Haunted by the Holocaust

Recently, I attended a wedding of a neighbor’s daughter and an acquaintance’s son.

In speaking to the father of the groom it became apparent that he and I had certain things in common. Each of us were children of Holocaust survivors. Each of our parents were in concentration camps. Each of our parents had witnessed the murder of over 200 close relatives. Both sets of parents were on a death march. Both sets of parents came to United States penniless and started life anew, successfully raising a Jewish family committed to the ideals of Torah.

After speaking for a while I remarked how amazing and unimaginable it would be for our parents who were in concentration camp to think and actually celebrate the wedding of a grandchild in a lavish wedding call, replete with bountiful kosher delicacies and an eight piece orchestra playing Jewish music in the background .

I recall saying to the groom’s father that the wedding would give our parents tremendous pride, as it was testimony to the continuity of Jewish life after the Holocaust.  He agreed but quickly added “but I am haunted by the Holocaust.”

Being the son of a Holocaust survivor and having it constantly present in the background of my mind, I began to reflect on his comment.

Upon heading to the large hall where the wedding ceremony was to take place, I noticed a large crowd of a few hundred people waiting to get in.

I inquired of someone as to the reason for the delay and was told that everyone was waiting for the doors to swing open. I began to wonder how many of my own relatives waited for the doors to swing open as they were herded into cattle cars on their way to extermination. How many of them waited for the doors to swing open at the end of a tortured journey when the train arrived in Auschwitz?

I mentioned my thoughts to a friend whose parents were American-born and he looked at me quizzically, not understanding the perspective of being  “haunted by the Holocaust.”

Two weeks ago I went on a nature hike with my wife and family friends. The hike required us to walk over 6 miles round-trip and we were all noticeably tired. Some in the group began to “kvetch.” I began to think of my parents who endured a death march in the middle of Poland’s winter, being forced to March 15 miles a day with threadbare clothing and no water.

A young family passed us on the hike with their dog barking in the lead. Victims of death marches were also accompanied by dogs, German Shepherd’s who were trained to tear their victims limb from limb if they deviated from the path.

I fully understood my acquaintance’s perspective of being haunted by the Holocaust.

Our parents endured unimaginable torture and unspeakable horrors. However in the case of my parents and countless others, they themselves did not live their newfound life of freedom being haunted by the Holocaust.

They chose to embrace life with a strong sense of positivity. They specifically would not allow their suffering and losses to mar their future or that of their children. They felt an obligation to Jewish continuity and worked very hard to ensure  that their children grew up with strong Jewish pride and  a commitment to Jewish ideals.

For children of Holocaust survivors, it would be wrong and counterproductive to be crippled or psychologically incapacitated by the horrors that our parents suffered. Rather, the mandate of the post-holocaust generation is “Zachor” – to remember and to realize that we must always identify with the destiny of the Jewish people.

I recall Kobi Mandel Mandel’s mother, when speaking at our school, was asked how she was able to go on after Kobi was brutally murdered by Palestinian terrorists? She poignantly said “I don’t go on, I go with.”

In my humble opinion, children of Holocaust survivors should recognize the amazing opportunities that we have and appreciate the joys of life that our parents were deprived of. We should have a heightened appreciation of the miracle that is the modern state of Israel, as well as every Jewish birth, bar or bat Mitzvah, wedding or Jewish success story. While we should remember the horrors of the Holocaust, we should use that perspective to focus our appreciation of what the post-Holocaust generations have been able to achieve, and reflect on the blessings that have been bestowed on us.

However, doing so is often difficult; it’s hard not to be haunted by the Holocaust.

About the Author
Rabbi Zev Friedman is the Rosh Mesivta, Dean Of Rambam Mesivta for Boys and Shalhevet High School for Girls.