Thoughts On Yom HaShoah

This morning, Yom HaShoah, I was on a bus on my way to Jerusalem. On the bus I was thinking how less than 80 years ago Jews from all over Europe were on a journey as well. However, the trains that they were on were taking them to an unknown destination.

I opened the air vents above me during my journey. They didn’t have air vents. No one was sitting next to me so I made myself a little more comfortable. They did not have this fortune. They didn’t even have the seemingly granted fortune of sitting. I knew where I was going. I had windows. I had air. I had space. I felt secure and safe. Something as simple as a 40 minute bus ride suddenly created a sense of guilt within me.

I reached Jerusalem and hopped on the inter-city train. A train where I got a seat. A train that rode smoothly along the Jerusalem tracks. A train filled with laughter and light conversations. This was not a train full of  fear or knowing of death. This was not a train full of frightened, starved, bewildered Jews but rather strong willed and proud Jews. The complete opposite. Again, why did I deserve this when good and moral people like the Piaseczner Rebbe, Janusz Korczak, Anne Frank, for example, did not get the same train ride?

I knew where I was going. I was going to Yad Vashem, a memorial and museum to millions who were thrown into the darkness of the unknown. Those who were on their last train ride. Last bite to eat. Last embrace. Last breath, before they faced a very familiar fate that they lived with daily, death.

Again, that same feeling of guilt once again settled within me as I entered the museum. Why is it that the closest I have ever come to any Holocaust or persecution is through witnessing it behind glass cases in a museum? Why is it that millions of Jews were massacred and had no homeland to go to, yet I left the land of the free and home of the brave to live in the Jewish homeland, Israel? What warrants me to live such a comfortable Jewish lifestyle free of the fear of pogroms and surrounded by yiddishkeit at it’s finest? From living in New Jersey for twenty years to living in Israel for eight months, I have never once been attacked for being Jewish. No slur was thrown my way and not even one torment. Why is it that I was, thank god, given a safe life? Six million Jews were  thrown into the streets, left to die on the grounds of the ghettos, forced to dig their own graves, shot, tortured, beaten, choked by gas. Yet I am just like them and only have petty and trivial worries.

For a moment I was at a complete loss. I was confused and felt helpless. There was nothing I could do to bring six million individual faces and names and talents and quirks and flaws and hobbies and personalities back.

However, I soon realized I was wrong. Yes, the feelings I had were real, but there is no such thing as feeling helpless. I have the ability to take this immense feeling of guilt I felt and turn it into responsibility. I have the responsibility to make “never again” become reality. I have the responsibility to teach others about the enormity of the Holocaust to the point they will want to leave the room out of utter horror. I have the responsibility to teach others what terror, brutality, cruelty, violence, persecution, and inhumanity is. How bad “bad” can be.

Through the same lens, however, I need to teach what the will to live means. The will to survive. The will to die with honor. The will to die a fighter. From the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto to the mother that refused to let go of her child’s hand during deportation. And from the sister who would not leave her dying sister’s side during the death marches to those who fought their Nazi tormentors in Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz to the plain and simple Jew that just wanted to live. Victims, survivors, hidden families, partisans, those who fled to safe countries, they were all heroes regardless of recognition or not. They all have a story of their will to live whether they survived the inferno or not.

It is my responsibility to remember and to remind others that you have got to be strong willed to be a Jew. You have to be able to face a wonderful yet tragic past. A past over flowing with culture, but a past flowing with gallons of innocent blood as well. You have to remember that Jews always arose from the dust even after the most tragic and horrific times. Survivors rebuilt anew from the ashes they emerged with. Jews know what it means to preserve, remember, maintain and safeguard our history, but we also know not to dwell and remain depressed in the shadows of what once was. Remembering the past, dwelling in the present and shaping the future is why Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Lottie Kestenbaum was born to British parents and grew up in New Jersey. To add to the identity crisis, Lottie made aliyah in August 2012. Hello tri-citizenship! She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Holocaust Studies at Haifa University and living in Jerusalem. Yes, it is a shlep. No need to mention it :-)
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