Recently, as I prepared for Passover, I read a post by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in which he discusses the difference between memory and history. History, he explains, is when we learn about past events we may or may not be connected to. It is important, but quite different than memory. In the context of the Jewish People and our heritage, memory refers to events that have occurred to us or those events that, in a sense, become a part of us through shared experiences or ritual.
That thought also captured the way I felt several weeks before when I was in shul on Purim day and received an aliyah (a call to the Torah). As I stood by the Torah reader, I whispered the word he read aloud — Zachor — the commandment to remember the Amalekites’ attack on our ancestors as they traveled in the desert on their way to the Land of Israel. The moment evoked strong memories of my family’s story.
The memories of Amalek (the ancient enemies of our people) are ingrained in our people’s memories in the Torah and in the Purim story. They have always resonated with me because of my father’s and his family’s experiences — our family’s — experiences of resilience, resistance and survival of the Shoah. These were passed down to all us of by my father, Gustav Schonfeld, my grandmother, Helena Schonfeld and grandfather, Alexander Schonfeld. I grew up hearing about their lives in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia before the Holocaust and what it took to survive a year in Hell for almost as long as I can remember.
Those memories were also with me as we held our Passover Seders in St. Louis this year, around the same table where my father and grandfather led the Seders for decades. The themes of slavery and redemption have always had special meaning for our family.
All of these thoughts were still with me as we read about other attacks on Jews—at a Chabad Shul near San Diego and as terrorists launched rockets into southern Israel.
A few weeks ago, our synagogue’s Israeli schlicha asked my wife Suzanne and me to host an evening program commemorating the Shoah, fashioned after discussions held in Israel on Yom HaShoah. In Israel, this is called Zikaron B’Salon (to Remember in the Living Room). I offered to present and lead a discussion in our home about my family’s experiences before, during and after WWII. Although I had discussed portions of their experiences during the Shoah, in Auschwitz, Warsaw and Muhldorf, with friends and colleagues many times over the years, this would be the first time that I would take up my father’s mantle in this way, and present to a group
As I was preparing, I pulled out my father’s laptop — something I had not done since shortly after his passing on Lag B’omer, in May, 2011. I was searching for some of the slides and photos that he had used in his memoir, Absence of Closure, and when presenting about the Shoah at various high schools around the St. Louis area, at Washington University (where he was a Professor of Medicine) and at the Jewish Day Schools in Maryland and New York where Suzanne and I and my sister and her husband sent our children. I plugged in the computer and turned it on with some trepidation. Amazingly, it started up immediately. There, in front of me, were my father’s slides and his words. It was simply overwhelming. It was as though my father’s presence, his spirit, had returned. The memories of his story — what had become our story — came flooding back, along with many of our conversations.
For some time now, I have known that I have a responsibility to tell and retell what happened, so none of this is ever forgotten — and to combat those who would deny the Shoah even occurred. To us, this is not history, these are our family’s — our people’s — memories. They have shaped us and they will continue to shape us in the future.
In March, at the AIPAC conference, Senator Charles Schumer said these words: “I know I’m not alone in bearing the weight of these generations and the painful history of our people.” I instantly knew what he was referring to…these memories and the responsibility to pass them forward to future generations, to continue the golden chain of Judaism and to proudly stand with Israel.
This year, Yom HaShoah fell on the day before the 74th anniversary of my father’s and my grandfather’s liberation by American troops on May 2, 1945. Every year, Yom HaShoah is also about three weeks before my father’s Yarzheit. As I presented our family’s story to our guests, I was filled with emotion. My grandparents’ and my father’s spirits were with me that night. They live inside me, and by telling these stories, they live inside others.
Thankfully, our family survived and triumphed. My grandparents and my father (and our cousins) did not only define themselves as Survivors. They rebuilt their lives beyond any expectation and lived accomplished lives with passion, noble spirits, a determination to see the Jewish People continue and a desire to help the State of Israel thrive.
A quote by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg that I read at my father’s 70th birthday captures what they taught by example:
“The survivors did not dwell on death; they rebuilt life. This was the lesson they were teaching: a people must remember that it cannot live by making a cult of its woes. The faith of the Jews is not simply remembering the Holocaust, it is the Jewish religion…Those who remained after the Holocaust, and their children and grandchildren, must live all the harder, and all the more decently, to carry on for every one of the unfinished lives.”
As a child and grandchild of survivors, I will always be grateful for all that they instilled in me and in our children. I carry our family’s stories with me but “the weight of the generations” is not a burden. I/we will remember what Amalekites — ancient and modern — did to us (and are still trying to do to us in Israel and around the world). I/we will remember that we went from slavery to freedom in ancient and modern times. And, as they did, I/we will continue to stand up and work for the Jewish People.
To me, none of this is simply history — it is memory. It is something I am proud to share now and for as long as I am able to do so.