Remembering the Unforgettable
Seven weeks of Sefirat Haomer. Forty-nine days of which the majority is devoted to communal mourning in memory of Rabbi Akiva’s twenty-four thousand students who perished from plague. And from our recent experience of Covid, the immense calamity of an epidemic should resonate with us.
As we observe this period of mourning there are also days of remembrance of more recent tragedy and loss. Yom Hashoah commemorates the saddest chapter in a history suffused with sadness. Yom Hazikaron comes the day before Yom Haatzmaut; winning the independence and maintaining the security of Israel has come at an immense human cost in soldiers and civilians. A visit to Mount Herzl, covered by a vast military cemetery with grave after grave of young men and women that died too young, reminded me of the stark reality of war. ANZAC Day memorialises the fallen soldiers of Australia and New Zealand who fought numerous wars in distant lands. This year Anzac Day and Yom Hazikaron happen to coincide.
My father z”l passed away four days after Pesach, four years ago. Perhaps it was appropriate that his funeral was on Yom Hashoah, because I believe he carried his harrowing memories of Auschwitz to his grave. When I was young, the only thing my father mentioned about the Holocaust was that Hitler was a bad man—a measured understatement from a Holocaust survivor. I’m sure he was protecting his young daughters from learning about a horror that was so unfathomable, but perhaps it was also his way of trying to suppress the sights and sounds of that hell and cope with the PTSD that all survivors surely endured. I also heard about concentration camps, but I had no idea what they were. At the time there was a game program on television called Concentration, and, from memory, the icon of the program was an image of The Thinker, the sculpture by Rodin. In my innocence and ignorance, I imagined concentration camps to be places where people sat, with head supported in hand, and just concentrated on their thoughts. Rodin’s sculpture was part of a larger work called the The Gates of Hell, which was how my father later in his life referred to Auschwitz.
I was probably in the early years of secondary school when an exhibition of photos from the Holocaust was displayed at our school. The images were so graphic—in my opinion too graphic for adolescents, many who were children of survivors—that I was overwhelmed by their black-and-white inhumanity. I have no memory of any discussion or debriefing to soften the shock. Those photos were seared in my memory as if I had seen them yesterday, instead of fifty years ago.
That exhibition was followed by years of reading any book I could get my hands on to help me learn and understand that blot on history that ended only fourteen years before I was born. I learnt a lot, but I never understood. I still don’t understand.
Survivors and subsequent generations go on tours to see the camps, aberrations on the tourist maps. My husband has been to Auschwitz and other concentration camps many times when he went to Europe to conduct genealogical research. My late Auntie Olga z”l, until she was almost ninety, spoke to tour groups at Auschwitz about her time there with her sisters Vera z”l and Livia z”l. These three sisters and my father were the four out of seven siblings who survived. I felt that it was the right thing for me too to visit Auschwitz, the place where my father’s family was murdered. In stead I went to visit Kosice, the place where they lived a full and happy family life, until anti-Semitism and the Holocaust destroyed the town’s Jewish families, destroyed the Jewish community. I realised that I couldn’t─I wouldn’t─visit Auschwitz. But in my thoughts, I go there almost every day.
I count the sad days of the Sefirat Haomer. It is a time to for me to remember, but the Holocaust I will never forget.