Making it count

There is something about lighting a match, watching it flare up, and then lighting a candle from the flame which still retains its own light even though it has given of itself, which I find both peaceful and inspiring, spiritual and calming. I watched the wick light up, burn brightly and then flicker low, only to recover its light when it reached the lowest point and touched the wax. It reminded me of our nation through the years, as we suffered and yet returned to build a better and brighter future for ourselves, for our children. Tonight is Yom Hazikaron LaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Tonight, for the first time, I lit a candle for all those lost in the Shoah, but also particularly for those who I should have known, could have known, had that chance not been cruelly taken away.

In the last few weeks, even before and around Purim, posts have been going around Facebook to bring a face, a name, a story to light about those who were killed by terrorists in Israel. These have been hard to read, and sometimes I have had to tell myself I would read them later and looked away, even though life is busy and I didn’t always get to return when I was more in the frame of mind to read them. This week, in advance of tonight’s Remembrance Day, a new page started circulating; that which allowed you to click on a link to “Remember Just One,” to light a virtual candle for not all of the faceless 6 million, but for one name, one person, one soul. When I followed the link, and read the name, it was like a bucket of cold water had been thrown in my face.

For the first time it truly hit me, and I realized that I don’t even know my own grandparents’ full Hebrew names, that I can never properly say yizkor for them. I have known my own story, which is really my family history, all my life. I knew that my father was born in Poland, although they later denied him even the right to his own birth certificate, his proof of his own roots. I knew that his family were among the “lucky ones”, because they ran away from Poland shortly before September, 1939. I knew that he was only three when this happened, or possibly even two — we never were able to be sure. That they ran east instead of west, which brought them to Russia. That Russia, of course, sent them with other Jewish refugees to the biggest area they had — Siberia. That in Siberia, my grandfather was worked to death in the freezing cold. That my father, his sister and their mother, along with an uncle and a cousin, escaped Siberia and traveled south, where they ended up in Tehran. There were many parentless children on boats from Teheran to what was then Palestine, and my father and aunt were among them. Not with them, left to die of illness in Tehran, was my grandmother.

This is my story, and it is also the only history I have. Many times over the years I have discounted my family’s suffering, because of what I had already learned in my young life about the ghettos, the concentration camps, the death camps. Many times I thought of my father as lucky for having escaped in time. Until now, somehow, I did not really think of what my grandfather must have suffered in Siberia, of what my grandmother went through. They were just stories to me, not real history. There was no one to show, like with The Fallen Faces project, their lives and deaths from their points of view, and there were not enough pieces of my history that could be understood by a 3-year-old and his 9-year-old sister to be able to pass on to their children. Over the years I have wondered who they were, what they were like, this family that I will never know.

Were they religious or not? Who was left handed like my sister, who gave down the genes for blond hair? Were there more family members that didn’t even make it out of Poland, out of the Hell that was Europe? And now that both my parents are gone, there is no one to even ask the questions with me, to wonder and wish that those pieces of us were not taken from us too.

Tonight, we watched the ceremony that was held at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. For the first part, the speeches, my husband and our two children were so quiet, I thought of when I left the theatre after watching Schindler’s List with 500 other people, and no one talked until they got outside. But when it came time for the survivors, those who are amazingly, still alive, to share their stories, their histories, before lighting 6 candles, one for each of the 6 million, our daughter got upset after the first two and asked if it was okay if she didn’t watch anymore. My husband and I looked at each other, and paused the TV. As if rehearsed, we took turns explaining the importance of watching, of seeing with our own eyes-for her to see with her own eyes-one of the few remaining people who had been there. The world, within scant years of  granting us a state built on the blood of the Holocaust martyrs, given out of guilt caused by the shock and horror at what had been done to us and what the world had allowed and even contributed towards, has already started saying (in parts) that the holocaust never happened. As long as those who were there are still here to say “I saw it with my own eyes!”, we need to see this for ourselves. My husband said to our daughter, we need to witness, to be able to say, when those holy souls are gone, that we saw that generation for ourselves. After he said this he also said she had a choice now. She chose to continue watching.

Sometimes I think about how we grew up in the generation immediately after, and how severely we were taught about the Holocaust even from an early age, third or fourth grade. They wanted us to NEVER FORGET, and we won’t. We saw documentaries, the ones with people being lined up and shot, with emaciated walking skeletons who later turned into discarded piles of bodies, dried up husks who were once people. This and more we were exposed to, as I still remember our principal showing us, with a bag of empty bottles or something that made a shocking noise, what Nazis did to babies sometimes for fun, smashing them headfirst into walls. Am I glad my sweet, sensitive daughter does not have to see this, gets shown at worst a watered down version of the photos which flash by quickly? Yes, in a way. But the part of me that is not protective mother but a daughter of the Jewish people, a descendant of those who suffered Inquisitions, burning at the stake, pogroms and ultimately, the Holocaust, that part wants to stop the wave that brings us further from feeling the truth of our history and makes it feel more like a story. A long, long time ago, this happened. Just a week and a half ago we told the story of the first time we became a nation, of our freedom. How many of us truly were able to feel that we had been there, that we were the freed slaves?

These three weeks, from Passover until Yom Haatzmaut, are emotionally like the waves that drowned our Egyptian oppressors, sending them up and down and up and down. First we celebrate our freedom, then we commemorate the devastating Holocaust and the terrible history of our people in exile, then we are even sadder as we think of (and likely connect more deeply to) the more recent losses of soldiers and the soldiers of our nation, civilians, who have died and were killed to protect our freedom, our returned homeland and returned nationhood. And finally, we are joyous (on the night immediately following the day of mourning our current losses) to celebrate that Independence. All along, we also count sefira towards the culmination of our exodus, receiving our Torah. Yet sefira itself awakens feelings of sadness, as we think about and mourn over the first 33 days about the loss of 24,000 Jews in the time of Rabbi Akiva. When we hear these big numbers, when we lose sight of the faces and only say oh, it was this many, or that many…we are shocked at the numbers, but they also remove us from the tragedy, the reality that these were people. A friend posted that we can remember that even the biggest numbers are made up of 1 plus 1 plus 1… maybe that will help. Many kinds of counting projects have sprung up over the years, like paper clips or marbles–put them all in containers and the mind, which cannot truly comprehend 6,000,000, can begin to grasp the enormity of what we lost within the lifetime of some still living.

Some of the survivors ask, why me? Why did I survive? But the stories of these survivors, who went on to build our Jewish State, our country, our 2,000 year old Tikva (hope), they are the ones who turn the sadness of the day to something else. They light the big torches, but they have already lit a bright path for us to follow. They made something positive come out of tragedy, they made themselves and all the losses matter; they counted, they added to our nation. And if our children don’t understand, don’t know why they have to watch these people, hear their stories, we have to talk to them, we have to tell them, so they know, so they can see.

Yesterday a fantastic speaker, Rav Chetzroni, spoke at my high school. He said that we, none of us who have all our blessings, likely don’t make all the morning blessings with the proper understanding. If we were blind for a day, or lame, then we would truly thank God every morning that we could open our eyes and see. I told this to my elementary students today when some couldn’t think of anything to say about Israel at 70-what it means to them. I was shocked that they didn’t see what they had, until I remembered what Rav Chetzroni said. So I told them about our history, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust. I thought about what David Curwin wrote in his blog, that the tehillim we say during sefira which seem harsh because we are praying for our enemies’ downfall, were real prayers for the Jews in the past 2,000 years of exile who lived through very dark times. I reminded my students that not very many years ago, we could not even touch our holiest place, could not get near Har Habayit and the Kotel to pray. They are aware of these things, they have been taught them, but they could not truly connect–they didn’t know. So then I told them my story, my history. This brought them face to face with what the Holocaust meant to someone they personally know; it visibly touched them. And when I said that I don’t even know the full name to pray for, one of them said I could say bat or ben Avraham and Sarah. So they taught me too.

Tonight I said a prayer for Yisrael ben Avraham and Sarah and for Yehudit bat Avraham and Sarah.

I say a prayer of thanks that we still have survivors to tell their stories, and the next generation so we can pass along their light. For a wonderful video that will bring tears to your eyes, you can watch as 600 people, survivors and their descendants, sing “Haod Chai”; “I am Alive.”

I am thankful that we have this country, I am proud to be here and make my grandparents’ sacrifice count by building our home here and adding our light to the nation.

May the holy neshamot who were murdered, who died because of the Holocaust, have an Aliyat neshama, and be comforted that in their merit, we are now a nation in our land.

If you would like to light a candle, this is the link: www.illuminatethepast.org

May we all keep adding to the light.

About the Author
Mori Sokal is a TWELE year veteran of Aliyah, mother of three wonderful children (with her wonderful husband) and is an English teacher in both elementary and high school in the Gush Etzion-Jerusalem area. She has a Masters’ degree in teaching, and has published articles in Building Blocks, the Jewish Press magazine.
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