Living with the Holocaust

Ready for a different kind of Yom HaShoah blog? If you’re a brave soul, read on. If you like your blogs nice and sweet, this one might not be for you.

We’ll start off simple and easy, though.

I tell each group of students that I work with that the Jewish people are still very much living with the Holocaust. Through the hundreds of museums and the memorials that have been built. Through the tens of thousands of Jewish students each year that make a pilgrimage, of sorts, to the Nazi death camps in Poland. Through the myriad of newspaper articles, books, films, lectures, university courses and, most importantly, testimonies from survivors that help us to never forget.

We are still living with the Holocaust on a psychological level as well. We continuously ask ourselves as individuals and as a nation if it could ever happen again. Could America in 2018 ever become like Germany in the 1930s? Do countries who call for our annihilation really mean it. Will they act out their threats like Hitler did? Should we take every existential threat seriously or is that a sign of our inability to heal and move on. Is it okay when our leaders evoke the Holocaust when speaking of countries like Iran or is that fear mongering? Have we, the Jewish people, become too good at remembering; should we allow ourselves to forget, even just a little bit, sometimes?

But there is one more level on which we continue to live with it. One that is rarely, if ever, spoken about. If it is, people often disregard it as impossible or quickly forget about it in order to avoid having to contemplate its meaning and implications.

Let’s frame it a little first.

Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that as human beings we are made up of a body and a soul. And at the end of one’s life the body returns to the Earth and the soul returns to Heaven. After some time, and at the right time, that soul is reborn, reincarnated, into a new body to live again. This is not New-Age Judaism or trying-to-be-like-Buddhism kind of Judaism. This is a tried and true, verified throughout the ages, normative belief of the Jewish tradition.

What this belief in reincarnation tells us is that most of us have been here before. Many times before, in fact.

And if we have, that means that a good percentage of us experienced the Holocaust in our last lifetime.

Pause. Think about that. When you’re ready, read on.

This means that we are very literally living with the Holocaust. Not just through what we read, watch or listen to. But through what we are carrying with us on the inside from our previous lifetime. Actual experiences of the ghettos, the transports, the shootings and the camps. Personal memories of the Holocaust itself are etched into our souls.

Where does my belief in this idea come from?

From my own experience with it.

Allow me to explain and share a very personal story.

About 15 years ago, a few months after getting married, I was preparing to light the Hannukah lights with my wife in what would be our last residence in America before making aliyah. The oil and the wick were in place. The shamash was in my hand. I slowly chanted the blessings and carefully illuminated that night’s single flame. And then, with my wife by my side, I stood and stared at the beautiful and soft light that represents the continuous ability of the Jewish people to survive the darkest nights.

And then I felt something welling up inside of me. Out of nowhere, it grew stronger and stronger until it manifested as a barrage of tears and loud, howling crying.

I was aware of the peculiarity of what was happening but I couldn’t stop it, nor did I want to. It was as if something was waiting for this exact moment to come out, to be released. I didn’t know what it was and didn’t understand why this moment. But I let it be what it was meant to be. Afterwards my wife and I tried to make sense of what just happened but we simply could not.

The next year on the first Hannukah, this time in our new home in Israel, it happened again. The same exact thing.

And again the next year.

And the year after that.

The continuity of the experience year after year, for many years, didn’t offer me any deeper insight into understanding why it was happening, but it did became a fixed part of my Hannukah ritual. I came to expect it and, with all of its mystery, even appreciate it.

More years went by and I had the opportunity to speak with a spiritual guide who works with people and their past lives. In our session, she revealed to me something that shocked me, but at the same time made so much sense.

She shared with me that at the time of the outbreak of WWII I lived in Europe. As the Nazi expansion spread, eventually they reached the city in which I lived. They took me and my family and brought us to a camp, where eventually we all perished.

The day they took us from our home, she informed me, was during the holiday of Hannukah.

Pause. Take a breath. When you’re ready, read on.

So what do I do with this insight into my life, into my past life?

To fully answer that would take many, many more blogs.

For now, I’ll take the dozens of questions and feelings I’ve had about this and sum them up with two final thoughts.

First, we the Jewish people are not only carrying on the memory of the Holocaust; many of us are carrying memories of the Holocaust itself. On this deep spiritual level, this cannot but have an impact on who we are as individuals and as a people. While we have regained incredible strength and power and possibility as a nation since 1945, we still have a great deal of inner brokenness to heal as well. After not only the Holocaust but also after 2000 years of persecution and oppression, pogroms and expulsions, we are still in a process of healing our spiritual and psychological wounds, even if our bodies look whole and strong.

Secondly, and lastly, on an almost flip side, I think about the incredible and drastic shift of reality that I have been allowed to experience in this lifetime as compared to my last. The freedom I grew up with to be anything I wanted to be, including being a Jew without fear and without concern, whose ultimate expression took place when I made aliyah to the Jewish state in 2004.

Since learning this new information about myself, when the first night of Hannukah comes and I light that first, single flame, I no longer wail or cry out loud. Instead, I look to my left and I look to my right. I see my wife and our four children lighting together the eternal flame of Jewish pride and connection, and I know that this is the strongest healing for any brokenness left in my soul.

And when, on Yom HaShoah, I stand in silence for 120 long seconds with my people in our land to remember and to give honor to those who were murdered in the Holocaust, I am hyper-aware of the blessing I have to be alive and well in this most awesome of Jewish generations.

About the Author
Akiva Gersh moved to Israel from New York in 2004 and has been working in the field of Jewish and Israel Education for over 20 years. In 2020 he founded @Israel to share his love and passion for Israel with students, schools and communities around the world through his online classes, courses and virtual tours of Israel. Akiva is also the editor of the book "Becoming Israeli" (, a compilation of essays that gives an inside look at the unique experience of making aliyah and the journey of acclimating to life in Israel. He also created a social media platform called "Vegan Rabbi" through which he teaches about Jewish teachings related to health, animal welfare and environmental stewardship. Akiva lives in Pardes Hanna with his wife Tamar and their four kids.