On the evening of Monday, April 17, our temple and our community joined many around the world to commemorate Yom Hashoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust and the heroism of those who fought against it.
For our memorial service, we listened to our seventh graders expound on the decades following the devastation of the Holocaust, our collective intention being to never forget. The teachers and spiritual leaders joined in with prayers and statements, poetry and prose, but it was from these young people that I learned the most.
Their presentation helped me understand the implication of everything that came after the Holocaust, from the Nuremberg trials to the creative significance of Night by Elie Wiesel and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Later, the details I had carried home in my mind unexpectedly spilled over into a conversation with a good friend after I’d achieved my original objective of wishing her a happy birthday.
I recapped the evening’s event. I told her what my children studied in secular and Hebrew school. I even recounted our visit to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in lower Manhattan. And as we spoke, something clicked: Talking and teaching about the Holocaust isn’t a teacher’s domain; the responsibility resides in everyone’s hands and hearts.
As a high school senior in 2014, my son, Lathan, was given the opportunity to visit Germany along with some of his Hebrew-school classmates. This trip, offered and underwritten by the family of the former religious-school principal, was meant to honor not just her memory, but her husband’s, too, as well as the German towns from which they had emigrated.
There were many objectives for this trip, including meeting and living side by side with German families and their teenaged children and attending the first Torah service in a German synagogue since the Holocaust. Yet the most powerful memories captured in our son’s stories and photos came from his visit to Dachau.
“Overwhelmed and sad” describe our American teenager’s reactions to what he saw, but those words are too simple for the emotions and experiences of that day. When we reviewed his photos, huddled around our desktop computer, he explained not just what we were seeing, but also what he was feeling. I became his student, asking questions, listening and considering his answers. The pictures, which showed what he saw when he arrived and on the walk-through barracks and the crematorium, were nothing less than devastating.
Those photos and emotions were not meant to remain his alone. Our daughter, Amanda, a part-time Hebrew-school teacher in a local temple, asked Lathan to talk about his visit to her sixth graders, who were studying the Holocaust in early spring prior to Yom Hashoah. His talk, which included the photos in a PowerPoint presentation, allowed the youngsters to hear about the loss of Jewish lives. It gave them a forum to ask thought-provoking questions like Why didn’t the Jews fight back? Why didn’t the non-Jews stand up and protect them? One family reported back that their son came home so interested in learning more that he searched online for more details with his parents.
Lathan has visited Israel and has had first-hand experiences with our family’s activities connected to Hadassah (he is a proud graduate of Hadassah’s Training Wheels and Wheeling On program for young children). He graduated from Hebrew school with just six others. Yet he has gone on to present this story a number of times, typically addressing the latest group of sixth graders each year.
After his most recent Hebrew school visit, in March 2023, he returned home without a great deal of fanfare. Usually, a young man of few words, he now has a unique opportunity to use his talk to explain “Never Again” and “Never Forget” for a new generation. And although Yom Hashoah is over for 2023, the responsibility to remember continues.
Lauren B. Lev is a member of Hadassah’s Educators Council.