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Ilyse Muser Shainbrown
Ilyse Muser Shainbrown

The Lessons of Starting Anew

Depending on where in Europe a Jew was living in the 1930s and ’40s the reign of terror that wreaked around them could have potentially lasted almost 12 years. The time in which the Nazis rose to power until the end of the war in May of 1945 was over a decade. For those lucky enough to have survived the terrors of the Holocaust, they came out of it having of course lost loved ones, lost their physical possessions but also having lost the gift of time.  

There is nothing that can ever compare to what was taken away from the victims of the Holocaust – nothing. Almost two years ago, I began drawing strength from the survivors, their stories, and their legacy in an effort to help myself and others cope with living during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In those early days it felt good, almost comforting to know that we still had survivors among us that could help us to understand that we could get through tough times; we too could survive. We could smile through our frustrations, laugh through our hardships, educate our children, and continue to make memories and build connections from our own homes.  

Lately though, as we ourselves are becoming more and more frustrated by the seemingly unending pandemic affecting our lives, that positive connection seems to be slipping away. The constant barge of ridiculous Holocaust comparisons in everyday talk, on social media, and in the news is clouding the lessons of those early days.  

It is also not helpful to hear comments like, “the Holocaust lasted so much longer,” and “this is not as bad as times back then.” Of course, it is not, and yes, at this point of course the Holocaust lasted longer. But any feeling of loss of time is harsh and difficult for people to grasp and manage at any stage. And even though children and teens today are not dealing with the ramifications of those that were living under the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust – they are dealing with a loss of the world in which they used to know, the loss of innocence and normalcy, and to demean that takes away from those earlier lessons from the spring of 2020 that were so prevalent.  

As so many survivors tell it, as time continued in ghettos, in camps and in hiding, keeping strength and the will to persevere certainly became harder and harder. There were so many missed experiences amongst so much danger and the glimmers of hope and strength were all forced into the belief, desire, and need to survive and return to living life.   

Today we struggle in this in-between time to gain back what was lost – the everyday monotony along with the celebrations and milestones. We are tired of cancelled plans, changes in guidance, and disruptions in what we feel believe was the goodness of our lives. But instead of comparing – since a comparison in any direction can never hold when it comes to the Holocaust – I would hope in the coming weeks we can return to how we felt in those early day of taking the strength and inspiration from Holocaust survivors that once warmed the hearts and minds of so many.  

Listen to the stories of rebuilding. Take the lessons of starting lives anew, building new homes and families in foreign lands. The courage and strength it took to come out of the Holocaust and rebuild was just as remarkable as surviving at all. I have often been told that moving forward after the Holocaust, despite all that had happened to them, was a survivor’s greatest wish and desire – it was the way of knowing that Hitler did not win. It was taking all that was lost, their homes, their families, their communities, and honoring in the most incredible way. It was the opposite of the Holocaust – it was LIFE. 

COVID-19 is no Hitler. But it has changed, altered, and interrupted our lives in ways that will have affects for a long time to come. Continuing to talk about and learn about the Holocaust provides us with a platform to ensure that it never happens again but it should also offer the gift of strength, courage, and perseverance. So please, stop comparing the time in which we live in now to aspects of the Holocaust and start living in a way that honors the survivors that perished.

About the Author
Ilyse Muser Shainbrown was a former Middle and High School History teacher who now holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Over the years she has done extensive research on various portions of the Holocaust and other acts of genocide including, Rwanda, the Belgian Congo and Bosnia. Currently, Ilyse Muser Shainbrown is the Director of Holocaust Education and Newark Initiatives at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. Through both programs, Ilyse works to ensure that Holocaust education is taught broadly in public, private and parochial schools throughout Essex, Union, Morris and Sussex counties.
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