I am a third generation Holocaust survivor. My grandparents were born in Poland and spent the war in hiding and in work camps. Growing up, I remember sitting at my Bubbie’s table (my Zayde passed away when I was young), and hearing stories about “The War.” It always loomed large in my family, and in many ways was the first motivation of my journey to become a rabbi.
My Bubbie passed away 11 years ago, and, even though I heard those stories over and over again for so many years, my retelling of them is a poor substitute for her first-hand account. Despite our repeated efforts, she always refused to record a video testimony, but, even if she had done so, I doubt that showing it to my children would have the same impact on them as her live conversations had on me.
Dor holech, dor bah, “One generation goes, another one comes”, says the book of Ecclesiastes. While we pray that all survivors and liberators live to the age of 120, the truth is that in the near future there will be no more first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. So much of our commemoration depends on these first-hand accounts. What will we do once they are no longer?
We have video testimonies and museums: Yad Vashem, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and various local Holocaust museums and memorials too. These are important because they preserve the memories and educate about the lessons of the Holocaust. However, Judaism teaches us that in order to really remember we need to ritualize our memories: we need to have a Passover seder to recall that we were slaves in Egypt; we need Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, to be a day of fasting and mourning to remember the destruction of our holy Temples in Jerusalem. Each of these days, and others, provide us with a framework with which to process and pass on the formative experiences of our people. What is the framework that will ensure that the memory and the lessons of the Holocaust endure thousands of years from now?
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel once said that Auschwitz is as important as Mount Sinai. Rabbi Yehuda Kurtzer, in his thoughtful book "Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past", understands this to mean that just as Mount Sinai is central to our Jewish consciousness, so must be the Holocaust. Mount Sinai is central to us not only because it was a pivotal moment in our religious, communal, and theological history as a people, but because it also continues to be a pivotal moment. Thousands of years later, we still interpret, reinterpret, and find new meaning in Sinai. Seventy years after the Holocaust, we are still trying to understand the magnitude of this horrible tragedy. The truth is, we will probably never be able to understand it, but we don’t need to. We just need to remember it. Historically, yes, but, perhaps even more importantly, we need to remember it within the context of what defines us as a Jewish people.
How do we do this? How do we make the transition from first-hand testimony to rituals that cannot convey the details but can convey the meaning? Some have argued that Yom Hashoah should be a day of fasting like other tragedies we traditionally commemorate by fasting. Others have created a Shoah Scroll to read on Yom Hashoah, in the style of Megillat Eicha, the book of Lamentations, which is read on Tisha B’Av. Kurtzer wonders if actions like leaving the corner of your house unpainted, as some people already do in memory of the destroyed Temples, would be a worthwhile way to remember, as well.
I’m not sure what the appropriate rituals are to memorialize the Holocaust and help us internalize its lessons. But I do know that this is our challenge moving forward, and we need to think together as a community to make sure that memory and the lessons of the Holocaust endure from one generation to the next.