[photo: The Goldbergs recording He’elita for the audio book-Aug. 2018]
“Yeah, it makes you realize that the Holocaust wasn’t something that simply happened, but is an event that’s still happening.” (The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelsohn, 289)
How can the Holocaust be “still happening”? It’s an event that took place 75 years ago. It’s over and done with – leave it to the history books.
I cannot. The Holocaust, for me, is alive and is “still happening.” It’s still happening because Sam and Esther’s stories echo in my thoughts daily.
I am not alone. There is a world of people who feel the pulse of the Holocaust in their 2019 lives. Some have walked through the looking glass to examine their own souls in the context of a Holocaust survivor or victim’s story. One can never go back to the “old ways” after stepping through that glass. Reality and self-understanding are spun anew. It’s a spiritual journey into the dark matter of the world and a deep dive into one’s own soul. But we are in the good company.
The quote at the top is from Daniel Mendelsohn’s book –The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, published in 2006, in which he tells of his quest to discover what happened to his great Uncle Shmiel Jager, his wife and four daughters. They were murdered by the Nazis, but Mendelsohn was obsessed with finding out how, when and where. His journey took him across continents and like me, discovered people he could never have imagined would enter his life. These six Mendelsohn relatives are gone, but through his book and his exploration, they are now part of the landscape of his life and the lives of his other family members.
Each searcher’s journey has a different focus, a different twist. One such Holocaust exploration looks at the murders of family members through a journey to thirty-five Holocaust memorials, all around the world. Victor Ripp, in Hell’s Traces: One Murdered, Two Families, Thirty-Five Holocaust Memorials, published in 2017, focuses on the death of a three-year-old boy, Aleksander Ripp, who was murdered in Auschwitz. “What had once happened was history,” Ripp states, [b]ut it was a history that, the memorial insisted, still intruded on the present” (Ripp, 30).
Yes, Holocaust memory insists on intruding on the present, on our lives as we live our mundane existence of daily, weekly and monthly schedules. Holocaust memory brings a new way to live, to live with open hearted gratitude for my mundane existence.
I have often opined that the number six million is too big to understand and far too big to have meaning in our contemporary lives. “One six followed by a string of zeros. How did you feel something as flat as a number,” askes Noah Lederman in his memoir A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets, published in 2017, “The number was spoken and written so often that it grew into something emotionless and digestible, a textbook statistic served up like one historical corpse. We hardly even glanced at death tolls from the Crusades and the Inquisitions. What would happen when the liberation of the camps reached it century anniversary? How would future generations react to six million and the Holocaust?” (Lederman 55-56)
This is the six-million-dollar question – how will future generations react to Holocaust stories. I go to sleep asking this question. I believe that telling the stories as Lederman, Mendelsohn, Ripp (and now me), and others are telling it – brings the stories of one, two, three, six of the victims of Nazi Germany, whether they survived or were murdered in Europe, into focus for those willing to read, to listen and to feel it deeply.
This is really happening. People are telling the stories of their family or people that they know in the most personal way – by opening up and exposing their own vulnerability. Louise Steinman, a granddaughter of survivors went on a week-long Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which brought together people of many religions to meditate, share, cry and experience each other’s pain at this most painful place on earth. After this experience, she traveled many times to different parts of Poland seeking her grandparent’s stories and reconciliation with the Poles. In her book, The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation, she tells that someone once asked her what “kind of book about Poland” was she writing? “Was it . . . Poland in the past? Contemporary Poland? I thought for a minute, . . . The Poland in my head.” (Steinman, 211)
The past two decades have seen the publication of books, like My Soul is Filled with Joy, in which the authors open their lives and their minds to the victims’ or survivors’ stories, brining it into the 21st century. “As the writers of this generation begin to tell these stories from their own vantage,” Ruth Franklin states in A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, published in 2011, “they have turned Jewish literary tradition inside out. And in doing so, they demonstrate that the stories of the Holocaust remain tellable.” (Frankel 238)
Yes, we must tell the stories in a way that our children and grandchildren can welcome them into their lives – Zachor