About a month ago, I stood at Buchenwald in a large open field that was covered in an endless expanse of rocky, grey gravel. The ground that I gazed at before me was where the barracks once had been. On that unnaturally humid and sunny afternoon, thunder ominously clapped from heavy storm clouds that loomed off in the distance. The skies certainly echoed my state of mind.
As for anyone that visits a concentration camp, it was a particularly sobering and gut-wrenching experience. But for me, it was more than just emotional: it was personal. Why was I there? To learn about my grandfather who had stood on this very ground some seventy-eight years prior, and reconnect with his life. His journey. His story.
The morning after Kristallnacht, at the age of 25, my grandfather was arrested by the SS and taken to Buchenwald as a part of the “special pogrom”—the first ever mass-deportation and interment of Jews at that camp. He arrived on November 13th, 1938, before the barracks were even built, and for three or four days and nights he waited amongst ten-thousand others in the freezing winter rain to receive a roof over his head and a twenty-centimeter wide wooden sleeping plank.
Many who were there with him during that time didn’t survive, and I will always remember the tears that came to my grandfather’s eyes in the video interview we have of him, as he hesitatingly rehashed the horrors that befell those around him—frequently and at random. He was one of all-too-few who was miraculously able to flee Germany during the Holocaust, and I owe my life to his luck. But his journey wasn’t over when he got to the United States. Mere weeks after officially becoming American, he was drafted into the army. He was shipped off to Europe, back into the eye of the storm, just five years after his time at Buchenwald. And, as a soldier in a replacement depot, despite only having gone through basic training—no infantry training—he was nevertheless thrown into combat during the Battle of the Bulge. He fought against the Nazis with the ultimate goal of invading his homeland, and, yet again, narrowly lived to tell the tale.
And he lived a very full life. He passed away in 1999 at the age of eighty-five, when I was just eleven years old. But as for my return to Buchenwald, it was actually another, more recent death in the family that served as the catalyst. By the time I stood on the same ground that my grandfather had this past September, my father had been gone from us for nine months. He was my grandfather’s firstborn, and he had wanted to be able to share his dad’s heroic story with the world. So my visit (both to Buchenwald and also, afterward, to my grandfather’s hometown) was to remember the two of them: my grandfather’s persistence, and my own father’s admiration. It was to pay homage to the sacrifices they made, and the pride they held in raising a family—in continuing our lineage.
The reasons behind my journey ebbed and flowed in my mind as I read a passage that was embedded in stone amongst the grey gravel I stood on:
So that the generations to come might know, the children, yet to be born, that they too may rise and declare to their children.
As a member of the third generation of Holocaust survivors in the U.S., this struck a chord with me. Living now, at a distance—both across generations and oceans—from the horrible tragedy that resulted from Hitler’s Nazi regime, I had always felt somewhat detached from it. In fact, few of my friends knew the extent of my grandfather’s story. That is, until I recently chose to “rise and declare” it. And, now, as my own father’s firstborn, carrying forward his lineage, it’s something that I, too, am committed to rising and declaring for future generations as well.
There’s something sacred about the kind of cycle created by generations—which is really just to say: people that share a heritage, over time. And in Judaism, we observe these sacred cycles that connect us with our earliest ancestors in one way the most: through the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
In that light, it should come as no surprise that the name of the book we use on these holidays—the Machzor (m-CH-Z-R)—shares the same root with the Hebrew word for “Return”: Chazarah (CH-Z-R-h). We reliably return to these traditions—thus completing a sacred cycle—to remind us of all that we have inherited and all that we will carry forward. When distilled down to their roots, that’s what Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are all about, respectively: remembering and thinking back on our past, and looking into the future.
As I stood at Buchenwald, on the ground that held all that it did last month, my present moment joined together the history that came before me and my future yet to come. Through that return I made into a difficult past—one that altered destinies and set my own life into motion so many years ago—I began a kind of inter-generational remembering. But I also felt that I began a kind of healing. Because in that moment, I realized that even though my grandfather and father were both gone, I still carried parts of them within me that I would perpetuate into the future.
This year, during the High Holidays—as we reach for the Machzor—may we all make our own important returns, whether they’re on foot or in our minds. Because when we seek out the source of who we are, we end up moving forwards (*or as I often like to say, Moving Forewords) into the New Year with the two things that have always kept us firmly rooted: both remembrance, and hope.