Survivors children take on Shoah remembrance

Seventy years after the liberation of the Nazi death and concentration camps at the end of World War II, we are at a transitional moment. For the past seven decades, the survivors of the Shoah kept the memory of what had been done to them, their families and European Jewry at the forefront of society’s consciousness.

Sadly but inevitably, they are now fading from the scene. The critical question, then, is how their absence will change the nature of Holocaust remembrance.

The principal responsibility for preserving and perpetuating the survivors’ memories has been entrusted to their children and grandchildren. It is a hallowed inheritance that we, in turn, must transmit to future generations, Jews and non-Jews alike, not with our parents’ intensity but with our own.

As novelist and law professor Thane Rosenbaum has written in “God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors,” the book I compiled and edited for Jewish Lights Publishing (2015), “We are all, to some degree, answering the call of the concentration camps, not as eyewitness, but as dutiful sons and daughters.”

My mother, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, died hours after the end of Rosh Hashanah in 1997. Six months later, I took our daughter, Jodi, then a college sophomore and who had always been very close to my mother, to Poland for the first time.

When we came to Auschwitz, I first showed Jodi the notorious Block 11, known as the Death Block, where my father was tortured for months. Then we went to Birkenau. It was a gray day, with a constant drizzle. We walked in silence past the decaying wooden barracks. After 15 or 20 minutes, Jodi turned to me. “You know, it looks exactly the way Dassah described it,” she said, using her name for my mother, Hadassah.

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.

For former reporter New York Times reporter Joseph Berger, it came at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, when his father told him 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.”

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 — among them a U.S. senator, a former British foreign secretary, a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and a former Israeli minister of Internal Security and Shin Bet director, as well as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal rabbis — 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 the 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 and lectures on the law of genocide and war crimes trials at Columbia and Cornell universities. A version of this article appeared as part of the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.