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The catastrophe is often in my mind

On this years International Holocaust Remembrance Day, how can we best remember the Holocaust?

“דער חורבן איז אפט אין מיין געדאנק”

On January 27th 2022, the world will remember the 6 million Jews that died in the Holocaust, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. We are familiar with Yom HaShoah our national Holocaust Remembrance Day, celebrated in Israel and by Jews all over the world, however, this Holocaust Remembrance Day established by the United Nations is a day for Jews and especially non-Jews to remember the 6 million human lives that were lost. Most people don’t know that International Holocaust Remembrance Day was officially established by the United Nations in 2005 as an international day to remember those that were brutally murdered in the Holocaust. January 27th was chosen because it’s the day Auschwitz was liberated, a camp where nearly 1.1 million Jews were killed, this year marking 77 years since its liberation.

The world needs a Holocaust Remembrance Day, but the Jewish people are thinking about their history, their roots every day. Every Jewish person of Eastern European descent feels a connection to the Holocaust whether their relatives experienced it from within Poland/Germany and perished or managed to escape early enough to save themselves – so many lives were effected. For me too, the murder of my ancestors’ relatives left a permanent mark on my life and while their lives were cut short, I hope in my small way of remembering the past I can still add meaning to their memories.

Unfortunately, the Holocaust has not only left a physical mark on the Jewish people, the ideas it perpetuated continue to tail them. The bigotry and antisemitism of 1940’s Europe has reincarnated itself today and Jews are still taunted and tormented for simply being Jewish. We see and read about countless acts of hatred against Jews all over social media, and the recent waves of antisemitism in North America and Europe just seem to be getting stronger and stronger. In a recent article published last week by Jerusalem Post Editor Aaron Reich, and in reports published by the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, it was concluded that this past year, 2021, was the most antisemitic year in the last decade, with an average of 10 antisemitic hate crimes or incidents happening daily.

The article explains in detail that most of the antisemitic incidents this past year happened in Europe, and a rise in incidents has been seen in Canada and Australia with the US comprising 30% of all incidents. North American areas like New York saw a rise in incidents, going up from a recorded number of 252 incidents in 2020 to 503 incidents in 2021. The UK saw a staggering recorded number of 1,308 reported incidents compared to 875 incidents in 2020. Antisemitism and baseless hatred is on a numerical rise, and today it feels more frightening, almost as frightening as what we suffered 77 years ago.

Personally, the impact that the Holocaust has had on my life is a very emotional and difficult one to face. It’s the reoccurring nightmare of knowing that in the 1940’s a people, my people, were treated like animals – herded and slaughtered with no second thought about basic human rights; the fear of it happening again haunts me. All this considered, I’m not living my life every day as though it were my last, but with the harsh realities of pandemics, hate-crimes, violence and bigotry still existing today perhaps I should?

I am blessed and grateful of the life I live and my ability to work, learn, and spend time with friends and family. I don’t feel a pressure or burdened obligation to constantly cherish every positive moment and be thankful. When I force myself to remember tragedies like the Holocaust, I begin to feel a tremendous amount of guilt, as though I don’t express enough gratitude for what I have. Therein lies the difficulty in remembering the terrible past, as human beings we become emotionally fixated on remembering the past to the point where it causes us much suffering in the present. I believe there is a way for us to remember the Holocaust and tell survivors’ stories without it bringing us pain and guilt in the present.

Soren Kierkegaard, a famous Danish philosopher puts this idea into perspective in the following quote:

“Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.”

Kierkegaard’s quote states that the way a person must live their life is by acknowledging the past and making sense of it, but always looking forward and onward. Remembering the Holocaust and hearing the stories of living survivors today is important even though it is at times painful and difficult. I remind myself that living life forwards also means honoring the past, being aware of your history and not neglecting it.

I am working to be a part of the group of people that “live forward”, those that advocate for Holocaust education and remember the past so that it can enlighten and brighten the future. I am proud of the fact that I was fortunate to carry out that mission for my own family by being the first person from my family to have returned to Eastern Europe since after the Holocaust.

77 years later I returned to the region of the world where my father was born and where my grandparents were born. My father was born in 1947, in a displaced persons camp in Germany and came to the United States as an infant with his parents. My father’s birth symbolized the true principle of “living forward”. What a wonderful way to show that life continues after the Jewish people had experienced so much death. My father’s mother, Bubbe, was from a beautiful town called Narol in Poland, near the more well-known city of Lvov which is today considered a part of Ukraine. I had the pleasure of knowing my Bubbe for 12 years. She survived the war and experienced terrible circumstances when taken to a labor camp in Siberia.

My Bubbe with her husband, my grandfather.

During my visit in Poland I stayed in a few towns not far from Narol and instantly felt connected to my Bubbe. I felt I could imagine the life she and her 6 siblings lived all those years ago in a beautiful town in Europe, a few miles out of the city. Every tree and bed of grass in Poland felt familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time. For me, walking in those towns that today look nothing as they did 70 years ago, felt tremendously difficult but also special and enabled me to feel more connected to my roots.

The difficulty in Poland today is that much of the Jewish history that is brought to the masses are all things that relate to death and peril. Auschwitz and the restored death camps, Maydanek, the stone gravesite at Treblinka etc. What must become the focal point or main tourist attraction is Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, founded in 1930 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, creator of the Daf Yomi, the restored Synagogues, the former landmarks that were once Jewish owned businesses. The way we can better understand the past of the Jewish people is remembering how glorious and full it was, before it wasn’t. Before the world was so unbearably terrible and nearly wiped out our people.

My time in Poland reached its climax when I reached the town of Tarnow and stood outside of the same address where my Zaide, my mother’s father’s parents’ dairy store once was before the War.  My Zaide survived the War and although I did not have the pleasure of knowing him, I was able to learn much about his life, especially his life in Tarnow. Zaide was a soccer player for Tarnow’s local team, the Samson football team, before the War. Zaide was a sporty and youthful person; my mother often remarks about his wonderful sense of humor. At the start of the 1930’s with Polish anti-semitisim on the rise, it became difficult for Jews to study in university, so my Zaide and his brother became chocolate and sweet sellers to earn a living, while their other brother was able to study at a University in Krakow. When the Nazis reached Tarnow in 1939 the entire city was destroyed, and the Jews were thrown out. My Zaide’s family was taken to Lvov, the nearby ghetto. My great-grandparents died in the ghetto, and Zaide’s two brothers were also presumably killed in Lvov. After surviving under the most inhumane conditions in the ghetto, Zaide was taken to a labor camp in Siberia. This camp, from what I was told was much like a death camp, with inhumane working conditions. In 1941, when the Russians and British made an agreement to unite and fight against the Nazis, Zaide, along with all of the other Polish prisoners in Sibera were released. Zaide was then called up to fight in the British Army under the leadership of General Anders. Zaide, along with soon to be Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin, was one of thousands of troops under Ander’s command.

My Zaide as a soldier in the British army.

After much pain and fighting for survival and time as a soldier, Zaide made it to England, made a life for himself and started a family. A fact that my family discovered when my parents met was that both my Bubbe and Zaide were in Siberia, at the same time, who knows, they may have even met each other.

So, there it is, examples of how to understand the past. All that’s left for me to do is to figure out how to use this knowledge to help me live my life as meaningful as possible. I’m so proud of where I come from, and on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am going to remember the lost lives of the Holocaust and the impact that this horrific human genocide had on the world. But, I am also going to remember the beautiful life and culture that existed before the War, and figure out how to reincarnate the beautiful traditions, customs, and language of our ancestors into the future. Put simply, I am going to live forward.

About the Author
Miriam Blum is a 24 year old Olah from NYC living in Jerusalem. She is pursuing her MA at Tel-Aviv University in Diplomacy and has a BA from Bar-Ilan University in Political Science and Communications. She served as a tour guide in the Old City of Jerusalem for her National Service. A self-proclaimed "Frum Feminist", Miriam is interested in Israel-diaspora relations, and bridging the gap between orthodoxy and Zionism.
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