Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Photo taken at Yad V'Shem in Jerusalem 1986. (c)Amy Samin
This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 5 May 2005
Today marks 60 years since the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust (in Hebrew, "Shoah"). How far have we come in that time? I know many people are concerned about the dwindling number of suvivors left to testify to this atrocity. I recently read online of one young man's effort to carry on the memory and message of his grandmother's experiences by having her number, which she received in Aushwitz, tatooed onto his own arm.
I think that the world and modern perceptions the Holocaust will be changed forever when the day comes that there is no one left alive to give first-hand accounts. All the books, documentaries, videotaped interviews, photographs and museum displays in the world will not be able to stop the relegation of the Shoah to the dusty shelves of history when there is no longer a single, live voice to say to the world, "I was there." That is a frightening thought.
But tonight, I am thinking about something else, something I just learned today. In telling us about her day at school, our older daughter mentioned that her history teacher is the daughter of a Holocaust surviver. In fact, the entire history lesson today was, most appropriately, given over to a discussion about the Shoah and the teacher's mother's story. I was struck by the fact that the story is already one generation removed from the source. Here was yet another sign of how more and more distance is being put between today and the events of World War II. Thinking about this led me to ask my husband whether he had had any survivors as teachers when he was in school. His answer shocked me.
"I did," he told me, "but I didn't know it at the time." He went on to explain that in the Israel of the 1960's and 1970's, survivors didn't tell their stories publicly, the way they do today. Such things were simply not discussed. It seems that many Holocaust survivors were treated with pity and scorn when they arrived in Israel, and even those who might have been disposed to relive by retelling their experiences learned to remain silent. Many of those who did reveal some of what they had gone through were met with disbelief. One of the films about the Shoah that my husband remembers most vividly from his youth ("The 81st Blow") deals with such a story. As for my husband's teachers, it wasn't until the 1990's that he learned that some of his teachers had been in the Holocaust.
We have obviously come a long way since the days when survivors were ashamed to tell their stories. But what was the source of that long-ago contempt? Perhaps the brawny, tough sabras (native-born Israelis) looked down on the survivors as weaklings who "allowed" themselves to become victims? Perhaps part of it was a defensive reaction to the sickening feeling that "it could have been me"? I may never know, but it is something that disturbs me and I know I will continue to try to puzzle it out.
It doesn't seem to matter that 60 years have passed. Every year we hear new stories, learn hitherto unknown facts about the war and the Holocaust. Last year I made a commitment to myself to read at least one book about the Shoah; by doing that I continue to learn new things. This year, the book I chose to read was about rescuers, Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the War. When discussing the Shoah, we tend to focus on the horrifying number of 6 million murdered. Thinking today about the survivors, and about those who helped some of them to achieve the status of survivor, I realized that there are more than 6 million different stories to learn, and learn from. Many more.
May we keep learning, and may we never forget.