about one of
these things, "brought to you
by the Jewish people." Now
that would be TV worth