In the mid-1980’s, just a few years after I began my rabbinate at the Forest Hills Jewish Center, I traveled to Poland with a UJA-Federation Rabbinic Cabinet mission. It was shortly after my two older children were born, and from the moment that I entered the gate of Auschwitz and saw a display of clothing stripped from infants and toddlers who had been brought there for extermination, I was forever changed. Before that visit, the harsh reality of the Holocaust had been an abstract set of numbers and grainy images. When I returned, I had gained what I now understand to be an intuition of an infinitesimal fraction of the horror of what had transpired. I was shaken to the core.
I decided then that how we observed Yom HaShoah in my synagogue would be my sacred responsibility. I vowed to myself that whatever we did, and however we did it, would be worthy of the memory of those who were swept up in the cataclysm.
Towards that end, almost three decades ago, I compiled a list, as complete as I could make it, of the Holocaust survivors in my synagogue community, and there were many. Although the demographics of Forest Hills have changed significantly since then, we have historically had large concentrations of Polish, Russian and Hungarian survivors, along with remnants of the Greek community of Salonika. My original list of names, single-spaced, took up just about three typewritten pages.
The challenge that I faced then, and I face even more significantly today, is getting people to allow themselves to be called “survivors.” What I would hear again and again is “I wasn’t in the camps.” “I didn’t suffer like they suffered.” “I had it easy compared to them.” It frustrated me terribly, and still does. If your life and everything that made it livable and pleasurable was taken away from you, and the people that you loved the most were often, literally, ripped from your arms and taken away to be murdered, and you were not allowed to work, or to go to school, or to go outside for fear of being brutalized, or you were forced to hide in the forest rummaging for food or depend on the good graces of righteous gentiles to hide you and spent years cramped in a small space with little to eat and only sadness and deprivation as your companions … if this is your story, are you not, if you made it through to tell of that today, a survivor?
When I went to that original list this year to ask “survivors” (those who had been in the camps) to participate in the lighting of memorial Yahrzeit candles that opens our commemoration (they light them paired with younger members of our synagogue community), I was saddened and stunned, although not surprised, by how few were still alive. Name after name, person after person had died during the intervening years, and most of those still remaining were quite old and frail. It is a phenomenon that is occurring across the Jewish world, one that has all of us committed to Holocaust memory deeply concerned. The generation of first-hand witnesses to Dachau and Matthausen and the other horrific death factories is slowly but inexorably being lost to us. It is seventy years since the end of the war, so even those who were children during the war are older adults now.
Our synagogue program has, for many years, included a presentation by a survivor talking about his/her personal experience during the war. I have shied away from bringing in guest speakers or other kinds of programs, believing– as I still do– that hearing the testimony of those who were there, and saw and experienced the horror that I had only intuited, was of primary importance.
This year, as will increasingly be the case, the daughter of two parents whose circuitous and anxiety-laden routes out of Germany and Austria had shaped her identity as a child and an adult, told her parents’ stories. Her father was still alive to hear her speak. Months of waiting for exit visas; long train rides filled with anxiety over how the next leg of the journey would be accomplished, if at all, and if their papers would hold up if checked; grief for the family members left behind because of age or infirmity, who were destined to wind up in a death camp; and not least of all, the over-arching realization that the world that they had known and learned to navigate had turned dramatically and irrevocably against them, and there was no one and nothing to save them but their own ingenuity and resolve, and, as often as not, more good luck than anything else.
The challenge of remembering the tragedy that befell our people during the Shoah will only become increasingly difficult as each year passes, and more witnesses are lost to us. But those who made it through without actually experiencing the camps need to be encouraged to share their stories with us, and we who live in comfort and security need to hear them. They, too, are survivors, in every sense of the word. We need to hear them, and they need to know that we care.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.