We are blessed with extraordinary brains that store a remarkable number of memories. Two or three notes of a song and we remember where we were when we heard it and who was there, 50-60 years later. A particular aroma, from perfume to chicken soup, and we are drawn back to when we smelled it the first time.
I have a picture that sets off a flood of memories. It’s my father at age 14, posing with a group of boys. I don’t know who took the photo; I obviously wasn’t there. None of the kids are smiling. They all look so weary. They’re wearing frayed shirts and their pants are held up with rope. My father’s jacket is 3 sizes too small; the sleeves ride way up on his arms.
These boys are all residents of the Auerbach Jewish Orphanage in Berlin, Germany. The year is 1940. They have fled Germany and they are on the run in the French countryside. France has just surrendered to the Nazis. The boys know that time is not on their side.
I look into my father’s deep-set eyes. They are dark with fatigue and fear. I know he’s seen people shot and killed. He’s ducked for cover during bombing attacks. He’s gone to bed hungry. He has experienced radical powerlessness. His parents are dead, and his older sister is hiding out somewhere back in Berlin. He is fleeing, but to where?
The Holocaust was a time of deep, unrelenting despair. So much suffering; an infinity of loss. Millions lived through it – who knows how. Many survivors were deeply traumatized, losing a part of themselves in the camps, in the forests, on the road, in hiding, and never fully regaining who they had been. Some of them were able to live a life of meaning, a life of substance and joy. Others were broken, stunted, unable to extricate themselves from experiences that marked them like the tattoos.
Yesterday, January 27th, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was established by the UN in 2005 in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Drawing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, member states are called upon to condemn all forms of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief” throughout the world. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not to be confused with Yom HaShoah, which was established as a day of mourning by the state of Israel in 1949.
For survivors and children of survivors, remembrance days are superfluous.
A survivor once said to me right before a Yom HaShoah Shabbat service, “Rabbi, every day is a remembrance day. Every day, for as long as I live, every day! I recite kaddish. And if I live to be a hundred and twenty, it will not even begin to be sufficient.” Or as Yitzhak Zuckerman put it, a leader of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw, who survived Treblinka and saw untold numbers of friends and comrades die: “If you could lick my heart, you would die from the poison.”
So if International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not for survivors, who and what is it for? Perhaps it’s a means by which the stories of the Holocaust are preserved. Perhaps it’s a way to remind the world that there was a time and place of infamy and evil. Will the rest of the world dare to listen?