Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Last year at this time, I was riding on a train from Bialystok to Warsaw – with a stop at Malkinia – the last station before death in the gas chambers of Treblinka.
For the past two and a half years, I have been engrossed in Holocaust stories, history and literature. Today, as all citizens of Israel stand and pause, I also wish to pause.
I want to reflect on how it feels to be thinking daily about the Holocaust. These past years, I have taken a detached, historical or storytelling approach. But then it hits me – what really happened every day to Sam and Esther – or to hundreds, thousands, oy, millions more, and my detachment falls away and I find myself sitting in front of my computer crying.
And here I sit – in Seattle, Washington – in the safety of my home with plenty of food in my fridge and a comfortable bed upstairs. Sometimes I feel that I have no right to write about what happened during the Holocaust. It was before I was born, even before my parents were old enough to vote. I feel as if I am playing a part in a play that can’t be staged because there are no actors who are qualified to perform the parts. Who am I, who are we, to even discuss what happened? How dare we?
Well, we dare, and we must. We have no choice. It’s our history – the history of humanity, the history of the Jews, the history of our family. So, we will study, we will talk, we will read, we will write, we will laugh, and we will surely cry.
I have learned that evil is hard to define, but not so when it comes to the Holocaust. I recently read a book describing life as a hidden Jew in the Polish countryside. There was no shortage of evil acts done by Germans or Poles. The author struggled as she journeyed through this path:
“Darkness thickened in the desert of humanity and terror mounted,” Barbara Engelking writes. “As they searched for rescue, Jews began to experience more and more directly the evil inflicted on them by the Poles. This was not simply an absence of good, but real, substantial, and deep evil incarnate. It was an evil whose consequence was mostly death, so it was the final, irrevocable evil, which was also linked with cruelty and violence.
To devote so much attention to evil itself, to concentrate on the dark side of human beings, their evil deeds and to describe them – might be regarded as problematic. However, in my opinion an attempt to understand evil does not in any way indicate forgiveness, or, worse, acquiescence. Furthermore, telling the story of evil creates a strong context for the good, allowing us to appreciate more fully the course of those who aided and saved.” Engelking, Barbara, Such a Beautiful Sunny Day: Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside, 1942-1945, 175.
Let us continue to act in this play and to appreciate the good.
May the souls of the millions murdered in the Holocaust find rest and tranquility.
If you have not seen this fantastic performance by a group of Holocaust survivors and their families, you must see it – get ready for a big smile and a good cry.