When I was growing up, there was no Holocaust remembrance day. My parents, all my relatives, and all my parents’ friends were Holocaust survivors. Almost all of my friends’ parents, and even a couple of my teachers at Yeshiva, were survivors. In the fourth grade, I ran home excited to tell my father, “Rabbi Greenberg has the same tattoo letters on his arm as you.” When parent-teacher conferences came around, they discovered they had been at the same Konzentrazion Lager.
When we were in the older grades (6-8), once a year we viewed a film about World War II, the concentration camps, and their liberation. The films consisted primarily of documentary footage of the prisoners taken by their liberators. Much sniffling could be heard in the auditorium as the film was shown. The films were most definitely not suited for the younger grades and maybe not truly suitable for us. Those images stayed with me for a long time: forever, actually.
However, other than the yearly viewing of that film, I cannot remember any official Holocaust remembrance day, speeches, or memorial rituals as I was growing up. As the years pass, the survivors and eyewitnesses are lessening in number, and their children (myself included) are fairly silent in our day to day life of the atrocities witnessed or experienced by our parents. I have never viewed the Holocaust as a topic to be bandied lightly or a fascinating tidbit to be trotted out for amusing conversation, and most definitely not as some odd kind of medal of honor to be bragged about.
It is in its own special category of life events. We, the children of survivors, are generally discreet with our survivor connections and stories. We share anecdotes and sad memories periodically as they occur to us, with our loved ones and perhaps close friends. We certainly share openly with other children of survivors when we first meet and discover our common bond.
Yet, as our parents age and more die, fewer and fewer people actually know a survivor personally. People are generally shocked to learn that my parents were survivors. They ask if my parents spoke about their experiences at all.
In a nutshell, no and yes. My mother never discussed the war years and her losses. She talked of before the war (the wonderful house of her father and mother) and after the war. My father spoke freely about his life before, during, and after the war. I listened as carefully as I could and felt guilty for not remembering better. Up until the day my father died, I was still hearing stories from him that I had never heard before.
This brings me to Holocaust Remembrance Day. I very much understand how a public ritual or ceremony serves a special purpose, especially for those who have not been directly affected by the Holocaust. It can be a powerful way to help people experience the Holocaust and remember it.
However, as a child of survivors, I somehow never felt the desire or need to participate in this day and its ceremonies. I always felt, oddly enough, that for me and my family every day was Holocaust day. It is in my DNA. It is hardwired into my being. I do not have to simulate it like the exodus from Egypt at our seder. I have always felt as if my father’s liberation day was my own personal liberation day.
And yet, I have begun to wonder, is there some way that we, the children of survivors and the children of non-survivors, can come together on this public and also deeply private day?
As the victims pass from the world, their children have to cope with a new and different – and also never fading – pain of loss. We were used to the loving presence tinged with pain that followed us from the moment of our conception and was part of our parental inheritance or legacy. We now, as we suffer the mortal loss of our dearly beloved parents, experience the loss of death in real time, in our lifetime, and it is a never fading hole in our lives and psyches. Their absence is a pain new and different to the children who thought they were used to the pain of loss and absence. We were wrong when we thought we knew. We had no idea how fresh and cutting and absolute this pain could be.
For me, it has faded a little over time. It has been almost six years since my mother and my father died within three and a half weeks of each other. I am still saddened daily by the knowledge that I can never see them again. Every now and then I see some random person on the street, an elderly man usually, and I think he’s my father; my heart soars, I remember, and then I crash.
Today my memories are sometimes powerful and sometimes painfully hazy. I do not consider myself the most detailed and precise witness. I feel that my parents deserve the most accurate and clear witness on their behalf and worry that perhaps I fall short despite my best intentions. And thus, I worry about my inadequate preservation and conservation of my parent’s legacy.
Soon my generation will be the sole repository of these strong memories. Hopefully this will not occur for a long time yet, but I must face the fact that time inexorably marches in only one direction. We will be the witnesses for better and for worse. Have we passed it on to the next generation, our children, the third generation; and if so, how? They know our story, and they know our parents’ story. They know more than the average non-survivor walking on the streets among us.
So, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am ready for you now in a whole new way. I am ready to make my private pain public for the greater good, to pass into the world my parental legacy. I finally think good can come out of making my private sorrows public, especially for me and my family.
Of course, as I was brought up to be private regarding this matter, I wish to attempt change and yet still be low-key and modest in my world.
So, I ask you gentle readers, how do we continue to pass these memories on, and how do we honor these heroes in our hearts and in public?