Today marks my eighth Yom HaShoah since I moved to Israel. I don’t have any recollection of at least six of them. To me, Yom Hazikaron is the “big siren” and Yom Hashoah is the lesser one. I never decided to feel this way but in a country where it sometimes feels like you can never escape the Holocaust, that it’s part of our ethos, and when we have both the Israeli and the international remembrance day to focus on, it has been hard for me to find the right level of caring and emotion when Yom HaShoah comes around.
After visiting Yad Vashem several times over the years, a time would come when I’d wait for my group in the cafe at the end. Or if a survivor came to speak to a conference I was staffing, I’d find a convenient reason to leave the room and work on something else. After all, I’d heard survivors before. I’d visited Yad Vashem. Can anyone really question my commitment to the Jewish people and how deeply I have internalized the biggest tragedy to befall the Jewish people, at least in the last 2000 years?
I decided this past week that maybe it was time for an attitude change. A few days ago, I started reading “My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit. When laying out the case for Zionism, he tells the stories of a few Holocaust survivors who eventually made their way to Israel. One Lithuanian boy named Erik was taken from his home and thrown into the ghetto. To make a long story short, he was smuggled out of a sweatshop in a sack, lived in secrecy in a tiny room barely big enough to move, lost all of his extended family, watched his parents suffer, escaped and traveled from country to country to country throughout Europe, living a lifetime’s worth of nightmares as a child before eventually arriving in Palestine. That man is now known as Aharon Barak, former head of Israel’s Supreme Court and one of the country’s most brilliant legal minds. How many more influential figures have helped build and mold this country, their tortured pasts completely unbeknownst to so many of us?
Last night, I attended a Yom HaShoah ceremony in Tel Aviv sponsored by the Israel Forever Foundation, Nefesh B’Nefesh, and Adopt-a-Safta, a cause committed to providing support for so many survivors in Israel who are living a life of poverty and loneliness. Reading the stories of Aharon Barak and many others touched me and made me realize that I cannot enjoy the miracle of living in this country without recognizing the unspeakable tragedies that the victims of the Holocaust experienced.
With apologies for the light-hearted reference, there is an episode of “Seinfeld” where Jerry reveals an intimate detail to George and then tells him he’s not in the mood to tell the full story. George says to Jerry, “You’re not in the mood? Well you get in the mood!” I have spent the last few years not in the mood to hear more about the Holocaust than I had to. Before I heard the testimony last night from survivor Zeni Rosenstein, I told myself, “you’re not in the mood? Well, you get in the mood.” It’s not pleasant to hear about the Holocaust. Boo hoo, too damn bad. The survivors may have survived, but they have to carry the hellish memories with them every day. If I “have” to sit through yet another testimonial, so be it. If experiencing some discomfort is the price I have to pay for my freedom as a human being and Jew, I am the luckiest man in the world.
May the souls of the victims be bound in the bond of everlasting life.