Early Shabbat morning, I watched Night Will Fall, an HBO documentary, which was released in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It depicted excruciating footage of several camps, including Buchenwald, my grandfather’s prison and personal hell-on-earth from January 1945 until liberation.
My grandfather weighed 90 lbs on the day the Americans marched into the camp, and emancipated thousands of innocent skeletons, hovering in that unspeakable space between life and death. He eventually married my grandmother, a survivor of HASAG Munitions Factory, and had a baby almost a year from the day he was freed. They made their way to the United States, and did their best to move on, rebuild and forget. They moved on and rebuilt, but they never forgot.
My mother, their only daughter, grew up surrounded by warmth and support. But she remembers only too well the long silences, the sadness that they tried to cover up, and their nightmares late at night.
I was caught off guard when I saw the footage from Buchenwald. Although I have stalked internet sites hoping to find a glimpse of my grandfather, these scenes were new and I was struck with fear and hope that perhaps I would recognize him, and be allowed a glimpse into that other world – that hell he and so many others endured. If I saw him, I didn’t recognize him. I only remember him as the Saba Joe depicted in the photo above – catching an unexpected nap on a bench along the Atlantic Ocean, warmed by the autumn New York sun.
What was he dreaming about on that warm fall day more than 30 years after he was liberated from Buchenwald? Did the nightmare he survived haunt him even during the most peaceful and prosperous time of his life?
While the entire documentary is gripping, raw and brutal, one scene in particular, keeps playing relentlessly in mind. Piles of scissors, toothbrushes, and other everyday accoutrements confiscated by the Nazis, carefully catalogued and stacked. The camera pans in on a mound of men’s spectacles, as the narrator demonstrates the magnitude of the heap by pointing out that at the time, one man out of ten, wore spectacles. How many massacred men did that pile represent?”
The numbers are staggering. To understand the enormity of the atrocities, it is easier to focus on just one story in great detail, and then multiply it by six million. The Talmud tells us that whoever destroys a soul, is considered to have destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, is considered to have saved an entire world. Most of us will not have the chance to save a life, during our lifetimes. But each of us can keep the memory of six million alive, by pledging to Never Forget. Never Again.