My youngest son, David, all of 18 years old, stood yesterday in what, to my mind, is one of the most evil places in the world. He was in Auschwitz, where my great-grandmother was murdered; where the great-aunts I never met were gassed to death and their bodies turned to ashes. He stood there, where his own grandmother was put in a gas chamber. If the Nazis had not had a miscalculation and decided they needed more women for a work detail, my husband, my children and all that we have worked together to build for 30 years would never have existed.
There are so many instances of genocide in the history of the world. What makes the Holocaust deserving of the capital letter H? What makes it seem the ultimate of evil?
I think the answer is in the civilized way in which the Germans went about systematically hunting down, dehumanizing, and finally murdering the Jews of Europe. There are countless instances in which rage and hatred resulted in the murder of thousands, tens of thousands, and even into the millions. But what the Nazis did was so much worse because they attempted to civilize that which should be, by definition, contrary to the laws of civilization.
Just before my son left with his school, an amazing contingent of 70 young men, their rabbis and teachers and Israeli guards to protect them, he was asked to bring a list of relatives who had died in the Holocaust. Their names would be read at ceremonies throughout Poland. It was a sobering and depressing task because as many names as we have, there are so many we don’t.
The day before my son left, I took two uncles and a young cousin to Yad Vashem. It wasn’t my idea to take them there because Yad Vashem and I have an interesting relationship. I think it is one of the most important places we should not take guests to… sounds confusing, so let me explain.
As an institution, the work of Yad Vashem is unparalleled and beyond holy. They are running against the clock to give each Holocaust victim a name, and they already know they will fail. They have already passed four million and hope they can reach five before time and memory fails.
The problem is that too many use Yad Vashem to define who and what we are as Israelis (and as modern day Jews). It was a difficult day for me – being at Yad Vashem knowing in the hours and days to come, my son would be seeing these very places – not in pictures, but in today’s Poland.
Yesterday my son stood in Auschwitz, went into the gas chambers where so many of our family died. When I was in Poland almost a decade ago, Auschwitz was one of those places where I broke. Simply shattered into a thousand pieces that I was sure at the time could never be put back together.
Some had brought rocks from Israel to place on graves and ashes; others had brought dirt. I refused to bring anything from this holy land to there but I took with me pictures of my husband and children and of Israel and at Auschwitz, as I took out the pictures, I felt that I was showing the Western Wall, the kotel on the day of my middle son’s bar mitzvah to my great-grandmother and to my husband’s four grandparents.
Look, I wanted them to see, look at what we have built. Look at this young Jewish boy, who served in the Israeli army and is now building a home of his own. He is named Shmuel – for the uncle that died during the Holocaust; and he is named Meir for my grandfather, who lived his life forever mourning his mother and two sisters who had died in the very place where I was, where my son was yesterday.
Suddenly, I knew that I was going to leave the picture there for them. Silly, isn’t it? Of course, a huge part of me knew that the Poles would come and “clean” the “museum” grounds and throw out my picture but I couldn’t help it. I took the picture and pushed it into the twisted metal and cement ruins of the crematorium that once stood there. And as I stepped back, I started to cry. What was different this time was that I couldn’t stop myself.
One other discussion that I had with my uncle as we walked through Yad Vashem lingers in my mind. I talked about how schools teach children from a young age, gradually increasing the details and the information as it is age-appropriate.
“We scar our children,” I told my uncle… as we are scarred. My in-laws never “got over” what was done to them and to their families. How could they? Years later, it could still bring tears to their eyes; years later, there was still so much to tell.
My husband will never “get over” what was done to his parents and the impact on children of Holocaust survivors is well known and documented. And on it goes, to each generation. My four-month-old baby granddaughter will one day learn that she carries the name of a 12-year-old child who was murdered with her parents in Auschwitz.
What right do the Germans have to demand that we move on, that they not carry the burden of their fathers and grandfathers as we carry the burden of ours? If we are to be scarred, by all that is right and fair, so should they. If the burden they must carry is too heavy for them – can you imagine how heavy it is for us? They have the physical places – Bergen-Belson, Sobibor, Auschwitz, Dachau, Maidanek, Treblinka… and on and on… to see and feel. We have the spiritual and physical legacies as well.
We walked through Yad Vashem with my 13 year old cousin and my 14 year old daughter… and my two uncles, one in his late 60s, the other already in his 80s. We were three generations…there because there is no getting over. We can move into the future, but the past comes with us.
Finally, I told my uncle about the day when I was driving David to school. He was about 10 years old. His teachers had been telling the children about the Holocaust in the days before Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).
David told me about the tattoos and because he had mentioned it first, I told him that one uncle still bears the mark on his arm to this day.
“It will never go away?” he asked. “Never?”
And therein lies the response to those who ask why we as a people cannot “get over” the Holocaust, why we think of it, why it guides us as a people and a nation.
It is the answer I gave David when he was only 10, and the answer he carries with him as he walks around Poland at this very moment.
No, it will never go away. Never.