Guest post by Kate Stern
When I was in college, the Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) events focused on familiar themes: accounts of the concentration camps, decimated villages and the staggering number of victims. A network of volunteers took shifts sitting at a table, decorated only with a lit 24-hour memorial candle. While at the table, they read from an enormous book filled with names of Holocaust victims and the village, town or city where each had lived.
I participated in this 24-hour vigil every year, preferring a time slot that began in darkness and ended after dawn, feeling like this was symbolic of European Jews’ struggle through this era. But in truth, the effect was depressing. It book was a long list of families and towns wiped out, symbolizing only helplessness and death. In retrospect, I also felt the guilt of being an American Jew who probably would have been spared.
But then I married the grandson of German Jews, two of whom got out of Germany in the 1930s before war broke out. The other two were lucky to escape Europe, via detainment in Britain, with their lives.
I began to see the Holocaust not only as an end-point for six million Jews, but also as a phoenix rising from the ashes of Europe. As I watched my husband’s grandmother and grandfather, one from each side of the family, engage in friendly banter about who had more great-grandchildren, it seemed a quiet but powerful thumb in the eye of the regime that wanted them dead, their family lines cut off.
The commemorations in Israel match this spirit. While the six million Jewish souls lost are memorialized, at the same time there is equal time given to the survivors, who often not only lived through incredibly difficult conditions but also acted as leaders—in the Resistance, in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as partisans or as spies. In Israel, this day is not only Holocaust Remembrance Day, but Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah (Holocaust and Heroism Day).
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Many of these young survivors emigrated to Palestine, where they help to found the State of Israel. They were determined and gritty and willing to sacrifice even further, via armed struggle, to ensure a safe place for future generations of Jewish children. What they created is unique: breathtaking, heartbreaking, imperfect and strong.
Now it is up to me—to us—and to my children to foster this country. To make it sing, dance and remember.
My children have already been introduced to the family stories: Their great-grandmother who rescued a Torah scroll on Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) in 1938 and then smuggled it to America. In 1939, another great-grandmother, desperately trying to reach safety in England, was detained for questioning by a Nazi officer at a train station; she cheated death because her missed train was bombed. They can see God’s hand among the losses. They are beginning to understand what it means when they are told that their paternal grandparents did not have grandparents—at all.
Now it is up to all of us, the generations born and raised after the Holocaust, to remember both the deaths and the lives; the crushing blow to European Jewry and its direct effect on this small parcel of land planted, literally and figuratively, with new roots. Let us never forget.
Kate Stern is a freelance writer and editor. Born and raised in the United States, she made aliyah with her family in 2009. She lives Modiin and blogs at onetiredema.wordpress.com.