In the beginning, I was in 7th grade, and through my class on World War II, I realized how what had happened in my family was connected to the greater picture of the Holocaust.
My mother’s father had a wife and child before the war. And siblings. As far as we can tell, he was the only one to survive in his village. He was captured as a Russian prisoner of war, taken to Siberia to work as slave labor, and survived, first because one of the other prisoners helped him, and later, when the Russians switched sides, through his skill as a tailor. At the end of the war, when he was allowed to go back, there was no one left. He found his way to a Displaced Person camp in Germany and there, he met my grandmother, who had been in hiding and on the run through much of the war. They got married there, and moved to Paris to try to find a new life for themselves. Luckily, one of my grandmother’s older sisters had married a South African Jew before the war, and so they had somewhere to go, some family to find. Some twenty odd years later, my parents met at a dance sponsored by the medical school my father was attending.
At some point, I realized that I’m not sure I would exist without the Holocaust. Certainly, my grandparents would not have met without it.
And yet, I feel that part of my family tree that is cut off, and so much has been lost, and, in a way, continues to be lost. I took a class in college, called “Religious Responses to the Holocaust” which touched on how to justify or understand religion in light of the Holocaust. My professor’s conclusion? There really isn’t a way to do it very well, in Judaism, at least not at this point. And Christian theology has barely dealt with the fact that this happened in Germany, a country that had been a center of Christian life for hundreds of years. It was a challenging class, to say the least, but it also taught me that it’s not just enough to remember – although remembering is vitally important. We have to find meaning, and that can be the really difficult challenge, even more difficult than wrapping your mind around the horror of that time.
Recently, my understanding of the Holocaust shifted again, when my husband was doing some genealogical work. His family is of the rare kind that they’ve been in America long enough that he thought he wasn’t related to anyone. This was, of course, wishful thinking. It’s now a personal story for him as well, not just for me.
Have I found religious justification? Of course not. Have I found some meaning? I struggle with it, but I can use my story as a small example – out of the ashes comes something new. This was a disaster for the Jewish people – let us go from strength to strength from now on.