A letter to my son, on the Shoah
Each year, Young Judaea Year Course asks parents of participants to write a letter to their child to read before their trip to Poland. Today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am sharing the letter my husband and I wrote to our son.
It feels like just yesterday we were holding you in our arms in an apartment in Manhattan. Before any of your siblings were born. And long before you became the man you are becoming. It is hard to believe that you, our bachor –– first born, are off in Israel for your gap year. Where did the time go? Just yesterday, we were telling you bedtime stories about our adventures in Israel, and now you are there on your own coming-of-age pilgrimage in the Promised Land.
Amid this exploration of Jewish life in the Jewish homeland, you are going to Poland to visit a place where many Jews lived, and to the death camps where many Jews died. It can sometimes be overwhelming to come face to face with the experience of evil. We want to give you permission to feel whatever it is that you are feeling, even if your instinct is to not let your guard down because you will likely be playing your usual role of caring for others who are breaking down. You should allow yourself to be in the moment and to process what you are seeing and how it informs your view of yourself, your community, and of humanity.
Aba and I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of six million Jews and five million additional human beings until we held you as a baby. In our hands was infinite potential. It was only when we understood our responsibility to one life in a real way that we could imagine the real cosmic pain of killing 11 million people. Each of those people also had mothers or fathers who held them. And as you consider the magnitude of such a genocide on humanity, remember that this targeted, systematic, and calculated near-annihilation of a specific group, namely, our people, is what makes the Shoah particularly horrific.
In going to Poland, we hope that you come to contemplate a basic human flaw — that we all must contend with the evil in the world and the reality that we are either perpetrating it or not doing nearly enough to stop it. As we learned in Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” We must be witness to the existence of evil to remind ourselves to do everything we can to fight it.
But still, that is not the whole reason for going. As Jews, we do not go to fetishize death. While our people have been hunted, we are not prey. As Jews, we celebrate life; despite or maybe because of all the horrors we have experienced in life, we know how to laugh and get the most out of life. We go to Poland to remind ourselves what life is worth living for. The long history of antisemitism is as old as the day is long.
Open your heart to the pain of others and open your mind to Jewish practice. Living a Jewish life is a whimsical act in being counter cultural. Open your hands to Jewish life and you will take flight, and nothing will get in your way. Our sending you on a pilgrimage to Poland is not because of our desire to imprison you in the shackles of Judaism’s victimhood, but to help you realize this precious tradition you have inherited. You are the keeper of the faith. The future is in your hands.
Let this unspeakable tragedy and manifestation of gross injustice further fuel your commitment to right the wrongs in this world to be a rodef tzedek — pursuer of justice. From the moment we held you in our hands, we realized the infinite potential you have. You will have many choices to make throughout your life and all will be an expression of who you are as an individual, as an inheritor of a deep legacy and tradition, and as a citizen of the world. We hope that your choices are personally meaningful, universally relevant, and distinctively Jewish.
Mami and Aba