Essays On The Holocaust Survivors

(Illustration Ivy Tashlik; original image Shutterstock)

My family wasn’t very interested in Mother’s Day when I was growing up. My mother wasn’t a believer in contrived holidays. Her philosophy was that every day you were alive should be seen as your birthday, and if you had a mother, every day should be seen as Mother’s Day; nothing more needed to be said. So, our observance of Mother’s Day left a lot to be desired, and we usually marked the day with a casual toss of “Happy Mother’s Day” during a phone conversation.

This year, for the first time, there won’t be any Mother’s Day phone calls. My mother, Rochel Steinmetz, passed away last October. Instead of chatting on the telephone, I will be mourning in silence. Silence is a fitting tribute to my mother, because she understood that sometimes silence speaks louder than words.

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As a rabbi, I know that mourning and silence go hand in hand. Oftentimes, visitors to shivas feel compelled to speak. After all, the North American cultural bias is to force-feed every social situation with conversation; silences are awkward and unwanted. But shiva houses are different; there are sensitivities to consider, and there is authentic grief in the air. So, when you arrive to speak with the mourner, you’re concerned that what you say might prove to be a faux pas.

For this reason, I often rely on the well-worn cliche, “There are no words.” I’ve gone to hundreds of shiva homes; and there are tragedies so large that it’s impossible to speak without acknowledging all of the pain swirling around the room. Declaring that “there are no words” makes an awkward situation less awkward; suddenly no one has to pretend to comfort, and no one has to pretend to be comforted. Death is final and tragic; nothing anyone ever says can change that. Clever attempts at offering comfort usually fail miserably and are more likely to offend than to console. In a shiva house, words cannot compare to silence.

After my mother’s funeral, I sat shiva for the first time. After having visited hundreds of shivas, this time it was me who sat hunched down in the low chair. Suddenly, the phrase “there are no words” took on new meaning. The Talmud says that upon returning from the cemetery the mourner eats a rounded food (like eggs, lentils, etc.). This is because a mourner “has no mouth,” just like an egg, which is an enclosed circle, without any hint of an opening. During the first few days of shiva, I realized how true this was. Even though I spoke nonstop, words couldn’t express my sense of loss. Inside my 47-year-old body was a 7-year-old-child crying for mommy; and even an ocean of thesauruses could not describe my heart, the heart of a grieving orphan. Silence communicated my feelings better than words.

As the year of mourning presses on, silence has become the playground of memory; I hear my mother’s voice best during moments of silence. And even as I turn my mind to other matters, precious memories turn up, without prompting and without warning, unannounced. They arrive with or without tears, while I’m doing everyday tasks like driving or saying kaddish; suddenly, I’m overwhelmed by how much I miss my mother. And these silent intrusions are actually quite welcome; it’s extremely comforting to know that I can remember my mom without even trying. She is a part of my heart and soul, with or without anything further being said.

While silence is a large part of any mourner’s life, it feels particularly appropriate in my case: Silence was important to my mother, and she made it a large part of my upbringing, as well.

My mother was deported to Auschwitz in 1944; at the time, she was just 16 years old. After the war, she came to America and rapidly rebuilt her life. She got married, bought a house in the suburbs, and had three children. In 1964, when she was eight months pregnant, my father’s car crashed, and her world fell apart. All of sudden, she was a widow and a single mother struggling to get by. And 30 days after my father’s death, my mother gave birth to her fourth child: me.

At my mother’s funeral, an elderly rabbi asked for the opportunity to speak. He told the audience that 47 years earlier, when he had visited my father’s shiva, he was struck by the enormous courage my mother had shown as a young widow. Even while sitting shiva, Rochel Steinmetz let everyone know she was going to raise her children by herself, and raise them well. And 47 years later, her children can confirm that she kept her promise.

Despite all the difficulty in her life, my mother was an absolute optimist. This Holocaust survivor, widow, and single mother insisted that the glass was always half full; and even if it wasn’t half full, it was at least a quarter full. To my mother, the most important thing a parent could give a child is a sense of hope, so she nurtured us with a steady stream of inspirational quotes and stories.

But my mother also nurtured us with silence. As a 16-year-old, she had experienced unspeakable horrors, yet she made it a point of not talking about them. Survivors have debated among themselves about whether or not they should speak about the Holocaust with their families; in my own family, my mother refused to speak much, while her sister carefully documented the events of the Shoah. Those who did speak have left a treasured historical record, and I am so grateful that my aunt left us her testimony. But I am also grateful for my mother’s silence. Even though she had a full portfolio of personal challenges, she was determined to shelter us from her struggles. She never complained, because she didn’t want to worry us; for the same reason, she never spoke with us about the Holocaust. She raised us to love life.

Mom’s silence was a symphony of determination and love, a desire to make sure the horrors of her youth were not visited on her children. As I sit silently tapping away on my keyboard, her quiet legacy still speaks loudly. I will remember many things about my mother; and I will never forget the sounds of silence, her silent struggle to provide us with a home filled with love.

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Chaim Steinmetz is a the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.

A generation will soon come of age having never heard firsthand testimony from a living Holocaust survivor. The aging ranks of those persecuted by the Nazis during World War II are not yet fully diminished, but one day soon they will be.

“We are at a transitional moment, when the survivors are fading from the scene and there’s a real question of what Holocaust remembrance will be like going forward,” says Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress — an organization that advocates for the rights of Jews and Jewish communities. Born in the Bergen Belsen displaced persons camp in 1948, he is the son of two Holocaust survivors. “And the real question to me was, ‘What is it that we, children and grandchildren of survivors, are doing with this legacy?’”

In God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, a recently published book of essays, Rosensaft asked descendants to respond to that question. The book originated with a sermon Rosensaft delivered at the Park Avenue Synagogue on the Saturday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in 2013, in which he tried to reconcile faith with the horrors his parents and others endured at Auschwitz.

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The sermon was later published in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog and received a personal response from Pope Francis. It also caught the attention of Jewish Lights Publishing and eventually became one in the collection of more than 80 essays published in November.

When Rosensaft, 66, and his wife — the daughter of two survivors — attended a conference on children of Holocaust survivors in New York in 1979, they heard from psychologists and therapists talking about the trauma of the second generation. He and his wife didn’t recognize themselves in any of the descriptions. While there are certainly children of survivors who are traumatized by their parents’ experiences, he says, it didn’t reflect the whole population.

From the outset, the book was meant to be life-affirming, he says. He wanted to pull together reflections from children and grandchildren of survivors, about how this legacy has shaped them theologically, politically, culturally and in terms of identity, education and career.

Contributors to the book come from 16 countries on six continents and include rabbis — from ultra-Orthodox to reform and female rabbis — as well as secular Jews and atheists. There are essays by lawyers, doctors, politicians, academics, writers and mental health professionals.

Many of them, though well-known and respected in their fields, are not usually associated with Holocaust memory, such as U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon); David Miliband, former British secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs; and Avi Dichter, former director of Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency.

“What is often forgotten is that the victims of the Holocaust, both the dead and its survivors, were not a homogeneous group,” says Rosensaft. “The fact that you had communists and Hasidic rabbis and secular Jews and rich and poor sleeping in the same barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau or being next to each other in a gas chamber is relevant, because there’s no reason for their children or grandchildren to be any more homogenous than they were.”

In his essay, Alexander Soros, son of billionaire investor George Soros — a survivor of Nazi persecution in Hungary — wonders what he would have done had he been born a German or Hungarian and not a Jew during the time of the Holocaust.

Richard Primus, a professor of law at the University of Michigan, writes about how the cold makes him think of his grandfather’s winter experiences at Auschwitz, which makes him think of those who suffer in different ways today. That in turn makes him hope that his own children will think of those who suffer today even if they do not first think of their great-grandfather in Auschwitz. Like many of the other members of the second and third generations who contributed to the book, Primus has grappled with how to pass on the legacy of memory to subsequent generations.

Tali Nates, the director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre and daughter of a Holocaust survivor, recalls the day in 1994 when she stood in line to vote in the first free elections in South Africa, while in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were being slaughtered in another genocide.

“The words ‘Never Again’ always make me very upset,” she writes. “After the Holocaust, the survivors truly believed that when the ‘world’ saw what had happened to them, surely it would never happen again. But it did... There is much work to be done by all of us to make those words a reality.” As a second-generation Holocaust survivor, she feels it is, in part, up to her.

Rosensaft says that while the book is written by descendants of Holocaust survivors, it is meant to address survivors of other genocides and atrocities and their descendants. Part of the legacy, he feels, is to recognize, call attention to and assuage the suffering of others.

He quotes his boss Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, who last spring wrote an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Who Will Stand Up for the Christians?” In it, Lauder says, “The Jewish people understand all too well what can happen when the world is silent. This campaign of death must be stopped.”

The book is also published at a time of growing concern over the rise of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe. On Thursday, the U.N. held its first-ever meeting on the increase in violence against Jews following the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this month.

As for the children and grandchildren of the Jews who escaped death at the hands of their persecutors, Rosensaft says: “We did not experience the Holocaust, we are not survivors…. We did not see our families murdered, we were never cold, we were never starved, we were never beaten. We grew up in comfort. And yet what we do have, what sets us apart, is that we grew up with our parents and grandparents. We absorbed their stories firsthand.”

He adds: “We can’t take the place of the survivors in telling their experiences from a first-person perspective. But we can talk about what their experiences meant to them and how their experiences and their memories were conveyed to us.”

Their responsibility is to pass on these memories “not just to our own children and grandchildren but to others of our generations, Jewish and non-Jewish, in order to make sure that this legacy and memory becomes an inheritance that belongs to humankind as a whole.”

Elie Wiesel, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald who went on to become a prolific writer, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and a teacher, contributed the prologue to God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes, adapted from a speech he gave to children of survivors in 1984.

“Now you are being summoned to do something with pieces of words, with fragments of our vision, with remnants of our broken, dispersed memories,” wrote Wiesel, for whom Rosensaft served as a teaching assistant in the 1970s. “The testimony of our life and death will not vanish. Our memories will not die with us.”

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