Respecting the Human Face

Martin Gilbert in his book on the Holocaust tells the story about a young sixteen year-old named Zvi Michalowski. On September 27, 1941, Zvi was supposed to be executed with 3,000 other Lithuanian Jews. He had fallen into the pit a fraction of a second before the Nazis shot their guns. That night, he crept out of the pit, and fled to the closest village. He knocked on a door of a peasant, who saw this naked man, covered with blood. He begged the elderly widow and said: “I am Lord Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in.” The widow threw herself at his feet and begged for forgiveness and she hid him for three days. The young man managed to survive as a partisan (The Holocaust, [London and New York, 1986]) 200f.

One cannot help but compare this anecdote to the passage one of the most famous of the pastoral parables:

“You may remember, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ ” (Matthew 25:35-40).

What does the human face say to me when no words are ever verbally said? The human face says, “Look at me; treat me with humanity; I am like you.” In the parable of Jesus, the 1st century rabbi gently reminds his disciples that kindness and compassion must find tangible expression in the language of good deeds.

When we look at the children who Hitler killed in the millions, what do their faces say to us from their pictures? The human face, as you know, is capable of almost infinite expressions; the face is the mirror to the soul. According to the French philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas, the human face always challenges us to respond ethically toward others. No commandment even need be given, when I see the human face looking back at me, I cannot deny his humanity without destroying my own in the process. In the age of push-button warfare, it is so easy to kill millions without ever having to look at the human face that commands us to be aware of our mutual humanity.

Remembering the victims of the Holocaust must be more than a brief recollection. The act of memory in the Bible is always dynamic as it is transformative. How we remember the death of the six million is important, for as the philosopher George Santayana said, “He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it.” But are we really faced with a similar menace like the Jews were in the days that led to the Holocaust? Most certainly!

The ghost of Adolf Hitler is alive in well in Iran’s dictator Mahmud Ahmadinejad—whose Holocaust denial is has made him a cult-hero to many of his fellow religious fanatics—even as he develops the nuclear weapons to someday create a new Holocaust in Israel. The world cannot afford to take a passive or indifferent attitude toward the one country that has done more to export international terror than any other terrorist organization in the last several decades. No other country in the civilized world has vowed to wipe another country off the map like Iran’s leaders. Yes, the human face demands a response. But how we ultimately respond to the bellicose threats of this demented regime will determine the fate of millions in the world today.

As always, the choice is in our hands.