Losing Survivors, Cherishing Memories

Post by Melissa

I know I promised a year in reflection of marriage but sometimes life happens and that takes precedence.

This morning I, along with 300 members of my community, attended the funeral of yet another survivor who made a great impact on his Jewish community after the war, and next Sunday is the stone-setting for another such man.  These two men are but two in a long line of amazingly inspiring individuals who were able to find meaning in their lives after the Shoah (Holocaust) and who passed that along to others.  Their funerals were both filled with people whom the family never knew, but who knew these great men as our lives had been touched by their stories, smiles, and lessons. While every time a survivor dies, we lose a part of the living legacy of the Shoah, it gives us one last chance to hear their story and cherish their memory, so I would like to take a moment to do that now.

Mr. K had a unique outlook on his story; he didn’t view his time in the Shoah as the most important part to tell, but rather as one part of the bigger picture of his life.  He grew up in Poland, attending Jewish schools and surrounded by a Jewish community, as such he was quickly and drastically affected by the war.  His whole family perished in the camps, like so many other survivors.  What made Mr. K stand out was that he sought to immediately build a new life cherishing his family even more because of it.  He was married for 64 years to a fellow survivor whom he knew just ten days before the wedding.  They spent their first years of marriage in a displaced persons camp in Berlin, as Poland was still too unsafe after the war, and had their first child there.  As soon as they were able, they came to some cousins in America and Mr. K worked very hard to build a new life here where he would always be able to provide for his family.  He had three children and three grandchildren, who were the light of his life.

Today, I sat in the sanctuary of our synagogue, our home away from home, our cherished place, and cried.  I was amazed by the outpouring of love and support from everyone who was present, and everyone who spoke.  Everyone spoke of his dedication to his family and synagogue, his love of gardening, and his amazing pickles.  No one spoke of his time in the Shoah, but for what it did to his love of family and how that guided his adult life.  It provided a different outlook on how we think of and remember our beloved survivors as so much more than that.

Zichron livracha, may his memory always be for a blessing.


My Family’s Legacy

Displaced Persons Camps in Germany - post by Jessica

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.

Zachor — Remember

Today we commemorate the Shoah, the Holocaust.  We reiterate time and again as we commemorate the Shoah the word Zachor, remember.  What does this really mean?

Post by Melissa

My Rabbi began his sermon before Yikzor (the memorial service) on the 8th day of Pesach (Passover) by speaking about the commandment to remember our slavery and the exodus from Egypt – as if anyone that lived through it could forget.  Maybe that’s the point though, while those who lived through such an intense experience would forever be shaped by it, without retelling the stories and making an active decision to remember – the future generations may not. As the now well known and somewhat viral “Non-Sequitur” cartoon featured on a friend of RR’s blog indicates, the importance is to remind the future generations.

What does it mean to remember though? Is it enough to say “never again,” to post a comment on Facebook or Twitter saying that we will never forget, to light a candle or go to a memorial? Or does it need to be more active? Do we have to visit the museums, concentration camps and Yad Vashem? Do we have to personally have relationships with survivors in order to really remember? I don’t know, but what I do know is that each part fills a void and helps to know a small piece of the Shoah.

I know that I am lucky to have had my life touched by survivors from a very early age. I do not know how old I was when I first learned of the Shoah, but I can distinctly recall growing up around survivors.  There were two women who were an integral part of my small synagogue growing up, and one man who I met a bit later on, but has remained a part of my life as he is still praying in the minyan my Bat Mitzvah tutor runs.  Aggie, Ruth, and Lou have very unique survival stories, though they have one thing in common – they said time and again that their faith kept them alive.  As an adult I have met survivors who lost all sense of faith, and have read books retelling so many stories of people who gave up on Judaism.  Not Aggie, Ruth and Lou though.  These three powerful individuals shaped my knowledge and understanding of the Shoah from a young age to understand that belief in Gd was a saving element.  That knowing why they were suffering and knowing they would continue to have these beliefs, somehow helped them to hold on.  They weren’t being punished for who they had been; they were being punished for who they always would be.  While this may seem more depressing to our modern sensibilities, it seemed to make the pain and suffering less futile for them.

While I will not pretend to have an answer as to how we can best remember, I truly believe that as more and more survivors die as they continue to reach very old ages, we may have to rethink our methods of remembering. We can no longer rely on their presentations in schools and synagogues and community events to stand alone.  We must embrace what they tell us, and be able to pass it down for the future generations who may never have their lives touched by the tattooed arm or tearful eyes of a survivor.