As we commemorate Yom Hashoah, we again realize the distance that separates us from the event. We are in the midst of a transition between lived history and historical memory.
Survivors who were but teenagers at the end of the war are now well into their 90s with the last survivors being children whose experiences were all too real, yet whose recollections are often pre-verbal, images and feelings, which at a distance they were able to transmit in words.
Perhaps it is time on this Yom Hashoah to reflect on the legacy of survivors, even now when they are still with us, so we can understand what they have contributed to the Jewish future—the human future.
During World War II and in the immediate aftermath, survivors did what was most essential—they survived, enduring conditions that thankfully we non-survivors will never know. After liberation, they also fought to survive, grappling with the loss of family and community, struggling to build a future while also coming to terms with the past.
Thankfully, most chose to survive as Jews. It could have been otherwise.
An unknown number of survivors concluded that being Jewish was the third rail of life: Go there you die. Travel to any Eastern European country today and you will meet their descendants, who only now have learned the secret of their past.
Many more doubled down on Jewish life, marrying, giving birth to new life, creating the political conditions in the displaced persons camps that emphasized the urgency of creating a Jewish state in what was then Palestine. The DP camps had the highest birthrate in Europe. The response of survivors to death was to recreate life.
I once interviewed a man, Rabbi Arnold Wieder, who was a respected mohel (“ritual circumciser”) in Boston. He learned the trade from his father when they both lived in the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen after the war. For years during the Holocaust, Jewish men could be condemned to death if they were forced to lower their trousers. And yet immediately after liberation, they dared to make the indelible mark of the covenant on their sons even when they didn’t know where they were building their future and what the world might look like in that future.
Some survivors even returned to faith rejuvenating Chassidism and Orthodoxy in the lands of freedom. Thus, the final statement of Jewish history is about life and not death, no matter how pervasive the death.
Some survivors looked back immediately daring to face the abyss. Others waited until “that world” was more distant, their new life more secure.
Once they wrestled with the pain and the grief, some survivors found their calling—dare we say, the reason why they survived.
Bearing witness conferred a sense of meaning.
They responded intuitively to survival in the most biblical of ways: remembering anguish and evil to deepen conscience, to enlarge memory and broaden responsibility. Thus, the ancient Israelites responded to slavery and the Exodus. Thus, survivors responded to the Shoah.
We Jews took the story of the Exodus, and while retaining its particularity and celebrating its particularity as we just did in Passover, made it into a universal story of freedom. Survivors are doing that very same thing, preserving the particularity of the Shoah while also transmitting it as a universal plea against mass murder, against indifference, against inactions and for compassion, decency and respect for all peoples.
Victimization was transformed into witnesses, dehumanization into a plea to deepen our humanity.
We non-witnesses have lived in the presence of witnesses.
What we have learned, hear and read can be transformed into action to build and rebuild the Jewish people, to better the world, to prevent genocide and/or to alleviate its suffering and heal its victims.
Dr. Michael Berenbaum is a professor of Jewish studies at the American Jewish University and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust.