Yom Hashoah is the saddest day on the calendar. It is not only the deaths of 6,000,000 that overwhelms us; it is the barbarity with which they were murdered. Each atrocity shocks the soul.
Jan Karski, a member of the Polish Underground who was one of the first witnesses to report about the Holocaust, described an atrocity he witnessed in Izbica, Eastern Poland. There, multiple groups of 120-130 Jews were forced into train cars made to fit 40 people, and the doors were slammed shut. On the floor of the train was quicklime powder, a chemical that generates enormous heat when mixed with water. The human sweat dripping down to the floor caused the quicklime to bubble, and painfully and slowly, the inhabitants of the cars began to burn. These poor victims cried in agony for over a day until they met their inevitable deaths. Remembering the Holocaust forces us to recall some of the most barbaric massacres in the history of mankind.
It’s beyond painful to contemplate the Holocaust, but we do so out of a sense of obligation. Remarkably, for many years the Holocaust was ignored. Peter Novick documents in The Holocaust in American Life the lack of interest American Jews showed in the Holocaust during the 50’s and 60’s. There were no communal commemorations, just small inconspicuous events organized by survivors, for survivors. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg describes the experience of being a young American attending an early Holocaust memorial service as similar to “crashing a funeral.”
In the 50’s and 60’s, survivors felt pressured to remain silent about their experiences, and were urged by their American contemporaries to “stop dwelling on the past.” Novick points out that this phenomenon was due in part to the myth that the victims of the Holocaust were weak, docile sheep lead to slaughter. In a postwar atmosphere of confidence and self-reliance, the survivor was an “embarrassment” because he was considered an example of “cowardice.”
Today the Holocaust is no longer marginalized. Holocaust education is a staple of public school curriculums, and Yom Hashoah is widely commemorated around the world. Holocaust survivors are no longer marginalized either. Survivors have been able to bear witness. Tens of thousands of them have told their stories, ensuring the history of Holocaust is neither denied nor forgotten.
But what is often overlooked is the remarkable achievements the survivors have had after the war. A full account of the impact Holocaust survivors have had on the postwar Jewish community has not yet been written; but their contributions are nothing short of heroic.
Yes, many survivors did not fully recover from their traumatic wartime experiences. Some could no longer function, and lived solitary lives supported by distant relatives. Others were dysfunctional and carried lifelong scars, scars that still affect the lives of their children and grandchildren. But contrary to stereotype, there were many Holocaust survivors who flourished after the war.
A list of the of successful survivors would read like a Who’s Who, and would include the winners of the Nobel Prizes in Peace (Elie Weisel), Literature (Imre Kertesz) and Chemistry (Walter Kohn), a Brigadier General who commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe (Sidney Shachnow), technology innovators (including Andy Grove of Intel), corporate titans, real estate magnates, and the like. Even those who didn’t achieve fame and fortune have left powerful impressions. My late mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, was widowed at a young age and raised four children on her own, in a home filled with warmth and compassion.
What is remarkable is how the survivors succeeded after experiencing such profound trauma. William Helmreich, a sociologist, wrote a book based on a study of 170 survivors called Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America. He explains that he conducted this study in order to answer the following questions:
How do people who have experienced such cataclysmic events pick up the threads of their lives?…what lessons can the rest of us learn from the survivors about coping with tragedy and adversity?
Helmreich found that survivors were able to thrive because of a combination of personality traits, including flexibility, assertiveness, courage, optimism, tenacity, and the ability to find meaning. Because of these attributes, survivors were able to overcome tragedy and rebuild their lives. Looking back, the slur that survivors were cowards has been more than disproven by the exemplary courage with which they lived after the war. And 68 years after the Holocaust, Jewish communities around the world are far stronger because of the contributions of survivors. They deserve our appreciation for all they have done.
Each year the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre conducts a Yom Hashoah service at our synagogue. In recent years, the format has included a section where six survivors tell their testimonies on video, and then each survivor stands up to light one of six memorial candles. The video testimonies break your heart; you hear about the horrific losses these survivors experienced, how their parents and brothers and sisters were torn away from them at a tender age, while they were left alone to fend for themselves. The survivors speak with profound emotion, and while listening to their words, tears start to roll down my cheeks.
But then the survivor gets up to light the candle. At our service, each survivor lights the candle accompanied by a child and a grandchild. For me, that is when I both cry and smile. Despite all that these survivors have gone through, they still didn’t quit; and they’ve not only survived, they’ve thrived. Here they are, 68 years later, standing with their children and grandchildren. 68 years later, they have rebuilt their families and homes, and made profound contributions to our community. Even though it is Yom Hashoah, I cannot stop myself from smiling as I watch them, with a little bit of joy and a lot of pride. Thanks to these survivors, we can still declare “Am Yisrael chai,” the Jewish people live on.