I feel like I just lost a childhood friend.
Sonny Fox, the host of Wonderama, died this past week of COVID related pneumonia. He was 95 years old.
I want to tell you a story about Sonny Fox.
On January 27, 1945 – 76 years ago this week — on the same day that the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, on the same day that we mark as International Holocaust Remembrance Day – happened to be two days after the end of the Battle of the Bulge.
On that day, German soldiers took Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, of the 422nd Infantry Regiment in the US Armed Forces, as a prisoner of war. They imprisoned him in Stalag 9B in Germany. He was the highest ranking NCO in the camp. That group of Allied prisoners included two hundred Jews.
The Wehrmacht had a strict anti-Jewish policy. They singled out Jewish POWs from the rest of the POW population. They would then murder them, or send them to extermination camps.
The commandant of the camp ordered Master Sergeant Edmonds to separate out all of the Jewish soldiers in the camp — for summary execution.
Edmonds then asked that all prisoners to report outside. This is what he told the German officer, Major Siegmann: “We are all Jews.”
Siegmann exclaimed: “They cannot all be Jews!”
To this Edmonds repeated: “We are all Jews.”
Siegmann took out his pistol and threatened Edmonds, but he did not waver.
Edmonds retorted: “According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.”
The officer turned around and walked away.
Because of this act of heroism, Yad Va Shem recognized Edmonds as among the Righteous Among the Nations. To this date, Yad Va Shem has recognized more than 26,000 of them.
And, to this date, Edmonds is only the fifth United States citizen, and the first American soldier, to earn this honor.
Let us get back to the Jewish soldiers whom Edmonds saved.
One of them was Sonny Fox.
So, why is it that we have three dates during the year – upon which we remember the Shoah?
It was not always this way. Once upon a time – and it was not that long ago – we Jews tended to lump all of our historical catastrophes into one day during the year – and that was Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the first and second Temples, and the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and a host of other opportunities for communal mourning.
But, nowadays, we have three days upon which we mark the Shoah.
Let me start chronologically – as the Jewish year unfolds, after the High Holy Days.
First, there is Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. November 8 and 9 – recalling how, on those nights, Nazi thugs destroyed Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues in Germany and Austria.
Second, there is International Holocaust Remembrance Day – January 27. That day commemorates the date that the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Third, there is Yom Ha Shoah – several days after Pesach. That day commemorates the revolt of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Do we need three dates to commemorate the Shoah?
Truth be told: every day of the year could serve to commemorate that genocide. For, between 1933 and 1945 – and even beyond — there was no day that was lacking in anti-Jewish violence and murder.
So, you would be justified in saying that there could be no end to the memory, and the need for active memory.
But, the currents of loss and mourning are so strong that they need steady and stable shorelines to contain them – lest we drown in our anguish. That is why we must limit these limitless memories to three days a year.
But, what is the inner message of those days of commemoration?
We begin with Kristallnacht. That was the first organized act of state violence against the Jews. We remember what they did to us.
We move to International Holocaust Remembrance Day. That was when the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. We remember what they did for us.
And, finally, Yom Ha Shoah. The Warsaw ghetto rebellion. Even and especially in the midst of overwhelming odds and with no hope for victory, we remember what we did for ourselves –
Back to Sonny Fox.
One of my favorite parts of Wonderama was the segment where kids would go on the show, and go through a pile of keys, and try to find the key that would open a huge box.
I remember being jealous of my cousin, who got to go on the show, and got to subject himself to that ordeal.
But, now I wonder if there was a hidden metaphor in that box thing.
Now, I wonder if there was something deliberately Kafka-esque in that whole thing – of getting kids to search, against overwhelming odds, for a key that would unlock a box.
I suspect that somewhere in the back of his mind, Sonny Fox knew that he had confronted the greatest box in human history — the Shoah.
I suspect that Sonny Fox knew that there was a key that would unlock that box. There was a key to understanding the Shoah.
But, we still have not found the correct key.
I also suspect that Sonny Fox knew quite well the custom of children looking for the afikomen, the hidden matzah, without which the Passover Seder cannot continue.
Every week, Sonny Fox would present children with a box that could not be opened — in the hopes that one of them would find the key.
One of them always did.
Someday, one of us will definitively open the box of the Shoah — and we will finally understand.