Our legacy of pain can be turned into a blessing

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

For many years, I tried to prevent the Holocaust from becoming a defining factor in my Judaism. Sadly, I’ve found it unavoidable.

My family comes from a once thriving Jewish community in a small village in Lithuania. My grandfather, Barnett, came to the UK from there at the age of three. After they left, on just one day, Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators rounded up 2,000 Jewish residents, including the rest of my family, threw them into their synagogue and burnt it to the ground with all of them inside.

Keeping the flame of remembrance alive continued with my family. My father, Greville, co-founded the Holocaust Educational Trust with Merlyn Rees. This was key in lobbying for the War Crimes Act (1991) to bring those responsible for Nazi atrocities (and now resident in Britain) to justice; government-sponsored visits to Auschwitz; and for reparations for survivors. In the past I would rarely teach or speak about the Shoah but, after the death of my father, I feel the obligation, the duty as his daughter, to continue the work as best as I can.

I don’t think it is possible for us ever to rid ourselves of the taste of destruction that the Holocaust has caused our community. Our task is to turn this devastation into something of meaning which keeps the flame going, to find strength and joy in being Jewish in the post-Holocaust world.

Psalm 100 tells us: ivdu et hashem b’simcha, bou l’fanav bir’nana – to serve God with joy and to come into the presence of the Eternal with singing.

That is my kind of Judaism – one filled with fun, warmth and learning. Much in common with the Chassidic movement of the 18th century, my Judaism has always been a Judaism of joy over fear.

We cannot give those who seek our harm the victory of making us live unhappily, or partake in our Judaism quietly and furtively. This joy is the first element to keeping our flame lit.

The second way we keep our flame alive is through memories that we revisit and retell which can be a blessing — they enable us to act proactively and appropriately when we believe something in our world is going wrong.

We need to use this central Jewish belief to speak out at the right time with conviction.

Yet memories also have the capacity to be a curse, leading us to see threats where they may not be, or as much greater than they really are. Our collective memory has given us a sixth sense for danger, but one we must keep calibrated. By speaking correctly when the time is right, turning the phrase “never again” into action, we take the second step to continuing to care for the flame of memory we hold.

Finally, we must look outwards. We alone do not have the fuel to keep the flame going – we need to share it with others. While the Holocaust is part of the history of our community, it is a history which has value far beyond ourselves.

Sharing the memory with wider society allows other communities to be our allies in ensuring that our pain is never forgotten. More than that, we can share our pain with others who have experienced terrible oppression in history and find common ground to build lasting coalitions, to stand together, fighting against such oppression being carried out again.

We have this flame to carry together, but looking after it need not be a burden. We can take a legacy of pain and together we can transform it into a blessing for us and for our world.

About the Author
Rabbi Janner-Klausner grew up in London; worked as an educator in Jerusalem for 15 years working with Jews and as dialogue facilitator trainer of Palestinians and Israelis. She is the Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism in the UK.