Sophie with her grandparents, Daniel and Bella Zimmerman. The beloved diary of Daniel Zimmerman's mother is required reading in the author's family.
The Holocaust was an essential part of my Hebrew school education. It was something that was discussed every year. We were urged to ask our grandparents, who came from Europe, about living through the Holocaust. Several people who survived the concentration camps come to speak to us in school. Recently, I realized that my generation will be the last to hear a survivor tell the story firsthand. As time goes on, there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors.
Yes, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books containing the stories of countless survivors. Books such as “Number the Stars,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” and “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” are read worldwide. Yet these literary pieces — engaging and tragic — are still fiction. Reading a fictional story is not the same as hearing a true, firsthand account of someone’s life. The emotions depicted in a story cannot compare to the emotions conveyed in someone’s telling of their experiences.
It is essential to preserve the stories of those who experienced the Holocaust. Both of my father’s parents were young children in Europe during the war. They survived due to their parents’ foresight and the kindness of others. My grandfather’s mother, Sophie, my namesake, kept a diary of her life during the war. My siblings and I were given a copy of her journal when we started preparing for our bar or bat mitzvahs. It was truly amazing reading about her experiences and the things they had to do just to survive. Through her account, I learned about my family’s resilience. The connection I felt with the past was amazing.
Months ago two Holocaust survivors came to speak at my school. They talked about how long it took them to be able to tell their stories and how reluctant they had been to start. Eventually both felt it was their duty to spread the word of what had occurred. As members of the young generation, it is our job to continue spreading their stories. It is important to pass on their stories of survival whether by recording them or by retelling their tales. The next generation’s job is to make sure that the stories of our loved ones, and other survivors, are not forgotten.
Of course, this tragic part of history will continue to be taught. But without the firsthand experiences, the reality of the situation cannot be adequately portrayed. Reading about something in history books does not do the situation justice. Remembering the past should not be limited to the study of history. As essential as it is for the Holocaust to be taught, it is equally important to continue learning outside of school. For example, read or talk about survivors’ stories over the summer.
For me, nothing can compare with visiting the Paris apartment from where my grandmother fled to avoid the Nazis or hearing the stories of my grandfather hiding for many months, along with his parents, in the attic of a peasant’s barn. They had little food and were required to stay as quiet as possible or risk being discovered and murdered.
Knowing the facts of the Holocaust is important. As a Jew, it is essential to know what our people had to face. Hearing firsthand what people persevered through in order to carry on your culture (and your family line) completely changes your perspective. Hearing these brave stories of survival gives me a new appreciation of my heritage.