An Empowering Legacy of Remembrance

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The general counsel of the World Jewish Congress outlines how the legacy left by a fading population of Holocaust survivors must be carried on by their children and grandchildren.

Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, as we commemorate the liberation of this and other death camps — as well as the end of World War II — we are at a transitional moment. For the past seven decades, the survivors of the Shoah kept the memory of what had been done to them, to their families and to European Jewry at the forefront of their society’s consciousness. Sadly but inevitably, they are now fading from the scene. The critical question now is how their absence will change the nature of Holocaust remembrance.
 
The principal responsibility for preserving and perpetuating survivors’ memories has been entrusted to their children and grandchildren. It is a hallowed inheritance that we, in turn, must transmit to our and future generations, Jews and non-Jews alike, with an intensity of our own.
 
My mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, died hours after the end of Rosh Hashanah in 1997. Six months later, I took our daughter, Jodi, then a college sophomore, to Poland for the first time. She and my mother had been very close and had spent a great deal of time together as Jodi was growing up. We went to Warsaw and Krakow, and then to Auschwitz. 
 
It was a gray day, with a constant drizzle. I showed Jodi Block 11 at Auschwitz, where my father was tortured for months, and then we went to Birkenau. We walked in silence past the decaying wooden barracks. After 15  minutes, Jodi turned to me.  “You know, it looks exactly the way Dassah described it,” she said, using the name she called my mother, Hadassah.
 
In that moment, I realized that a transfer of memory had taken place. My daughter, born 33 years after the Holocaust, had recognized Birkenau through my mother’s eyes, through my mother’s memories, which Jodi had absorbed into her consciousness.
 
Many children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have experienced this type of epiphany. For Joseph Berger, a former reporter at The New York Times, it came at the Western Wall in Jerusalem when his father told him that he was angry at God for taking away his sisters. And yet, Berger writes, “when I think about that conversation now, what stands out is not his anger but that he still maintained his relationship with God, like a child fleetingly furious at a parent but knowing the bond will never be broken.”
 
In contrast, Princeton bio­ethics professor Peter Singer recalls that his grandmother told her family in Melbourne, Australia: “If God takes such a good man as my husband, I’m not going to follow his laws.”
 
Aviva Tal recounts a story her mother once told her of how she and a group of other women inmates at the Ravensbrück concentration camp laughed while being forced to carry heavy loads of coal when one of them began to sing, in Yiddish, “I thank you Gottenyu, dear God, that I am a Jew.”
 
These and other defining memories and narratives are the sparks behind the essays in God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, the newly published book I was privileged to compile and edit. Each of the contributors to this book received a unique legacy, and each put into words how this legacy has shaped his or her life, thoughts, mindset and career.
 
In the course of editing the book, I realized that despite the authors’ starkly different perspectives, they had one wholly unexpected common characteristic: an almost unfailing optimism.
 
What seems to unite the diverse contributors — regardless of religious or political orientation — is a conviction that the legacy of memory we have received from our parents or grandparents is a source of strength rather than despondency, and a determination to apply that legacy in constructive, forward-looking ways that might inspire not just Jews but all human beings, especially those whose families have been the victims of genocide, crimes against humanity or other dire catastrophes.
 
The resilience of the survivors upon emerging from the Nazi death camps and other sites of oppression — and their ability to not just rebuild their lives but teach their children and grandchildren by example to continue to have faith in humankind — is evidence, to me at least, that a dawn follows even the darkest of nights.
 
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and editor of the newly published God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights). He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities. This article is adapted from an essay that first appeared as a part of the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series (jewishbookcouncil.org).

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