When Mrs Martha Wise (nee Weiss) — whom we simply knew as Judy’s mum — decided to tell her story, we were a group of 12-year-old kids in the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva movement. It was Melbourne, circa 1973, on a warm Shabbat afternoon on the steps outside Mizrachi synagogue. Our madrich (group leader) said we had a special guest. Judy’s mum, Martha had never told her story before and then suddenly the words started pouring out. We heard the voice of a child coming from the throat of an older lady.
In graphic detail, she shared her childhood memories of evil, sadism and cruelty. A tale of a child, younger than us at the time, who grew up in an idyllic lifestyle that was destroyed overnight as adults around her betrayed them. It was the first time that Judy heard what had really happened to her mother as a young child, and today more than 50 years later I still remember her voice and her words.
When I was a child growing up in a community of Holocaust survivors in Melbourne, people did not talk about what they had endured. They concentrated on building up their lives in their new country. The enormity of the tragedy and the horror of their experiences were simply too terrible to be voiced. Europe was not only thousands of miles away but was also old, irrelevant and evil. There were some books detailing the horrors of the camps on the shelves in my father’s study and I had read them avidly. But until I heard Judy’s mother speak, the atrocities of the Holocaust seemed devoid of any real connection to anyone I knew, including my own father, whose parents perished in the Shoah. Since the 1980s, Holocaust commemorations started to change as survivors started talking and often could not stop. And we, the audience for their testimonies, were shocked and horrified, not always knowing what to do with this new information.
This frenzy of bearing witness, the concerted effort to capture memories by individuals and organizations is of course crucial, and at the beginning, we thought that if the stories were told, then such atrocities would never happen again. Tragically we are no longer that naive.
So where does that leave me as the day goes dark, as I light a memorial candle and Yom HaShoah descends on us here in Israel. All around us, people are telling their stories. I can turn on the radio and listen but somehow this is not what I want to do. This year, Yom HaShoah feels strange and alienating — other than the personal testimonies, all the ceremonies and speeches are mostly boring and formalistic.
The survivors who still carry personal memories of the abominations of the Shoah are now all aged well over 80 and there are fewer of them every day. Their children and grandchildren have heard the stories many times. It would be sacrilegious to think that their stories are jaded; for the family of each survivor the story represents their own history and identity.
As one tiny colored stone does not convey the beauty of the mosaic, so too a single story cannot represent the enormity of the Holocaust. But it is a tangible fragment of the essence. However, when we come together as a nation to remember the Shoah we need to go one step further. This is the day to be looking past our own individual stories and try to understand the meaning of the Shoah to us as a people and to all of humanity. The Shoah is particular to the Jewish people. But today, 80 years later, it may be time to broaden our horizon from the particular to the general. Back then, Mrs. Wise spoke to us about the evil of individual men. Today we should think about the evil of mankind. If we want to ensure a future of “never again” then the use of the word “Holocaust” will need to be extended to other contexts beyond the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews — without that being seen as an attempt to minimize in any way our Shoah”. I used to believe that the use of Holocaust as a generality was an attempt to negate the unique abomination of OUR Shoah where man’s ingenuity and technology was used to try to eradicate our people. The lesson of the Holocaust is “never again” but in order for this to happen, we have to think differently. We have to change the concept that we spent so many years denouncing — the concept that the Shoah against the Jewish People is intrinsically different from the murders of people that have occurred throughout history and in particular in the 20th and 21st centuries. We can’t ignore the context of history and we must recognize the underlying evil that mankind can cause in order to be able to battle for a world where humanity is respected and protected.