On the last day of Passover in synagogues around the world, we recited Yizkor, the memorial prayer for our departed loved ones. Our shul, as many around the world, also included special memorial prayers for the Six Million Martyrs of the Holocaust, as well as for Israel’s fallen heroes. This week, many will also honor the memory of the Six Million on Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Day of Remembrance.
We often hear people claiming that we Jews should “forgive and forget” the Holocaust atrocities. Nearly 80 years have passed, they argue. Why do we keep going on about it? Enough already!
I won’t comment here on the issue of forgiveness, but let’s explore the idea of forgetting.
Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a child survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, has written that forgetting such experiences is simply impossible. There are certain life experiences that one simply cannot forget because they are seared so deeply into our memories and can never be erased.
He recalls the time that he was hiding with his mother in the attic of an abandoned building; he was all of 5. His mother had baked honey cookies to take with them into hiding. Whenever the Gestapo would enter the abandoned building to search for Jews who may have been hiding there, she would push those cookies into his mouth so that he wouldn’t speak or cry.
“The minute I close my eyes,” he says, “the taste of those cookies is in my mouth. Even if you want to forget, you cannot. It is simply impossible.”
In this, Rabbi Lau is not unique. Every survivor, including those who remained sane, stable and re-established their lives successfully, was still scarred for life in one way or another.
As a young boy in Brooklyn, N.Y., during the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel, I remember my own father, who had lost his entire family from Poland during the Holocaust, having nightmares. We would be awakened during the night by his shrieking: “Eichmann araus!” (“Eichmann, get out!”)
My good friend’s father-in-law was a survivor who rebuilt his family and was a successful diamond merchant in London. Yet whenever he traveled, in his carry-on bag he always packed not only his tallit and tefillin but a loaf of bread, just in case.
Then there was the man who owned a big, white villa in Talpiot but would regularly collect the leftovers from the synagogue Shabbat Kiddush. When a young boy once asked him why, he replied: “You wouldn’t understand. You were never in Auschwitz.” We cannot even imagine the effects of suffering hunger and starvation in the concentration camps.
But our memories should not be limited to the suffering, pain and traumas of Jewish history. As we come from Passover and the dramatic recollections of the Exodus story in our homes, our earliest chronicles are not only powerful but positive.
Back in 1936, David Ben-Gurion appeared before the British Government’s Peel Commission that would subsequently recommend a Partition Plan for Palestine. Though a fiercely secular Jew, he nonetheless evoked Jewish history and Passover in his cogent arguments for a Jewish state.
“Over 300 years ago, there came to the New World a ship, and its name was the Mayflower. The Mayflower’s landing on Plymouth Rock was one of the great historical events in the history of England and in the history of America. But I would like to ask any Englishman sitting here on the Commission, on what day did the Mayflower leave port? What date was it? I’d like to ask the Americans: do they know what date the Mayflower left port in England? How many people were on the boat? Who were their leaders? What kind of food did they eat on the boat?
“Yet more than 3300 years ago, long before the Mayflower, our people left Egypt, and every Jew in the world, wherever he is, knows what day they left. And he knows what food they ate. And we still eat that food every anniversary. And we know who our leader was. And we sit down and tell the story to our children and grandchildren in order to guarantee that it will never be forgotten. And we declare our two slogans: ‘Now we may be enslaved, but next year, we will be a free people.’
Now we are scattered throughout the world, but next year, we will be in Jerusalem. That is the nature of the Jewish people.”
George Santayana famously said, “Those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” As new generations of Jews are born, remembering our history becomes more important than ever.
Ben-Gurion remembered. He understood that memories are not mere nostalgia. They recall the past and can ignite the future.
At Yizkor, we all remembered. Our memories have kept us rooted. We dare not forget.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.