“Suddenly, all of my ancestors were behind me and they were saying:
‘Be still, watch and listen, you are the result of the love of thousands.’”
– Actress Helena Bonham Carter, from the documentary My Grandparent’s War
As Sabbath approaches this week, I write you this message on Thursday, Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. Last night on Wednesday evening, Jews all over the world and many others who joined with us, came together to commemorate this dark and inexplicably horrible chapter in human history. In our community, we had various programs and commemorations to mark this important day. At Federation, we sponsored an inspiring program which we hope not only honored our beloved Survivors and remembered their loved ones who perished, but also introduced us to a category of new “survivors.” Through the Violins of Hope program, instruments which were played during or before the war, many by those who did not survive, are restored to their former beauty and glory and given renewed voices, to sing again. Some of these violins were played at the Concentration Camps at the whim of the Nazis, adding beauty to the ugliest of places. In some cases, this extended or saved the lives of their players. And so, on this darkest night, we were inspired by these stories of hopeful renewal. From silence to song. As the violinist played the Israeli National anthem “Hatikvah” – “The Hope,” the meaning of the words was not lost on any of us present.
We are a people who remember – it is intrinsically who we are. It is sewn into the fabric of our tradition, written in the text of our holy books, and the words of our prayers. The word “zachor” – remember is everywhere around us for Jews. When we lose a loved one, we say Yizkor – the Prayer of Remembrance. Even in our Friday night Kiddush prayer over the wine, we are told that Sabbath is a gift “Zecher l’itziyat Mitzrayim – to recall the Exodus from Egypt. And, of course, whenever we speak about the Holocaust, we are commanded one powerful word: “Zachor – Remember, Do Not Forget.” But do we overemphasize the importance of memory? Do Jews dwell in the past, as we are often accused? Do we place too much power on the need to remember, which keeps us from moving forward? I have heard this criticism and have engaged in numerous conversations around it. But, no, I do not believe this is the case at all.
Today, I make the case that memory is vital, and it makes us who we are as Jews, central to our identity and necessary for moving forward with knowledge and strength. I believe there is an important difference in dwelling on the past on the one hand, and embracing it, understanding it and moving forward, while holding it firmly in our hearts. In fact, the act of memory can create resilience. Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, who I often quote and admire, wrote a great deal on this subject. He speaks about the collective “fragments of memory” of the Jewish people, and that throughout our history “we carry with us all the fragments of our people’s past, the broken lives, the anguished deaths. For we refuse to let their deaths be in vain. They, our past, live on in us as we continue the Jewish journey to the future, to hope, and to life.” And particularly, when it comes to the Holocaust, he notes: “What our enemies killed, we keep alive in the only way we can, in our minds, our memories and our memorial prayers.” I agree with his statement that “there are cultures that forget the past and there are cultures that are held captive by the past. We do neither. We carry the past with us as we will carry the memory of the Holocaust with us for as long as the Jewish people exists, as Moses carried the bones of Joseph” out of Egypt.
And so, on this day, I remember my own family and those I lost, as I am sure many of you are thinking of yours, as well as those in our community, my dear friends, who themselves survived this darkest chapter in our history. Born in 1870 in Munkatch, which was then in Hungary (now in modern-day Ukraine), my great grandmother Shifra, pictured above, perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, along with many members of my family. Luckily, my grandmother, Giza, who married young, escaped with her new husband to Canada, since America would not grant them entry. Because of my grandparents’ generosity in sponsoring many surviving members of my family to come to Canada after the war, including an unrelated orphan (who is today my Uncle Benny), they lived full, happy lives, establishing families and successful businesses. Six of them were married in the Displaced Person’s camp even before coming to Canada, so anxious were they to establish relationships, as they were completely alone. Thus, my loving and kind grandparents brought over not just their own relatives, but others whom they had not even met. But, as Yom HaShoah draws to a close for another year, we recommit to the memory of the millions lost with the moving words of Rabbi Sacks:
“So today we say to the souls of those our people lost in Europe’s dark night: we will never forget you, we will never cease to mourn you, we will not let you down, until Jews can walk the world without fear, witnesses against those who choose death, to the God of life who told us: ‘Choose life.’”
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom – a Sabbath full of peace and tranquility,
Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service
Image caption: I dedicate today’s message to my great grandmother, Shifra Auslander Goldstein, of blessed memory, who perished at Auschwitz on May 20, 1944. She and my great grandfather, Alexander Goldstein had 11 children, including my grandmother, Giza. We love you – we will never forget you.