I remember the first time I imagined there were monsters lurking beneath the bed: I was four years old, and I slept with a Little Mermaid flashlight under my pillow. Every night, after my mother and I said the sh’ma, after she tucked me in, after she shut the door, I would reach for the sea green torch, turn it on, bend over the side of the bed and peer beneath. A forlorn stuffed bear with one eye missing. A Roald Dahl book — the BFG, I think. But no monsters there.
I remember the first time my mother told me where babies come from. I was five and we were riding down Pacific Avenue in Venice, and #thatawkwardmoment when my mother basically shot the stork out of the sky and killed that bustard DEAD.
I remember the day when I found out the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real. I was in the second grade, and I had just lost one of my bottom teeth, third from the left, and I slept with one eye open because Julia Marquez told me that the tooth fairy wasn’t real, and I was determined to prove her wrong… until I saw my mother flit through my bedroom on her tiptoes, but with no wings. Only a Susan B. Anthony silver dollar like always, a tube of Smuckers lipgloss, and a note typed in a cursive font that she slipped beside me in the dimly lit room.
But I don’t remember the first time I learned about the Holocaust. It’s just something I’ve always known. Like gravity, it’s a given. It’s embedded in my genetic memory.
So, I don’t know how my parents told me about the horrors that happened just a few too-short years ago. I don’t know what words they used, or what questions I asked. I don’t know how they helped me understand what should never be understood.
I can’t remember when I learned to never forget.
But I’ll always remember the first time my children began to learn about the Holocaust, on our first Erev Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — in Israel, during the late blooming of 2011 after a too-long winter.
My daughter was almost 3, her hair a tangle of Rasta-curls while she sucked her thumb. My son was just over a year, moon-eyed on my lap while he nursed. And as Oifen Pripetchik played during the memorial ceremony live streaming from Yad Vashem, I thought about all the other children who came before us, the other two-year-olds who sucked their thumbs, the other babies who nursed, who heard their mothers sing that same song to them in hushed tones crammed into the backs of the cattle cars hurtling through the darkness.
It was just us in the living room, the memorial candle flickering right next to the TV, and still, we stood when the others stood to recite Kaddish.
And afterwards, along with the throngs at Yad Vashem, along with the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of others throughout Israel, throughout the world… we sang HaTikvah:
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart, With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion, Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost: To be a free people in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
And I let my children see me cry.
And my son brushed my tears with his fingertips. And my daughter looked at me. “Sad, mama?”
Yes. I am sad. And sickened. And shattered, almost. But deep within these feelings – overtaking the horror of it all – I am proud…because we have not lost our Hope. No matter what happens to us. We are still here. Remembering. Reminding. From generation to generation, because not remembering and not reminding isn’t a choice.
And then: 13 hours later, the siren’s primal howl echoes throughout Israel, and the entire country grinds to a halt. We put aside the grievances, the stress. Coffee cups are placed down mid-sip. Cigarettes are eaten by ash. Arguments end mid-sentence. A joke breaks at the punchline. Even the children stop playing, their bodies eerily still on the playground, stiller than the trees that grow deep into the ground, branches swaying against the sky. Every car pulls to the side of the road. And we stand. Together. Our ears ring with the sound of too many screams from that maw in humanity mixed down into one keening wail.
Please: let the siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day remind us and our children and our children’s children that we must stand up not only as we remember, but also as a reminder that we must not let these things happen again — not to us, and not to anyone else.
Terrible things – unspeakable things happened. And are happening, still in this world. But. We. Are. Still. Here. And we must speak of them, still, so that our children will know and they will remember, even if they can’t remember when they learned to never forget.