Growing up in non-Jewish community in the US, the Holocaust was a very personal subject for me. The granddaughter of two survivors, it was an ominous presence in my life, lurking in the corners of family albums and in my grandmother’s stories. But it was part of MY family, MY albums and had nothing to do with my friends and classmates. Mentioning it in passing to a gentile friend, I was shocked to realize that she wasn’t even really sure what the Holocaust WAS. Therefore, in the throes of teenage angst, when I began to gain a deeper understanding of the magnitude and to internalize the meaning of the suffering, I was left to ponder the existential questions and deal the psychological stress on my own. This was one of the reasons I felt so disconnected from my environment- if my friends couldn’t relate to something that was such a significant part of my identity, was true friendship even possible? I remember telling a Jewish friend that one of the reasons I would never marry a non-Jew was because he wouldn’t understand the influence of the Holocaust on my identity. It was that significant to me.
The first time I experienced Yom Hashoah in Israel, it was an incredibly powerful experience. All of a sudden, everyone around me understood what I was feeling. They all had family members who were survivors, or if they didn’t, had learned about the topic extensively in school. As part of the Jewish people, they all felt my pain. Standing at a community memorial ceremony in an IDF uniform, I felt the sense of connection that had been missing in the US. For the first time I felt that I was honoring the memory of my family members in a worthy manner, justifying my grandparents’ survival. I called them every Yom Hashoah and told them that I was so glad that they survived and were with us today, and they became part of that togetherness as well.
There was incredible political tension at the time of that first Israeli Yom Hashoah in 1993, surrounding the Oslo accords and pending peace agreements. Tension that led to the worst expression of political violence in the history of the state of Israel- the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. The streets were teeming with violent demonstrations and hateful posters. But on Yom Hashoah, there was a true sense of shared pain, of commonality, of even, dare I say, of brotherhood. The political storm was held at bay as we all, left and right, felt the pain of those who were lost, and paid tribute to the survivors.
The political climate now is less charged than it was in 1993. Demographics basically guarantee the continuation of the current leadership for the foreseeable future. Territorial concessions are not even on the table, so the right-wing polemics, while loud and often aggressive, remain mainly in the realm of verbal attacks. The minority who oppose the occupation, as I do, seem to be resigned to suffering in relative silence. However Yom Hashoah has gone from being a day of common remembrance to being a battle of conclusions.
“The terror attacks against Jews are a continuation of the Holocaust”, “Anti-Semitism is rampant in Europe, just like during the Holocaust. Therefore any European criticism of Israel is Nazism.” “Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians is parallel to the Nazi persecution of the Jews in the Holocaust”, “The Holocaust was the result of secularism, and the only way to prevent its reccurance is to adopt stringent Jewish observance”, the storm surrounding Yair Golan’s statements etc etc. A plethora of conclusions about the same historical event. The pain of the Holocaust has become a political battlefield.
By focusing on conclusions, rather than on remembrance and empathy, we all lose. I identify with some of the conclusions, others enrage me. Putting them in the forefront has robbed me, all of us, of that sense of commonality that I felt during my first years in Israel. I find myself avoiding public ceremonies and events, and withdrawing to personal remembrance at home with my family. Just like I did in the US.
There are some things that should remain sacred, held above the sordidness of petty politics.I fast every Yom Hashoah in the spirit of that sacredness. And dream of returning to an atmosphere in which in which we come together on Yom Hashoah to absorb and ease each other’s pain, and reiterate our commitment to our common humanity.
In honor of my grandparents, Gisela and Mitcu Deutsch, survivors, and my great grandparents, Leo and Sara Deutsch, Miriam Gerler, great-aunts Gabriella Deutsch and Annie Gerler and their extended families who perished.