Living with Courage

A work colleague shared an emotional story today. On the eve of the Holocaust Memorial Day, he talked about his wife’s family’s experience during the Holocaust. More importantly, having no direct connections of his own, he talked about the lessons he learned – about himself and others – from his wife’s grandmother.

Reading his words made me think of my own grandparents. Yossef developed a personal connection to the Holocaust once he got married, but mine was formed at birth.

From as far back as I can remember, I was aware of the horrors that befell Jews (and countless others) at the hands of the Nazis. Even if it wasn’t discussed early on in my childhood, I somehow knew the numbers tattooed on the arms of my grandparents’ friends were associated with something bad. Later I learned the truth. With every movie I ever saw on the subject…with every book I read…with every story I heard…and then with visits to Poland…the reality of the Holocaust and an evil-filled world sunk in.

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It is an obvious fact that the numbers of currently living Holocaust survivors are dwindling. It also is true that, of the generation being born today, very few will actually meet or be able to talk to a survivor. So, there is much concern and discussion about the ways in which to capture and transmit their stories. Especially in this age of social media, what is the best way to catch the attention – in a quick, yet impactful manner – of the young? How do we enable them to feel empathy, while promoting understanding? How do we teach resilience? More importantly, how can they learn important lessons that are still relevant today?

While I am no scholar or historian or philosopher or digital marketing guru, I believe we all – Jews and Christians alike – must do two things to teach our children:

One. The Holocaust did not happen in America. No matter how much antisemitism and terrorism against Jews may take place in this country, they do not compare to what happened in Europe. To understand the magnitude of the attempted extermination of the Jews, one must go see the concentration camps in Germany, Poland, and other places. Only when one personally sees, hears, feels, smells, and tastes can one truly understand. (Read about someone’s ‘Aha!’ moment by clicking here.) And so, together, we must go and learn.

Two. Life can be scary, confusing and hard. Choosing to live in the face of tremendous loss (of family, friends, property, possessions, jobs, dignity, wealth, etc.) takes courage. Choosing to tell one’s most painful stories (of loss, fear, guilt, unworthiness, etc.) takes courage. For Holocaust survivors to pick up the pieces and begin their lives anew – move to foreign lands, remarry, have more children, learn new trades, learn a new language – it took pure courage. And so, to understand the lives lived, the lives lost, and the lives rebuilt, one must have the courage to talk, ask, listen, understand, and learn. By association, no matter how difficult our individual lives may become, we too must find the courage to go on.

Those who perished during the Holocaust were not given a choice. More than seventy-four years later, we still mourn their (and our) loss. We must remember them. We — and I mean all of us — must never forget.