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The Quietness of Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah candle (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Yom HaShoah is commemorated in different ways around the world. People visit Poland to walk silently from Auschwitz to Birkenau in “The March of the Living.” Daily life in Israel comes to a standstill for two minutes while sirens blare. In synagogues, candles are lit, and poems are read.

Each commemoration is unique, but a thread runs through them all: the opportunity to fall quiet and listen.

The quietness that shrouds Yom HaShoah reminds me of my grandfather, Sam Mindel – a profoundly quiet man. His family came from a Lithuanian shtetl called Anyksciai. They left for South Africa in the late 1920s, when he was just a boy. At his funeral in 2006, a friend described the “wordless conversations” he had with people. You could spend an afternoon with him, drinking tea and listening to classical music, and only realize later that he’d said almost nothing. For Sam, every word was a considered and almost reluctant act. Little surprise that he didn’t discuss the Holocaust. Descendants like me took his quietness to mean that his family had been untouched by Nazism, and that they’d lived in safety in South Africa, the “Goldene Medina.”

Then, in the 2010s, a distant relative surfaced with a family tree. It showed that Sam had dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins who’d stayed in Anyksciai. The shtetl was razed in summer 1941. Most of the Jews who lived there didn’t die in a camp, or even at the hands of the Nazis. Instead, a gang of local collaborators called the “White Armbands” shot them into trenches in a nearby forest. Evidence suggests that murderers and victims knew each other personally.

This came as a terrible surprise, but it shouldn’t have. The Holocaust was a disparate series of events, spread over vast geographic areas, and with global repercussions. It shook the family trees of Jews across the Diaspora, creating countless stories that were irretrievably lost. The Nazis’ genocidal actions didn’t end with Jewish people, either. The family trees of Roma and Sinti people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled and homosexual people, people across Eastern Europe and Russia, and German people who opposed Hitler’s regime, were all shaken too.

Maybe Sam didn’t speak about the Holocaust because he was too young to remember his relatives in Anyksciai. Or maybe it cast a shadow over his family’s new life in South Africa and felt like a forbidden topic because of it. Or maybe he simply had nothing to say. Whatever the story was, it’s one of those that was lost.

To us, the quietness of someone like Sam may seem strange. But that could be down to our changing relationship with the act of speaking.

Beginning in the 2010s, people who’d historically had silence forced on them were encouraged to contribute to public discourse. This involved phrases about speaking, like use your voice, call out, and have a conversation.

Such phrases were important, but they quickly became overused. Today, they appear in the titles of self-help books, TV shows, and rock albums. This free-for-all has been called the “commodification of social justice.” It’s enabled far right commentators to buy into the language of protest and make out that they too have had their voices oppressed. Joe Rogan says that “straight white men are not allowed to talk,” while Tucker Carlson says that “freedom of speech is under assault,” promising that “we will not be silenced.”

The commodification of social justice has coupled with our habit of talking about my or your truth, rather than the truth. This may have started as a tool for empowering marginalized people. But in an environment that fetishizes speaking, it’s easily hijacked to support the toxic ideas that opinions are the same as facts, and that all opinions are equally deserving of being spoken aloud.

My grandfather Sam rarely spoke, but he listened avidly – to the sounds in his garden, to the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and to things that other people had to say. Somewhere in these acts of listening, I like to think that he found the special way of being that made him the man he was.

The Talmud calls silence “a fence around wisdom.” This paints listening as a discipline to be mastered, not as a passive state to be overcome. As we fall quiet on Yom HaShoah this year, with partisanship blighting our political life, it’s worth remembering that listening can be a pathway to knowledge, and a vehicle for change.

About the Author
Luke Berryman is the Founder of The Ninth Candle, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to end antisemitism by sharing knowledge. He holds a PhD on Nazi propaganda and writes widely about the Holocaust.
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