After Auschwitz, What?

After Auschwitz, no theology:
From the chimneys of the Vatican, white smoke rises —
a sign the cardinals have chosen themselves a Pope.
From the crematoria of Auschwitz, black smoke rises —
a sign the conclave of Gods hasn’t yet chosen
the Chosen People.1

–Yehuda Amichai


On Yom HaShoah, the Jewish day to mourn the Holocaust, what do we do? Theodor Adorno claimed, “There is no poetry after Auschwitz.” But if there is no poetry, we have nothing to read and if we have no theology, we have nothing to believe. Our souls are left starving, craving answers and hungering to cry out. Amichai has attempted to prove Adorno wrong—he has written the poetry. But have we attempted to prove Amichai wrong? Do we have theology after the Holocaust? Do we have any semblance of answers?

We are left with questions of Why. Why did the Holocaust happen? Why did God allow the Holocaust? Why did humans allow the Holocaust? Why did humans commit such atrocities?

We are left with questions of How. How did this happen? How do we adequately mourn? How do we try to speak the unspeakable violence? How do we keep believing? How do we keep being Jewish? How do we keep our humanity?

We are left with questions of When. When was enough, enough? When will there be no more survivors to tell the stories? When will there be no more Nazis to point our fingers at? When will humanity learn the lesson of Never Again? When will God atone for these sins? When will we feel safe?


After Auschwitz, no theology:
the inmates of extermination bear on their forearms
the telephone numbers of God,
numbers that do not answer
and now are disconnected, one by one.


I am thinking about the Holocaust movie I saw recently, going through the mental images I see so clearly in my mind. I see the pale, thin bodies, lining up for scraps of food. The dark, dirty bunks where they sleep. The lifeless faces. The absence of hope–I realize, I have not seen a Holocaust movie recently. It has been three or four years since I have seen a movie about the Holocaust. The images of camps, of human-packed cattle trains, of the lamp shade made from human—Jewish skin I saw in a museum, of emaciated bodies not much more than skeletons, the numbers tattooed on my great-uncle’s arm, the tattoos on family members who never made it out, their children who were never born. These images are in my body and in my soul. I don’t need to watch a movie.

Whoever destroys a single soul, Scripture considers it as if he had destroyed a whole world.” —Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5


How many worlds were destroyed during the Holocaust? In unspeakable ways, piled upon each other, starved, raped, experimented on, shot, gassed, burned.

Can we even name them? Do we even know them? How do we even begin to mourn? Can we write poetry? Can we develop new theology? Can we redeem tragedy by preventing other tragedies? Is “Never Again” sufficient? Even if we were to achieve Never Again, would that be enough?

Why, Adonai, do You stand far off? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?” —Psalms 10:1

These theological questions are not new. Jews—all people—have been asking them for thousands of years. The unbearable mystery of suffering is old news. We have Job. We have Ezekiel. We are still asking these questions. Why? How? When? And of course, what now?


After Auschwitz, a new theology:
the Jews who died in the Shoah
have now come to be like their God,
who has no likeness of a body and has no body.
They have no likeness of a body and they have no body.


We have so many questions because we have so few answers. The overflowing trauma of the Holocaust cannot not make rational sense. We must look to alternatives that rise to meet the nonsensical nature of the situation. Poet Joy Ladin recently wrote, “Poets can’t protect families from bombardment, negotiate cease-fires, resolve disputes, make peace or establish justice. But we can expose and stretch the limits of language, and challenge ourselves and our readers to imagine more honest, compassionate, embracing tongues in which to address this unspeakable tangle of fear, injustice, and brutality.” All we have is words and God. With these, we can face the nonsense.


There is poetry after Auschwitz.


After Auschwitz, theology.


1This excerpt, as well as the ones to follow, come from Amichai’s poem, “After Auschwitz,” in his book Open, Closed, Open, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld.

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3 thoughts on “After Auschwitz, What?

  1. A very moving article and approach.

    My own view based on an evolving just post-war life time is that we can see the worlds that were destroyed by looking at what was accomplished by so many of those who have survived. The immesurable loss is in some ways now measurable today because for those who did survive we know ‘the rest of their story’ and for many it is amazingly beautiful. That is what we lost six million times over — just focus on the life of one survivor and all they did in their “new life” to see what might have been.

  2. Alex, thank you for this powerful reflection on one of the most tragic events in human history and the quote by Joy Ladin. Poetry, movies, sculptures, like the memorial I recently visited in Boston, all speak to many of us with the language that speaks directly to the heart. Like your writing, their message to us is do not forget, see and remember those behind the numbers and shadows who have suffered, and aspire to live our lives so we can never see such tragedy again, fight hate before it can exterminate us all. We often run to God for answers, forgetting own (God-given) freedoms and our responsibilities to act with love, mercy and compassion. It is not the lack or absence of God’s attention that worries me but the avoidance of our own one as of humanity.
    At the Boston Holocaust memorial, like at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, there is a famous writing by a German pastor and theologian Martin Niemöller who through his powerful words of penance “Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew” guides us from political apathy towards universal responsibility.

  3. What is a post-Holocaust theology? I do not know. God
    is a Mystery. He apparently allows suffering and evil in the world. He allows us to discover his Ultimate Goodness. Why does God allow evil to exist? I do not know. But, it makes ours a more complex world than if only Goodness existed. Both Good and Evil exist. I think the ultimate evil is the denial of God by the atheists. This takes away all hope for the human spirit. The denial of hope is true evil. God is the God of Hope! We Jews survived the Holocaust. We built a state of Israel. Israel surely does not do only good. Ask the Palestinians about that. They are denied their human rights and a state of their own. Let the Jews who survived the Holocaust have compassion for the Palestinians and give them their freedom and their own state. This would be a post-Holocaust theology! Compassion is a post-Holocaust theology.

    Robert M. May, Ph.D.
    author of Physicians of the Soul

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