Seventy years after the liberation of the Nazi death and concentration camps during the final weeks and months of World War II, we are at a transitional moment. For the past seven decades, the survivors of the Shoah kept the memory of what had been done to them, and to their families and to European Jewry, at the forefront of their society’s consciousness. Sadly but inevitably, they are now fading from the scene. The critical question, therefore, is how their absence will change the nature of Holocaust remembrance.
The principal responsibility for preserving and perpetuating the survivors’ memories has been entrusted to their children and grandchildren. It is a hallowed inheritance that we, in turn, must transmit to our and future generations, Jews and non-Jews alike, not with their intensity but with our own.
As novelist and law professor Thane Rosenbaum has written in “God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors,” the new book I was privileged to compile and edit for Jewish Lights Publishing, “We are all, to some degree, answering the call of the concentration camps, not as eyewitness, but as dutiful sons and daughters.”
My mother, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, died hours after the end of Rosh HaShanah in 1997. Six months later, I took our daughter, Jodi, then a college sophomore and who had always been very close to my mother, to Poland for the first time.
When we came to Auschwitz, I first showed Jodi the notorious Block 11, known as the Death Block, where my father was tortured for months. Then we went to Birkenau. It was a gray day, with a constant drizzle. We walked in silence past the decaying wooden barracks. After 15 or 20 minutes, Jodi turned to me. “You know, it looks exactly the way Dassah described it,” she said, using the name she called my mother, Hadassah.
In that moment, I realized that a transfer of memory had taken place. My daughter, born 33 years after the Holocaust, had recognized Birkenau through my mother’s eyes, through my mother’s memories that Jodi had absorbed into her consciousness.
Many children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have experienced this type of epiphany. For former reporter New York Times reporter Joseph Berger, it came at the Western Wall in Jerusalem when his father told him that he was angry with God for taking away his sisters. And yet, Berger writes, “when I think about that conversation now, what stands out is not his anger but that he still maintained his relationship with God, like a child fleetingly furious at a parent but knowing the bond will never be broken.”
In contrast, Princeton University bioethics professor Peter Singer recalls that his grandmother told her family in Melbourne, Australia: “If God takes such a good man as my husband, I’m not going to follow his laws.”
Psychologist Dr. Eva Fogelman remembers sitting with her father on Cape Cod when he told her that the rose hip bushes beside them reminded him of the berries he had eaten as a partisan in the forests of Belarus. Aviva Tal who teaches Yiddish literature at Bar Ilan University in Israel recounts a story her mother once told her of how she and a group of other women inmates at the Ravensbrück concentration camp began to laugh hysterically while being forced to carry heavy loads of coal when one of them began to sing, in Yiddish, “I thank you Gottenyu, dear God, that I am a Jew.”
These and other defining memories and narratives are the sparks behind the essays in “God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes.” Each among the impressive list of contributors to the book received a unique legacy, and each put into words how this legacy has shaped his or her life, thoughts, mindset and career.
In the course of editing the book, I realized that despite the authors’ starkly different perspectives, they had one wholly unexpected common characteristic: an almost unfailing optimism.
What seems to me to unite the diverse contributors — regardless of religious or political orientation — is a conviction that the legacy of memory we have received from our parents or grandparents is a source of strength rather than despondency, and a determination to apply that legacy in constructive, forward-looking ways that might inspire not just Jews but all human beings, especially those whose families have been the victims of genocide, crimes against humanity or other dire catastrophes.
The resilience of the survivors upon emerging from the Nazi death camps and other sites of persecution and oppression and their ability to not just rebuild their lives but teach their children and grandchildren by example to continue to have faith in humankind is evidence, to me at least, that a dawn follows even the darkest of nights.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and editor of “God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors” (Jewish Lights Publishing). A version of this article appeared as part of the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.