My parents were holocaust survivors. My wife’s parents were holocaust survivors. The awesome impact of meeting and speaking to a living holocaust survivor will not take place any more in my newer grandchildren’s lifetime. They will read history books, visit Auschwitz, spend time in Yad HaShem. They will be emotionally stricken, puzzled, overcome. But they will not encounter living heroism. For them the Shoah will be a horrible episode of the Jewish past – not an inspirational reinforcement of their future. True inspiration can only be achieved by listening to a living survivor, like my wife’s 98 year old uncle, Auschwitz survivor, Eddie Jaku OBE, when he said in a recent TV interview, “we must never hate” – he who had to contend with Josef Mengele, observing his brutal and horrific human ‘experimentations’.
Survivors overcame the physical challenge – my father, a teenage partisan in the forests of Poland, somehow summonsed up superhuman will to beat the tiny odds of survival. But much more difficult was the aftermath of physical survival – the struggle with guilt. My father eye-witnessed the murder of his mother and father and brothers and sisters whose bodies were riddled with bullets fired by a Gestapo officer, the bearer onf university degrees and who loved his pet dog. For my father guilt became a lifelong enemy. Mental and emotional stability were survival risks, and yet he, like many a survivor, survivors lived with that guilt, albeit hiding it cleverly and stolidly like a leprous toe hidden in a sock.
The thought of a child or grandchild being rudely grabbed out of one’s arms by a brawny Nazi trooper and thrown like a sack of potatoes against a brick wall, head smashed, bloodied over, body falling limp on a cold stony pavement – can that image ever be ‘photo-shopped’ out of the memory banks of survivors? And yet they walked and talked like you and I. They sat and conversed and shared and pretended they were normal, fooling us with their intelligent and reasonable demeanor while struggling every waking moment with the guilt of survival while their loved ones had their life squeezed out of their bodies like – eradicated like vermin.
Still, I ask myself: why should my grandchildren confront their grandparents’ pain, torment and emotional torture? Why should they need to confront murderous perversion? Must they watch their dearest ones contend with a lifelong struggle to find a secret place to hide their soul? Perhaps my words are heresy. Surely we must always remember and never forget. But the temptation to do so at a safe distance of page-turning of history books is overwhelming.
Soon there will be no survivors and a buffer of academia will mediate our knowledge of such horror.
I had the privilege and destiny to have lived with the heroes and learn first-hand about the Kedoshim. This has shaped me. My grandchildren will be shaped by other life circumstances. I, a son of suvrivors, will try to be their buffer. That’s the nature of life – and death