The fragile window is closing: Now WE must tell their stories

Alex Borstein accepts the Supporting Actress, Comedy award for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" onstage during the 71st Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles on September 22, 2019. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)
In her Emmy acceptance speech, Alex Bornstein told us to learn a lesson from her grandmother's courage at the killing pits. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)

“Why do we need to teach this at all?” The Holocaust, she meant. Why do we need to teach the Holocaust in our religious school?

I had just presented a revamped Holocaust program to the parents at our religious school. This was the response of one mother with two students in our school, a 1st grader and a 10th grader. I was flabbergasted. I had not expected such thinking in a Jewish context. Surely all Jews understood the need to teach this story, as difficult as it is, to our children.

But why do we need to teach the Holocaust to our children? In some ways, the Holocaust is a blip in our history. Twelve years out of 5,000. Two generations later, our population has recovered. Almost nobody is left who experienced it. The survivors are dying. Why not just let their story die with them?

We cannot let the survivors’ story die with them. The Holocaust is more than just another time when that same ancient hatred threated to wipe us out. The Holocaust is a story of both unimaginable cruelty on the one hand and incredible strength of will on the other. We must continue to tell this story, because this story can change the world.

Unimaginable cruelty

“During the first days after our return [from the concentration camps], … we wanted at last to speak, to be heard. … Even so, it was impossible. No sooner would we begin to tell our story than we would be choking over it. And then, even to us, what we had to tell would start to seem unimaginable.”[1]

Robert Antelme wrote those words in 1947, only two years after he had been rescued, pulled barely alive from a pile of dead bodies. The Holocaust is different precisely because the story is so unimaginable.

We struggle to believe that such a thing was possible. Even more so because the perpetrators were our neighbors and, we once thought, our friends. How could ordinary people commit such atrocities? How could the world stand by and watch it happen?

In many cases, people stood by because they did not believe such horrific stories could be true. If we didn’t know the Holocaust had happened, would we believe that it could? Probably not.

This is why we must continue to teach the story of the Holocaust. Because if we forget that it did happen, we will cease to believe that it could happen. And then it will happen again.

Incredible strength

But the Holocaust is more than a story of terrible atrocities. The Holocaust is also a story of strength, of holding on with everything you have.

In the heart of the Warsaw ghetto, Chaim Kaplan wrote in his diary, “Logically, we are obliged to die. According to the laws of nature, our end is destruction and total annihilation…. But we did not comply with the laws of nature. There is within us some hidden power, mysterious and secret, which keeps us going, keeps us alive, despite the natural law. If we cannot live on what is permitted, we live on what is forbidden…. As long as that secret power is concealed within us, we shall not yield to despair.”[2]

We must continue to teach the stories of the Holocaust because we can learn from their strength and their courage. In unimaginable circumstances, they held on to love and life with everything they had.

The fragile window closes

Can we continue to tell this story when there are no more survivors? We have been living in what poet Jennifer Zunikoff calls the “fragile window” – that brief time when there are still survivors to tell us their stories.

The fragile window is closing. In Dallas, where I live, the window is almost closed. I recently went looking for survivors to come speak to our congregation’s high school class. I asked the Holocaust museum, the Jewish Federation, my fellow congregants. I found no one. The Holocaust museum told me that all the survivors with whom they work are in their 90s and their availability is extremely limited.

I have heard similar stories from other places with vibrant Jewish communities that nonetheless lack a depth of elder Jews. The few survivors that still live in these communities are so old that they can no longer engage in meaningful dialog with students. In the largest, oldest Jewish communities, there are still survivors who can come speak, but even there, the window will not be open for much longer.

“The fragile window closes,” Zunikoff says, but “we listeners, we storytellers, we will open it again.”[3]

The messenger’s messengers

Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, once told us, “There is a frightening character in all of Kafka’s stories, … the messenger who [tries] to deliver the message and is unable to do so. We feel sorry for [the] poor messenger. But there is something more tragic than that: when the messenger has delivered the message and nothing has changed. … The messenger has delivered the message. What is our role? We must become the messenger’s messengers.”[4]

We must continue to spread the survivors’ message: that such cruelty is possible; that we, all of humanity, have a responsibility to guard against it happening again; that even in the face of unimaginable cruelty, courage and love are still possible.

To change the world

In 1919, we did not have a word for “genocide.” In 2019, we understand that genocide happens again and again. We understand this because we have told the story of the Holocaust and have looked for signs of it happening again. The story of the Holocaust has already changed the world.

We are poor substitutes for those who were there but we must continue to tell the story anyway. We must be the messenger’s messengers. Only by continuing to tell their story, by continuing to teach the Holocaust to our children, can we keep our promise to the survivors – the promise we made every time we listened to them – that their story will continue to change the world.

[1] Robert Antelme, L’espèce humaine, Gallimard, 1947, p3. Antelme was part of a resistance group in France led by François Mitterrand. He was arrested and deported to Buchenwald in 1944. He survived only because on liberation, Mitterrand pulled him, still living, from a pile of dead bodies.

[2] Chaim Kaplan, Scroll of Agony – Warsaw Ghetto Diary, Tel Aviv-Jerusalem, 1966, p. 202 (March 10, 1940) & p. 350 (October 2, 1940). Kaplan was the founder of a pioneering elementary Hebrew school in Warsaw. His diary survived by being smuggled out of the ghetto, but he and his wife are believed to have been murdered in Treblinka.

[3] Jennifer Zunikoff, Fragile Window, 2015. The complete poem can be found here: poetrysuperhighway.com/psh/2015/04/annual-yom-ha-shoah-issue-2015/#fp15

[4] Elie Wiesel, from his remarks at the dedication of Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum, 2005. (Emphasis is mine.) Wiesel was only 17 when he was liberated from Buchenwald. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his activism in the cause of peace, atonement, and human dignity.

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Fripp is President of the Teach the Shoah Foundation and Holocaust Programs Coordinator at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. She is the author of the upcoming "Light from the Darkness: A Ritual for Holocaust Remembrance," to be published by Behrman House in January 2020. You can find out more about her work at www.teachtheshoah.org. You can sign up to hear about her new blogs at www.teachtheshoah.org/#optin.
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