By Larry Gordon
It is a week of conflicting feelings and mixed emotions. It began with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Cars on Israel’s streets and highways came to a halt with people exiting their vehicles and standing at rapt attention and in silent contemplation and introspection as sirens wailed throughout Israel. It was a time for remembering.
The memories are fresh and ever-present, but, sadly, they are also fading. What is going to happen to the next generation of children who will have to count solely on the recall of people who heard what had occurred from those who were there? What is going to happen when we no longer have the privilege of being able to hear first-person accounts of death marches, long, endless journeys in cattle cars, hard labor, loss, survival, and new life?
Survivors of the Holocaust were and always will be iconic and something very precious to our community and our culture, as well as to us as individuals. For those of us whose families had deeper roots here in America or whose families managed to arrive in the New World prior to the war, there was always some kind of separation or divide in the effort to really absorb the horrors of what had happened.
As time goes on, that divide widens for all of us, and it is something that we need to grasp at and hope that the memories never go away.
Then the other day there were the images extensively disseminated from Poland of the March of the Living. The group, part of a brilliant new tradition, plods on, approaching the hurtful and infamous front gate of Auschwitz where the words across the entrance say “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work will set you free.
The march this year was led by the Israel Defense Force top officer, General Benny Gantz. Dressed in his ceremonial military regalia, he led the hundreds of those gathered in Osweicin, Poland, in the silent declaration that says, “We are here,” and “Am Yisrael chai.”
Next week, Jews the world over will mark and celebrate Israel’s 65th anniversary. The juxtaposition of the two events makes it difficult to conjure that the creation of the modern state grew out of what poets like to refer to as the ashes of the Holocaust. Had it been a perfect world, the State of Israel would have been created a decade earlier and would have been a safe haven for European Jews to flee to as they attempted to escape the Nazi madness. I suppose our history would not have been that which it is had we been able to rearrange it ever so slightly and move the creation of the State back to 1938 instead of 1948.
But such is Jewish life from time immemorial. It is a big Divine picture that too frequently we cannot discern or make sense of from our very limited human perspective.
These are probably one of the most stirring combinations of days on the Jewish calendar. Yom HaShoah will forever rip at our souls even though we are on the threshold of moving into a new era. We need to rise to the challenge and figure out how to immortalize this physically and emotionally debilitating national experience.
We received a letter this week that is published elsewhere in this issue observing that on Sunday night, while we observed Yom HaShoah and candles were lit in ceremonies in Jewish communities around the world as a memorial to the six million who died, there were also a number of weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other simchas being celebrated. The writer asks why it is that the somber memorial observances are not universal and that communally it is not considered forbidden to celebrate on this evening of somber remembrance.
And that is a very good point. Many of us attended observances and read in newspapers and online an overflowing number of survivor testimonies, that of the first, second, and third generation. And perhaps somewhere in that statement is part of the solution to the question about how we are going to deal with the facts and reality of the Holocaust experience in the future.
Of course there was nothing that any of us can imagine that can measure up to the wanton violence and inhumanity that was perpetrated on our people during the Holocaust. To this day it is difficult to properly characterize how that experience impacted on families that were raised by survivors of those horrors. There was pain and there was silence. There was hurt and anger. Almost no two experiences were alike. Some emerged with the desire and ability to share love; others simply could not find any warmth or affection left within themselves.
Today, 70 years later, adult children with children and grandchildren of their own are still walking around wondering about what happened. Why and how their parents or grandparents survived and why they acted or behaved the way that they did for all those years. They still just don’t know what to think or what to say or do.
In a few days, Israel will observe Yom HaZikaron, which is the equivalent of our Memorial Day, I suppose, when the more than 22,000 men and women who died defending the State of Israel are remembered. It is once again a somber day, with visits to cemeteries in a country where there is hardly a family that has not suffered the loss of a loved one in a war or other type of military skirmish or battle.
Mount Herzl in Jerusalem is both crowded and muted on that day, this coming Sunday. There are rows after rows of gravestones extending beyond the reach of the eye. Many of the fallen were young—18- and 19-year-olds, with thousands of others only slightly older. One can only wonder how they really wanted to live and how great they were as unknown individuals to nevertheless stand up for their country—our country—and make that ultimate sacrifice. Every one of them had plans for their future, their education, their lives, and their families.
But then as evening descends, the mood is slightly lifted. Attached to Memorial Day in Israel is Independence Day. Mourning and reflection fade and are transformed magically and incongruously into celebration. The seemingly contradictory emotions are staggering and even difficult, but somehow they seem to fit together in some odd and inexplicable way.
The Shelah comments on the statement of our sages that the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the future era of redemption are all achieved through suffering. Before the giving of the Torah, we endured suffering in Egypt. Before entering the Land of Israel, we suffered a prolonged 40-year sojourn in the desert. And before entering the future era, we have had to experience the four exiles as a refining process. As the verse in Koheles states, “Like the superiority of light from darkness,” meaning that great light can only be reached by first experiencing darkness.
And then there are the words we recite every week and sometimes every day, written by David HaMelech in Mizmor Shir Chanukas HaBayis: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have loosened the cords of my sackcloth and girded me with joy.” In the Shir HaMaalos that we recite prior to Birkas HaMazon, the psalmist poignantly observes the pattern that appears to be both inescapable and unavoidable: “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.”
Tears of joy. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.