Ear­li­er this week, Men­achem Z. Rosen­saft wrote about Holo­caust remem­brance and life after cat­a­stro­phe. He is the edi­tor of the new­ly pub­lished God, Faith & Iden­ti­ty from the Ash­es: Reflec­tions of Chil­dren and Grand­chil­dren of Holo­caust Sur­vivors (Jew­ish Lights Pub­lish­ing) and has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Sev­en­ty years after the lib­er­a­tion of Auschwitz, as we are approach­ing the 70th anniver­saries of the lib­er­a­tion of the oth­er Nazi death and con­cen­tra­tion camps and the end of World War II, we are at a tran­si­tion­al moment. For the past sev­en­ty years, 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, there­fore, is how their absence will change the nature of Holo­caust remembrance.

His­to­ri­an Lucy Daw­id­ow­icz once described my father, who had sur­vived Auschwitz-Birke­nau, months of tor­ture in the noto­ri­ous Block 11 at Auschwitz, the cav­ernous under­ground tun­nels of Dora-Mit­tel­bau where Wern­her von Braun’s V‑2 rock­ets were man­u­fac­tured, and Bergen-Belsen as our Ancient Mariner, who pass­es, like night, from land to land,’ with strange pow­er of speech’ to tell his tale to whom­so­ev­er will listen.” 

And so it was for many of the sur­vivors, each haunt­ed by, at times obsessed with, his or her own mem­o­ries. Some were able to impart them to oth­ers. Many were unable to trans­late them into words. And when they did speak, they lit a fire with­in us who were priv­i­leged to lis­ten to and learn from them.

But now, they have entrust­ed the prin­ci­pal respon­si­bil­i­ty for pre­serv­ing and per­pet­u­at­ing their mem­o­ries to their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren as a hal­lowed inher­i­tance that we in turn must trans­mit to our and future gen­er­a­tions, Jews and non-Jews alike, not with their fer­vor and inten­si­ty but with our own.

My moth­er died hours after the end of Rosh Hashanah in 1997. In my intro­duc­tion to God, Faith & Iden­ti­ty from the Ash­es: Reflec­tions of Chil­dren and Grand­chil­dren of Holo­caust Sur­vivors, the new­ly pub­lished book I had the priv­i­lege of com­pil­ing and edit­ing for Jew­ish Lights Pub­lish­ing, I describe how 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 grey day, with a con­stant driz­zle. I showed Jodi Block 11 at Auschwitz, the death block where my father was tor­tured for months, and then we went to Birke­nau. We walked in silence past the decay­ing wood­en bar­racks. After 15 or 20 min­utes, Jodi turned to me and said, You know, it looks exact­ly the way Das­sah [which is what she called my moth­er, Hadas­sah] described it.” 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 Stephanie But­nick, it came on a vis­it to what had been the con­cen­tra­tion and Dis­placed Per­sons camps of Bergen-Belsen where I learned about my grand­par­ents from the friends they had made at the DP camp, who would become life­long friends after they all immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States. I heard sto­ries — and saw archival pho­tographs — of a the­ater troupe my grand­par­ents were a part of, and I ate meals in the same din­ing hall they would have eat­en in after lib­er­a­tion. Here, in this strange, unset­tling place, I felt clos­er to them than I ever had.”

Dr. Eva Fogel­man remem­bers sit­ting with her father on Cape Cod when he told her that the rose hip bush­es beside them remind­ed him of the berries he had eat­en as a par­ti­san in the forests of Belarus. 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.” 

When Dr. David Senesh was a pris­on­er of war dur­ing the 1973 Yom Kip­pur War, he thought of his aunt, the leg­endary poet Han­nah Szenes, who had been cap­tured, tor­tured and exe­cut­ed in wartime Budapest. In Octo­ber of 1973,” he recalls, I felt myself, like Han­nah, to be in the midst of a dead­ly vor­tex. There was no way of know­ing who would sur­vive that dread­ful Yom Kip­pur and who would per­ish, who would die by water and who by fire, who by bul­let and who by a shrap­nel, who by a wound and who by imprisonment.”

For­mer New York Times reporter Joseph Berg­er remem­bers his father telling him at the West­ern Wall in Jerusalem 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, that, If God takes such a good man as my hus­band, I’m not going to fol­low his laws.” 

These and oth­er defin­ing mem­o­ries and nar­ra­tives are the sparks behind the essays in God, Faith & Iden­ti­ty from the Ash­es. 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 their authors’ stark­ly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, they had one whol­ly unex­pect­ed com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tic: an almost unfail­ing opti­mism. What seems to me 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 per­se­cu­tion and 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. He teach­es about the law of geno­cide at the law schools of Colum­bia and Cor­nell Universities.

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