“Nothing German in our house.”
That directive, issued by my late wife Shoshana, a Holocaust survivor, echoed in my mind as I awaited the arrival of a group of German interns to our apartment. They were coming to view her Holocaust tapestries, long a subject of talks on the Shoah I’ve given to more than one thousand young people over the years.
While waiting, I also recalled the faces of the Jewish orphans from Auschwitz I helped care for in France 75 years ago. I was a student volunteer at a rehabilitation program sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee, the global Jewish humanitarian organization where I would go on to work decades later. What irony: The descendants of those who tried to murder Shoshana, to murder those orphans, were now sending their youth to our apartment to learn life lessons from her experience.
This all began when German Consul General David Gill came to my apartment to see Shoshana’s tapestries. He was so moved by what he saw, he said that it was important for German youth to have the same experience. This intern visit on Feb. 27 was the first result.
The interns – postgraduate students spending a year in Manhattan – were attentive and engaged as I explained that while my late wife could talk about her Holocaust experience, she couldn’t create a coherent narrative. So she wove a set of five, six-foot tall tapestries to tell her story.
On the deepest level, Shoshana’s goal was to unshackle herself from her trauma. By analyzing each of tapestries with the interns, it was possible to see how each one advanced that process. Two of the tapestries resonated most forcefully.
The third tapestry, “A Dialogue with God,” tackled the existential question of how the Holocaust happened and reflected the moral void in the world that could permit such a crime to take place. I observed how the interns processed that moral dilemma, a crime connected to their country and family histories. I could see that reverberation when I told them that the void also represented, to my mind, the womb of a people in perpetual mourning not just for the six million, but also for all the children and future Jewish generations that will forever remain unborn.
The fourth tapestry, “War,” impacted them most. It portrays an airplane dropping bombs on a field of flowers tilted in sadness. At the bottom lies a dead child with a primordial head, a broken right arm, with a flower growing out of his wrist. That flower represented hope, the aspiration for life, and the zest for living, qualities very strong among the young. It portrayed something Shoshanna actually experienced. She and her family were escaping on a train in France when German planes bombed the transport. There was a shout, “Jump for your lives!” Shoshana jumped and landed in a field of flowers. The German planes then strafed the passengers and her father called out, “There is no way we can survive this, let us lie down in the grass, hold hands, and recite the Shema.” Somehow they escaped being hit.
I shared with the students that when Shoshana realized she was replicating a literal experience, her arm became paralyzed. After medical consultations, it was shown that the cause was not physical but psychosomatic. She underwent psychoanalysis through which she came to understand that by weaving she was surfacing experiences so painful she tried to prevent herself from continuing. With this insight, her arm recovered.
After the tapestry tour, I had the interns watch a five-minute video of Shoshana in which she emphasized that those survivors who were able to create new lives for themselves were moral and spiritual victors. For her, the greatest challenge that every person faces is how they’ll handle trauma. The usual advice is to put it behind you and move on. Shoshana felt something deeper could be done: Use the trauma and transmute it into creative energy and action. And while many of us may never suffer traumas as deep and cruel as my late wife experienced, if she could master her suffering, they could also master theirs.
When I then asked them where they first learned about the Holocaust, the answers were the expected: in classroom, public observances. At the end, when I asked their “takeaway” from this Holocaust experience, they became very emotional.
One intern said she always viewed the Holocaust in terms of its abstract magnitude, but experiencing Shoshana’s personal journey gave her proximity. Another said her understanding always focused on the dead, never the survivors and their uplifting stories. All said they were inspired by the evening in my home and saw a role model in Shoshana, who transformed her trauma into new work, first as an artist, and then as a psychoanalyst. The one young man offered up this thoughtful response: “Viktor Frankl [the acclaimed Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist] struggled with the search for meaning. Shoshana provides the answer.”
During the past weeks I’ve thought a lot about that experience as our everyday has been upended by the trauma of a disease that threatens our lives and cherished sense of normalcy.
Before being drawn into that fear, into the abyss, I think of those German youth and their journey with Shoshana’s tapestries. In her life experience, in her art, they found hope and resilience. They saw a future made from the terrors of the past.
So on this Yom HaShoah, let us learn from that lesson and affirm life even in the face of death. May our acts of remembrance continue to inspire generations to come.
Ted Comet, a veteran Jewish leader, founded the Salute to Israel Parade and is Honorary Associate Executive Vice President of JDC.