A View from the Bleachers: The power of a word

By Rabbi Steven Garten

Words are important. Words are so important that, in our Jewish tradition, if a word of Torah is mispronounced during worship services, it must be repeated correctly. Words can have multiple meanings. Shalom is a prime example. Hello, goodbye, wholeness, are just a few of the meanings associated with the three root letters: Shin, Lamed and Mem. Words are also the means that we have for communication. They are also the most basic tool we have for creating obfuscation, misleading, and massaging messages. Two seemingly disconnected situations reinforced the power of words to me.

I recently returned from a two-week journey in four Baltic countries: Finland, Russia, Estonia and Latvia. I travelled with my wife’s choir, the Ottawa Choir Society, to Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinin and Riga. While she and 75 other beautiful voices offered concerts in historic churches and concert venues, I served as a roadie/schlepper. While many in the choir enjoyed the 14-centuries-old towns of Riga and Tallinn, and the czarist beauty of St. Petersburg, a few of us explored the rich Jewish history and the current situation of Jews in these countries. It was not a journey for the faint of heart.

In each country, I learned there is a particular and unique perception of the events we call the Shoah. In Russia, horrors were perpetrated upon disloyal citizens of the U.S.S.R. Any and all acts ordered for the sake of survival were valid and necessary. They were fighting a life or death struggle against the barbaric fascists. Those who fled the Nazis from Poland and elsewhere were not ethnically Russian. Their deaths were simply collateral damage in the communist struggle against fascism. In fact, the Russian ethnographic museum proudly speaks of the Jews of Russia. Any and all oppression of our ancestors was the result of the pre-revolutionary horrors of the Romanovs and their predecessors. No anti-antisemitism there.

In Estonia, the first country to be “Judenfrei,” the collaboration by Estonians with the Nazis was seriously underplayed. The real enemy was the Soviet Union and there, words were directed toward the brave Estonian citizens who helped the Germans free themselves from the evils of Stalin. No anti-antisemitism there.

In Latvia, there was a more nuanced approach. They acknowledged the slaughter of 50,000 Jews in the Riga Ghetto, andthe murder of another 25,000 German Jews transported to the ghetto and the mass extermination of Jews in the forests. Yet, they spoke of the righteous gentiles and of the priest who saved Riga’s main synagogue. Words were used to explore the complicated dynamic between the Latvians and two oppressive conquerors. Words helped the visitor to the National Museum of Occupation, Resistance and Emancipation understand that human interactions are complex and multi-dimensional. Maybe a little antisemitism there.

Just before our journey began, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report was released.

The outcome of four years of searing personal testimonies of the families of nearly 1,200 missing and murdered woman, the report offered hundreds of recommendations in response to tragedies experienced by Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

However, the powerful and deeply felt angst of the report was immediately lost in a cacophony of noise related to the use of one word: genocide.

The report minces no words when it says, “there exists a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples… empowered by colonial structures… leading directly to the current rates of violence, death, suicide in Indigenous society.”

For many of us, the word genocide is reserved for the destruction of European Jewry. What happened in Germany, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, etc. was ‘the genocide.’

Unfortunately, there are many other examples of genocide: the mass killing of Tutsi in Rwanda; the ethnic cleansing committed by Bosnian Serb forces. The list is lengthy. Yet, many believe the report misused the term genocide. One word has the power to destroy all the good and noble work of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. A sad but true reality of the post-Shoah world is there is a fight over who can claim rightful ownership of a word.

We who know first-hand of the destructive power of genocide might be well served by learning to share the term. “Genocide,” as Erna Paris wrote in the June 4 Globe and Mail, “is a legal term, not a societal term.” (https://tinyurl.com/ernaparis) While technically correct, perhaps words and their meanings do become societal terms. Best not argue over words when the death of a people is at stake. We of all peoples should resonate with that reality.