The Fraying Thread of Our Human Link to the Holocaust

For the first time, I found myself worried that if I didn't invite my Holocaust survivor in-laws to speak to my daughter's class about their experiences, nobody else would.

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I escorted my in-laws, Helene and Emmanuel Sommer, through the halls of my daughter’s elementary school last Friday morning. Pinned to their coats were yellow felt Stars of David with the word “JUDE” printed in big black block letters.

Curious wide-eyed children crowded around them as they walked as we made our way down a corridor in the direction of the room where they were going to speak,. They all had the same question. “Are those real?” they asked, pointing to the stars. “No,” my in-laws responded, answering patiently time after time. “We made these at home to show you what it was like for us. During the Holocaust, we couldn’t just pin them to our clothes. They had to be sewn on so they couldn’t be taken off.”

Once we arrived in the school’s music room, my in-laws took their places in front of the big piano and began to speak. The fifty Israeli eight-year-olds - my daughter’s class together with the school’s other third-grade class - all sat perfectly still, uncharacteristically silent and motionless as my in-laws told their stories. I think their teachers were a little stunned at how well-behaved their normally rambunctious students were capable of being.

My in-laws spoke of how their parents were forbidden to work, and how they lived on very little food and fearing for their lives for six long years in France. They both spent the war with their families living in small villages, avoiding the major cities, living in small towns where saintly local non-Jews helped them conceal their identities so they would not be deported. Helene, my mother-in-law, told the children how, when she was just four years old, was awakened at three in the morning in a village outside the French town of Strasbourg by police banging on the door. It was a roundup and deportation of all of the local Jewish men. It didn’t come as a surprise. The Jews living in the village had heard that such a roundup was happening that night, and some of the men had gone to hide in the woods. Her father had made a decision not to join them. He was afraid that if he wasn’t there, the police might decide to take his wife and children instead. So they found him. He was given ten minutes to pack a bag and leave for a work camp. My mother-in-law held out hope for years after the war, that somehow he survived.

“When I was your age,” she told the eight-year-olds, “I was still waiting for my father to come home to me.”

He never did. Her father was deported to a concentration camp and died at the age of 38. Due to confused record-keeping and after decades of research, she only found out precisely in which camp he died last year. My father-in-law was significantly more fortunate - thanks to their resources, some clever planning, and, of course, sheer luck, his parents and all of his siblings made it through the war.

So my in-laws aren’t classic Holocaust survivors and their stories aren’t the stuff of dramatic documentaries. They don’t have riveting tales of shivering under haystacks, daring escapes from the Nazis, or stories of gruesome concentration camp atrocities. After all, my in-laws are only in their seventies, not their eighties or nineties. At the time of World War II they were both so young that their war memories are those of young children, supplemented, of course, by the stories they heard from older family members.

When my older kids, now teenagers, were younger, many of their classmates had grandparents who were older during the Holocaust, and so had clearer memories and more gripping stories. So during the elementary school years of my oldest two, I never volunteered my in-laws when the teachers were looking for survivors to come into school and tell their stories when Holocaust Remembrance Day rolled around.

These older grandparents, teenagers or young adults at the time of the war, had much more compelling stories and clearer memories of events to relay.

But even in the short span of five or six years, the gap between my second and third child, I have felt a clear shift that makes me realize that time is passing and the clock is ticking. My eight-year-old daughter is in a class which includes many children who have parents who are in their 20’s and 30’s - and whose grandparents are in their 50’s or 60’s - born after the Holocaust was over.

Now my daughter is the child with the older grandparents. For the first time, I worried that if I didn’t invite my in-laws to come to her school to speak to her class about their Holocaust experiences, nobody else would.

The power of hearing the testimony of a survivor face-to-face is an experience that can’t be replaced by participating in a ceremony, reading a novel, or seeing a play or movie. Looking into the eyes of another human being standing in front of you telling you what they went through, feeling how important it is to them to relay their tale - to make younger generations understand exactly what happened, is always unforgettable.

I wanted to make sure that my daughter and her classmates had this important experience before it is too late.

After my in-laws finished their speeches, the kids bombarded them with question after question about their experiences as their young minds tried to absorb what they had heard.

As I listened to the questions and answers, I felt painfully aware that these eight-year-olds are among the very last generation of Jews - of Israelis - of human beings - who would have the opportunity and the privilege to learn about the Shoah directly from those who experienced it and can truly convey the impact of what has happened.

This human-to-human connection is a precious thread that is now being stretched to its limit and will eventually snap, sadly.

Clearly, I’m not alone in feeling this and acting on it. The feeling is pervasive across Israel and among world Jewry. You can feel it in the spate of films being made, books being written and testimonies recorded in recent years. You can even feel it in the controversial decisions of some young individuals to tattoo their arms with the numbers of their parents and grandparents, as portrayed in one of the most poignant Holocaust documentaries of the past year, Numbered.

Will the world - will we - be able to confront the challenge of remembering the Holocaust when there are no longer any living survivors to look us in the eye, tell their stories and make us understand?

Knowing that it won’t be too many more years until we find out makes every moment of their presence with us now something to appreciate and treasure.

Credit: Allison Kaplan Sommer
Credit: Allison Kaplan Sommer

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