The horrendous losses that the Jewish people suffered during the Holocaust are well-known. Millions of Jews were murdered in death camps or by roving squads of SS killers; untold thousands starved to death or died of disease; many were worked to death as slave laborers for the German war machine; and the Nazis carried out one of history’s greatest thefts by robbing the Jews under their control of all of their possessions.
But the death on Tuesday of last week of writer, poet and journalist Herman Taube reminds us of another, less considered, almost invisible catastrophe that the Nazis inflicted on the Jewish people — the loss of potentially great achievement.
I knew Herman as a regular worshiper at my synagogue, Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim in Silver Spring. He was a survivor, a good man whose passion — aside from his family and friends — was the preservation of the memory of those who had perished during the Holocaust.
At Washington Jewish Week, we knew that Herman would remind us every year of the anniversaries of events connected to the Shoah, and would ask that we publicly commemorate the martyrs — and heroes — at appropriate times.
As arts editor at WJW for 15 years, I had the privilege of interviewing him several times and reviewing his books. He always had interesting, and sometimes profound, things to say.
He was a successful writer with more than two dozen books to his credit. But I often wondered what might have happened had Herman been able to live his life in the Jewish environment in which he had grown up and, more important, write in Yiddish, his native language, rather than in English. (I know how much easier it is to write in your mother tongue. When I lived in Israel, even writing a note to one of my daughters’ teachers caused great anguish. At The Jerusalem Post, I edited a movie column by a Polish Jew and music articles by a German Jew, both of whom were passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects but struggled to convey their thoughts in their second language, English.) Who knows what he might have
accomplished under those artistically more favorable circumstances.
And, of course, Herman was only the smallest tip of an enormous human iceberg.
Might there have been a Jewish Shakespeare, Mozart or Michelangelo struck down before he or she could begin to blossom? Perhaps, a leader of the stature of a Roosevelt, Churchill or Ghandi. Was there a Maimonides ready to recharge Judaism? Or maybe an inspirational runner or jumper who would spark great pride in his fellow Jews and others with his or her athletic prowess?
Unfortunately, as with Herman’s potential, these are questions rendered unanswerable by the evil that descended on the world in the second third of the last century.
Therefore, the Jewish people, and the world, really have no idea of what human treasures were lost during the Holocaust.
But, maybe, in a world untainted by the scourge of Nazism — in an alternative universe — Jews are mourning Herman as the 20th-century’s Yiddish voice of the Jewish people.
Aaron Leibel is copy chief at Washington Jewish Week.