A significant date that will always be etched in my soul is 17th of Sivan. This day is the yartzheit of the destruction of my father’s town of Miory, Poland (now Belarus). All throughout my childhood, it was the day that my father, together with the other survivors, would say Kaddish as they cried together and mourned the mass murder of their town.
The Nazis rounded up all the Jews, forced them to undress and shot them into an open grave. My father witnessed the murder of his family and his community, yet miraculously survived by running into the woods where he lived for two years with my grandfather and other Partisans. As a young child, I didn’t really know any details of what happened on this day and I could not understand exactly what this yartzheit was for, yet I felt its eternal significance. It was and always will be a day clouded in sadness, tears and mystery.
Like many other second-generation children, I knew very little about what happened to my father’s family during the Holocaust. To this day, there is still much that I do not know. These discussions were simply just too incomprehensible, too big and too painful to be allowed in front of the “kinder.” Most of our family friends were other Holocaust survivors who only amongst each other would allow themselves to step into the secret painful world of unspeakable memories. Yet this happened very often, and not just on the days of commemorating their collective yahrzheit or on Yom Hashoah. They would speak in Yiddish and begin whispering, and crying. There always was and still is an unspoken sense of comfort and understanding among the Survivors.
When I was a child, I can hardly recall learning about the Holocaust in yeshiva day school. Perhaps that the rabbis themselves felt that they had no answers as to how this churban, or the tochacha, spoken of in the Torah, had actually come to fruition. Perhaps 40 years ago was simply too soon for reflection, everyone was still shell shocked from the reverberations of what had occurred just a few decades earlier.
Upon connecting with many others of the second generation, I have found it compelling to notice the commonalities between our experiences. Many of us found that our parents were lovingly, if not desperately, overprotective, and often the parental boundaries were crossed. Many of us have memories of hearing our parents being woken up at night by their nightmares. There was always a seemingly tangible sense of emptiness and a bittersweet poignancy at family smachot, touching the deep emotional pain of missing the people not there.
And of course the food, never ever wasting any, even the leftover cereal in a bowl, the obvious scarring from the years of starvation. Just a few years ago, during my own trip to Poland, I heard stories about very successful businessman who survived the Holocaust, who to this day, walks out of restaurants with a dinner roll or piece of bread in his pocket. The American families always seemed so different and care free and more like those families on TV. They went to baseball games, enjoyed American music and played golf. Our family friends enjoyed staying home, eating homemade gefilte fish, and having schnapps with the other “lantsmen.”
Like so many “2gs,” I often feel caught between the two worlds. My friends and children joke with me that my “favorite” topic is the Holocaust. There has been plenty of research done on the sociological phenomenon of the passing down of trauma through generations. While I don’t understand the details of the underlying neuroscience behind this, I am fairly certain that being the child of a Holocaust survivor is ingrained in my DNA, and has been a large influence on the person I have become. The challenge then, for myself and for all children of survivors, is how to properly transfer this to the next generation. And I am not sure I want to transfer everything; perhaps my children could do without inheriting my constant worrying, over protectiveness and other “mishagasin” (although my kids would say it’s way too late for that).
But how do we impart to the third generation the weight of the legacy that we bear? For them to truly grasp that they will be the last generation to hear first hand accounts of what happened to their own families and to the Jewish people during the Holocaust.
On an occasion of a yartzheit, it is often said, “the memory should be a blessing.” In this case, perhaps the blessing is that they will remind the world that they will never be silent while Jews are being murdered. The blessing that they will truly understand that a strong State of Israel is the strength and future of the Jewish people. Perhaps by my children lighting their own yartzheit candle on the 17th day of Sivan, they will not only honor the memory of their family but will also remind themselves that they too are the keepers of the flame.