April 19, 2012

Day of Remembrance

April 1, Kristallnacht
With apologies to Aunt Genocide (my sister the Holocaust scholar), who will probably want to correct every single historical detail in this post.  And then some.

Today is Yom Ha'Shoah.

"Shoah" is the Hebrew word for "disaster," or "calamity."  It is also the word that Jews the world over have been using since the 1940s (and probably earlier) to describe what happened in Germany, Poland, and throughout the spread of the Nazi movement, to the Jewish people.

Here in the United States as in many places, we call it, "The Holocaust."

But "holocaust" means "burnt offering."  It's a title that I, personally, find... distasteful.

Because a burnt offering is a sacrifice.  And because the burnt offerings of those years were corpses at the alter of the ideal of Aryan superiority.  And to call that a sacrifice is not accurate- it was different from a sacrifice.  It was not a choice, or an obligation, or even an inevitability.

But it was a disaster.  And a calamity.  And a horror.

As my mother helps her parents prepare to leave their house after decades, she has come across some interesting objects.  One of these is a doll.

My great-great-uncle Hy found that doll in a concentration camp.  He was looking for his family.  He was looking for the people that he knew and loved, that helped define him and shape him, and connect him with his past, his future, and his history.

I can't imagine what was running through his mind while he searched that camp.  What he found was a doll.  A small, homemade doll.  He picked it up, and he mailed it to the only little girl he had any connection to anymore.  My nine year old grandmother.  Sending her that doll must have felt like the closest thing he would ever get to reuniting his family.

The Shoah began before what we think of as the Holocaust- it began decades before.  Centuries.  Millennia.  When my family fled Spain- when Columbus was sailing the ocean blue, Jews were packing their bags and leaving after Ferdinand and Isabella's edict- there was already a precedent in place.

Many of them went to Poland, where they were given religious freedom by King Boleslav.

They felt safe in Poland, and there they remained.  Spreading their roots, building their communities.  Not just in Poland, but around Poland.

It was over two hundred years that they lived, somewhat peacefully, with the Polish people.  And then the pogroms began- systematic killing and violence of Jews.  Over the next few centuries, this violence drove the Jews into Germany and Prussia.

It was 100 years later that the rise of sentiments and policies that lead to the Nazis would begin.

And that's where my family was.  In Poland, in Lithuania, in Germany.  My great-great-grandparents.  My great-grandparents.  My ancestors.

The people who's names and likenesses I and my parents and my children bear.

My great-great grandfather (on my mother's mother's mother's side) fled Poland and established himself in the United States.

My great-great-grandparents (on my mother's father's father's side) managed the same feat.

I know nothing of my father's lineage this far back, but the names I've seen printed and etched at Ellis Island.  I do know that all who remained are now gone.  Whole swathes of my family, of my history, of the story of how I came to be and who I am... they are gone.

The name we have chosen for Baby X is my great-great-aunt's name.  I never knew her.  She was my great-grandpa Abe's youngest sister.

I grew up with her story, though.  When the family was fleeing, they hid in the false bottom of a hay cart in the wee hours of the morning while a friend smuggled them to the docks, to board a boat to America.

Soldiers with pitchforks stabbed at the hay.  They were looking for people just like my family, Jews, trying to escape.  Through the ordeal, the children (and there were many of them) all miraculously remained silent.  Including Baby X's namesake.  She slept peacefully through the ordeal, only a baby, never waking or crying.

She grew up, fell in love, and married before dying young and tragically.

It was a fate she never would have enjoyed if she had remained in Europe.  She would have died young and tragically, but not in the freedom of the road and the company of her husband.  She would have died almost anonymously, one of millions crowded into camps and systematically annihilated.  Her name replaced by a number on her arm.  The name my daughter will carry on.

Today is Yom Ha'Shoah, the day of Remembrance.

I might have had many more cousins.

I might have had a family so large and and so close, the sort of family that my husband has.  I might have had a community in my mind of names and faces and laughs and idiosyncrasies of the people connected to me through blood.

Instead, I have memories of museums.  Of empty shoes and coarse, striped fabric.  I have memories of my great-grandfather's silences, of stories he would write down but not discuss with me.  I have memories of dates and of events that occurred before I was born, but which are etched into my soul.

I remember.

As we say each Passover... in each generation there are some who would rise and try to destroy us.

The Assyrians.  The Egyptians.  The Persians.  The Greeks.  The Romans.  The Christian Crusaders.  The Inquisitorial Catholics.  The Cossacks.  The Nazis.

I have no doubt there will be another some day, and I will probably live to see it.  It will probably take the form of military action against Israel.

I'm not a Zionist, I don't believe that Jews are entitled to that land or that it's even necessarily a good idea to have a "Jewish State."  But regardless of what I believe when it comes to Israel and war and genocide, I believe that it is my job not only as a Jew but as a human being to remember the lesson of the Holocaust.

Never again.

Never again can we stand idly by as a people are willfully destroyed.  Religions, cultures, races, sexualities, these are not only abstract concepts by which we can divide masses into categories- these are people.  Aunts and uncles and grandparents and sons and daughters.  Jews and Gypsies and Catholics and homosexuals.  Hutus and Cham and Armenians and Kurds.

Piles of corpses that survivors sift through, hoping and fearing to find a familiar face.

A face that looks like it could belong to them.

Today is Yom Ha'Shoah.


  1. I agree that the word "holocaust' is a misnomer, and a sick one at that. I believe there will always be those who feel it their right to persecute others different from themselves. It is only through remembering the past that we can hope to make a difference in the future.

  2. Wonderful post. I may not be Jewish but I too have lost family because of the horrible events in WWII, my poor greatuncle who was in the resistance and worked at the city hall. He made fake passports for people on the run. A neighbour told on him and he was taken away soon after to Germany never to be heard or seen again. We only recently got an official letter stating what had happened to him after they took him away. I'm rather proud of my greatuncle and I'll definitely remember too.

  3. I totally want to meet your sister - we seem to have something in common! ;-)

    Thank you for posting this - I try to post something similar every year on Yom HaShoa. Living in Israel, it gave me a unique feeling - almost like I'm closer to those that lived through it (even though my grandparents are all survivors).

    This is my post from 2012: http://www.thenewglasers.com/2012/04/yom-hashoah-never-forget.html
    And my post from 2011: http://www.thenewglasers.com/2011/05/holocaust-remembrance.html

    Tell your sister to come find me - we're moving back to Detroit in August! My MA finishes sometime in 2014-ish and then I'm on to my PhD (probably at Wayne State). :-)



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Vote for me!

Visit Top Mommy Blogs To Vote For Me!