Dear TEE community,

For many years I felt that I’d had a lifetime’s worth of books related to the Shoah. I’d had enough memoirs, histories, and analyses of the period to make me feel that further reading was more an exercise in trauma than intellectual or spiritual growth. Yet, during the past months I have found myself reading what I would call “Shoah adjacent” books – fiction that emerged from or depicts the years leading up to the onset of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1934 or describes the war years from the perspective of children.*

I don’t believe there are clear “lessons” to be learned from the Shoah. For one thing, we are too close to the event to have any sense of its long term implications. For another, we are too far from fully documenting the actions (and inactions) of the numerous countries and communities involved to say we have anywhere near a full account of the catastrophe. Nevertheless, I realize that my interest in these books is not because they have answers but because, in good Jewish tradition, I wish to learn from the questions they raise.

For me in this moment, the most pressing questions about the Shoah have to do with how authoritarian governments emerge in democratic societies and how ordinary citizens can respond. I find myself wondering what the experience of those who portrayed the rise of fascism might have to teach me about our current situation. As we observe Yom HaShoah at this Friday’s Shabbat service, I hope you will join me as we discuss these questions and others while honoring those who survived as well as those who died in the destruction.

Rabbi Drorah Setel

*My recent reading list:

Lion Feuchtwanter, The Oppermanns. I found the prescience of this book incredible and kept going back to check that it was actually written in 1933. It describes the impact of the rise of German nationalism on different members of an extended Jewish family in a way that seems to completely predict the range of responses with which we are now familiar. The publisher writes, “The Oppermanns captures the day-to-day vertigo of watching a liberal democracy fall apart.”

Felix Salten, Bambi: A Life in the Woods. Rather than a sweet children’s tale, this book, first published in 1923, is an allegory about the treatment of Jews in European society. It remains a powerful and painful story.

Gert Hofmann, Our Philosopher. Set in the 1930s and told from the perspective of a child, this book describes the increasing isolation and maltreatment of an older man without ever using the words “Jew,” or “Nazi” yet making it clear that it is antisemitic persecution at work.

Walter Kempowski, An Ordinary Youth. This autobiographical novel details the daily life of a young boy during the Second World War. We see the events of the era through his eyes as “ordinary” happenings, even as we know that they are far from normal.