Elie Klein
Advocate for disability care, inclusion, equity and access

Death of the Holocaust Generation: The End of an Era

It has been a difficult year for the Kleins. In November, just days after a beautiful family wedding, my grandmother (my father’s mother) was laid to rest in Israel. And then last week, my grandfather (my mother’s father) passed away after two agonizing years as a prisoner in his own body.

Though they both enjoyed long, full lives (both lived into their tenth decade), and it was a relief knowing that they were no longer suffering from the many complications brought about by advanced age, it was still hard to let them go. Even the inevitable can be so very painful when it does finally come around.

Pinchas Reich (my mother's father) with his great grandson, Netanel, in 2007

It was particularly painful coming to terms with the fact that I no longer had any grandparents. With the loss of “the final two,” my whole world changed. In what felt like a single moment, an entire category of important people had been ripped out of my life. What’s more, the void created by this monumental loss had to be filled (apparently, familial responsibility abhors a vacuum as much as nature), and I was instantly propelled upward by a full generation.

In my new reality, I no longer play the role of the ‘child and grandchild’, the passive recipient of knowledge and love. Instead, I now occupy the hot seat, playing the ‘parent and child’, the active and unconditional giver, the party ultimately responsible for growing children and aging parents.

Though I have filled this role for several years now, it feels different somehow.

Before, it seemed like more of a choice, one of several roles I could toggle between. But this is no longer the case. My menu options have changed for good.

As I sat in the house of mourning with my mother last week, swapping stories of a bygone era and the giants who made it great, the true depth of this new stratum of responsibility finally hit home.

Esther Klein (my father's mother) with me and my sister, Sara K. Eisen, at a family wedding in 2010

Over the last two decades, there have been a host of impassioned efforts by institutions around the world to record the firsthand accounts of survivors of the Holocaust, my grandparents among them. These projects feverishly collect every crumb of information they can from the heroic Holocaust generation because a harsh reality looms: there will be a time in the not-so-distant future when the eye witnesses to the Nazi genocide will not be around to inspire our Jewish youth and silence the Holocaust deniers.

It is frightening to think that this responsibility will soon fall squarely on our shoulders. It is even more worrisome to think that we will also be charged with the continuity of Jewish education, the stability of the Jewish family, and the growth of a proud Jewish nation. Before we know it, the future of the Jewish people will be in our hands alone.

So, what can we do to ensure that the core Jewish values passed down to us from the previous generations remain central to all that we do? How can we be certain that our children will not only proudly identify as Jews but become active members of the global Jewish community, willing to take on the challenge of building our nation at the next generational bump?

For starters, we must stop saying that the Jewish people is “one big family” and start believing it. Other Jews should never be seen as ‘them’, but rather as different flavors of ‘us’.

We must realize that perfect ‘nuclear families’ are no longer the norm – even in Jewish circles. Our families include anyone we love. As such, our families should be bursting at the seams.

We must put (at very least) the same amount of effort into cultivating our Jewish families at home as we do undertaking our most important projects at the office.

We must walk the walk before we ever start talking the talk. Jewish education will fail if its teachers are not worthy of our respect and admiration. And the Jewish people will never be a “light unto the nations” unless we prove ourselves to be truly enlightened.

We must respect tradition but allow discussion. Otherwise, we can expect a nation of drones – or no nation at all.

We must never forget our painful past experiences. And yet, we must never let them bring us down. Memories of the past should inspire us to keep on surviving and thriving.

We must adopt these as the basic tenets of our Jewish way of life. Everything else is commentary.


About the Author
Elie Klein is a veteran nonprofit marketing professional and the Director of Development (USA & Canada) for ADI, Israel’s network of specialized rehabilitative care for those touched by and living with disability, and an international advocate for disability inclusion, equity and access.