On Yom Kippur, as part of our journey of reflection and introspection, Jews all over the world will gather for Yizkor, the memorial service for those who have passed away.
Our obligation is not only to history, it is also to memory.
The distinction between history and memory was powerfully elucidated by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. “In history, we recall what happened. Through memory, we identify with what happened so that it becomes part of us and who we are.”
Last week, I stood amidst the overgrown Jewish cemetery in a stetl called Janow Sokolka, not far from Bialystok, Poland, from where my grandfather came and where my great-grandfather is buried. Together with members of my family, we said kaddish. I held in my hand a faded photograph of my grandfather who had returned there from his home in Ireland for a visit to see his family in 1938, and in the photo he stands by the matzeva together with his mother and sister who lived in the stetl.
Today, what remains is the gate to the cemetery and a few weather beaten matzevot – the last physical reminder of what was once a vibrant and dynamic Jewish community of six hundred souls.
A Rosh Hashanah postcard sent to him earlier from the family in Janow has an optimistic illustration of Jews on their way to Eretz Israel. Cramped Yiddish handwriting on the other side has an emotional message of greetings to him for the coming New Year.
In 1942, the Jews of Janow were rounded up and taken to a neighboring town.
The testimony from 1946 by one of the two survivors from the stetl described the conditions in which the Jews from Janow were held: “Prisoners were living in basements and cellars which were so overcrowded that the prisoners could not lie down to sleep, they had to sit or stand. They received 15 grams of bread daily and one liter of soup made from unpeeled potatoes. A few persons were shot for peeling potatoes.” Six weeks later they were transported to Treblinka where virtually all of them, presumably including his mother, sister and her children, were killed.
The Pinkas, a Yizkor book by descendants from the stetl commemorating the community tells us that “our stetl drank the bitterness from the cup of pain down to the bottom”.
“Civilization hangs suspended, from generation to generation, by the gossamer strand of memory… If the guardians of human knowledge stumble only one time, in their fall collapses the whole edifice of knowledge and understanding,” wrote scholar Jacob Neusner.
At the service of Yizkor this Yom Kippur, we will remember those who perished in the Shoah. “May they find eternal shelter beneath Your sheltering wings, and may their souls be bound up in the bond of life,” we will pray.
May this be a time of both reflection and of memory for us all.