Aharon Barak’s remarks at the Conference on the Survivors’ Legacy, Yad Vashem, April 2002
I have not dealt with this topic since the Holocaust or since we made Aliya in 1947. I distanced myself from this subject, and spent most of my life engaged in things that anyone who had not gone through the Holocaust engaged in, be they family matters or my professional concerns as a law professor and a judge. Nevertheless, I must admit that in recent years, I have found myself increasingly reflecting upon and perturbed by these topics. I have been asking myself what effect the Holocaust had on me, as well as what my personal and private lesson from the events of the Holocaust was on the one hand and what the public and general lesson was on the other. It has gradually become more and more intense for me and I find myself discussing it with my family and with my children. Although I never experienced mental inhibitions about facing the topic of the Holocaust, I must confess that I did not deal with it. I did not participate in conferences of this kind. It is even possible to say that I kept away from them… I always thought, and in fact I still think, that I managed to get through the Holocaust without being scarred too seriously. Perhaps that is the biggest scar that the Holocaust left on me, but my subjective thought was that I somehow managed to emerge unscathed, without any particular emotions, fears, and so on. However, as I mentioned before, these issues have begun to bother me in recent years.
Of course, my Holocaust experience was very narrow, absolutely specific, and completely insignificant in the general-national sense. My experiences did not take place in the epicenter of events, but rather, in a certain sense, in the sidelines. In 1941, I was five years old when I, together with my parents (I am an only son) and the rest of the Jews of Kovno in Lithuania – about 29,000 men, women, children, and infants – entered the Kovno Ghetto. They were good Jews, many of them Zionists; Jews who spoke Hebrew (my father, for example, was a Hebrew teacher). There were no doubt several thousand children in the ghetto, and out of all of them only a few survived, certainly fewer than one hundred. Incidentally, there are a few dozen of us in Israel, and we meet once or twice a year and reminisce. In the overall picture, our memories are very similar – after all, we were in the same ghetto – but because each of us was in a different street, the personal perspective is completely different. Each of us has his own story and we tell one another these stories… Naturally, we went through whatever the Jews in the ghetto went through. When the big Aktion took place, we were stood in the ghetto square with the very symbolic name “Democrats’ Square”. Right, left, right, left – and fifty percent of us were shot on the spot. By some miracle I remained alive. Subsequently, there were all kinds of Aktions, including one where they simply took all the children from the ghetto and killed them. Miraculously, again, I managed to survive. In fact, since that episode, I have never feared death. To me, death is a phenomenon that I saw from up close all around me; when it comes, it comes – everything is fate….
What lessons can be learned from these events? Schematically, I think that there are two types of lessons. One type is linked to the people of Israel and the State of Israel, to the centrality of this state in Jewish life, Zionism and the realization of the Zionist vision, to our power of endurance, to the impotence that characterized us, to the necessity that these things not happen again, to our inability to rely on other people and to our own need to defend ourselves, to the centrality of the State of Israel in our lives, and so on. I will never forget our flight from Lithuania to Poland, from Poland to Romania, from Romania to Hungary, from Hungary to Russian-controlled Austria, and from Russian-controlled Austria to British-controlled Austria, sneaking over the border. When we arrived, we crossed the border and were suddenly met by a division of Brigade soldiers bearing the symbol of our flag. Those are things that will never be forgotten. The view of Haifa from the ship when we first arrived is something I will always remember.
That is a very central and basic lesson. It is, however, not my only lesson. My other lesson is a positive lesson, not a negative one. It is not a lesson of hatred of man, nor is it a lesson of a lack of trust or of despair in man – on the contrary. My second lesson is a deep belief in man, in the human being that was created in the image of God. It resides in the individual’s ability to survive in the most difficult conditions, in the will to live, in the desire to establish a family, to raise children, to love and to give them endless love. It is a sincere belief in the ability of human beings to cooperate with and help one another despite the extremely difficult conditions that prevailed in the ghetto – by maintaining cultural life, for instance.
My second lesson is based on belief in man, on the belief in every person, Jew and non-Jew alike. This is the source of the centrality of my thinking as regards the concept of law and the perception of human dignity. The dignity of every person who was created in the image, the liberty of every single individual, is the same dignity that the Germans trampled underfoot during the Holocaust; it is the same liberty of which we were deprived during the Holocaust. My second lesson is the need to uphold, to reinforce, and to express, as much as possible, the dignity of every single person in his capacity as a person and the liberty of every single person in his capacity as a person. Of course, this is not only my individual lesson, but also the lesson of civilized society, the universal declaration of human rights, the various beliefs pertaining to human rights, the various – new – constitutions that were drawn up after the Second World War, the courts that were established, and the independent judges who were appointed in order to ratify and exercise the human rights that were decreed in those constitutions.
These are two lessons that race around inside me every day, every hour. The first lesson concerns the centrality of our country today, of national existence, of Zionism, and on the other hand, the centrality of the individual and human liberty and dignity. The lesson that I learn vis-à-vis myself from all of those things is that we have to find a synthesis between the two. We must not sacrifice the state on the altar of human rights. In one of my rulings, I wrote: “A constitution is not a formula for national suicide and human rights are not the platform for national destruction.” However, on the other hand, we must not sacrifice the human being, liberty and dignity on the altar of the state.
My lesson from the Holocaust is, therefore, the relentless, ongoing search for equilibrium, for the proper synthesis between the unit and the collective, between the public and the individual, between our national objectives as a country, as a nation, as Jews, and the universal values that are reflected, among other things, in the values concerning human dignity, liberty, the autonomy of individual will, and so on…. The need to achieve this equilibrium, as I see it, is the essence of life, it is legal philosophy, and it is the judicial philosophy that accompanies me on a daily basis when I don my robes and enter the courtroom. Each day, when I sit in judgment, I myself am on trial as regards the extent to which I have succeeded in creating this synthesis. In my opinion, this synthesis, this equilibrium, can be achieved…. That is my very personal and private lesson from the events of the Holocaust.