4.25.2006

Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Day of Remembrance, is drawing to a close as I listen to the horns blaring along 5th Avenue.

I'm sorry that I'm feeling so jaded about it this year. At first I felt that I used to care more. I don't think it's that I don't care anymore as much as that there is so much else going on in my life, so many other things to think about, and I'm not sure how long you contemplate the horror of genocide for, before you stop and ask yourself, "What's the point?" I, personally, will never forget the Holocaust, nor will any of the Jews attending various ceremonies last night and this evening. What does that mean, anyway, not forgetting something that you didn't live through? I also don't think that anyone who grew up in the relative safety and security of late-20th century America can ever really understand the grisly horror of the Holocaust, so I'm feeling somewhat averse to rushing about to hear yet another person speak about it. Had I had more time or energy last night, I would have liked to go listen to a public reading of the names of Holocaust victims, since that, at least, is a way of honoring individual dead people. That has some meaning for me. I will assuage my guilt over not "doing" anything special this Yom HaShoah (for the first time since 1988, probably) by trying to do something to stop another genocide this Sunday, at the Darfur rally.

This is something that I wrote in 1994, when I was still able to become very distraught on Yom HaShoah. I remember the feelings that I described in this essay very well. It reads as overly dramatic now, but that's how I was when I was 14. Sometimes I wonder where that fire and brimstone dissipated to over the past twelve years. Anyway, here it is:

Men, Women, And Children Of All Ages

None of my great-grandparents were in Europe at the time of the Holocaust. Every year, on Yom Ha'Shoah, my school holds a special assembly. Yom Ha'Shoah is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Part of the assembly consists of reading the names of relatives who perished in the Holocaust. A few weeks before, we all receive pieces of paper on which to write the names, ages, and places of death of our relatives. I never even brought the list home. I didn't think that I had anyone to remember.

That all changed this year when I gave this to my father, who is our family genealogist in his spare time. The next morning, the list was at my place on the kitchen table. I looked at it in surprise. The whole front of the page was filled with names. I turned it over. The whole back was filled also. I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. Later, I counted the names. There were 74. Seventy-four of my relatives died in the Holocaust. Seventy-four of my relatives were killed by the Nazis.

My first response was that some of the names would probably overlap with those of my classmates. With six million Jews dead, we all could have different names. We all had our own names to remember. In fact, it would take 80,000 people, with 75 different relatives each to account for all of those who died.

I looked down the list. The oldest person who died, Boruch Szprecher, was 84. My father told me that he was my great-great grandfather. There was one eighteen-year-old girl who was killed, named Etty Barshap. There are many children on the list also. The youngest (whose age is known) is a three-year-old girl. We do not know her name, only that she was the daughter of Dvora and Shulem Klein, and that she had a six-year-old sister who also died. One couple had six children who died. We don't know their names or ages. Gone from the face of the earth, without a trace. Because they were Jewish, and the Germans believed that Jews had tainted blood, Jews had bad genes, they claimed. Jews were the cause of all of Germany's problems. I counted the children. There were 29. Forty percent of my dead relatives were children. Altogether, almost one and half million children died in the Holocaust.

Later, I asked my father how these people died. Were they gassed in concentration camps? Did they starve to death? He told me none died in concentration camps. All were rounded up and shot in the towns where they lived. They died in Krzerneniec, Szumsk, Odessa, Derechin, and other places. All innocent people. The places where they died sound unfamiliar, but their names and ages don't. Many of their first names are the names of my Jewish friends. Their ages sound like the ages of my siblings, my parents, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents. Imagine how many more relatives I would have had if those 74 had survived. It is too late to help them. But it is not too late to help others who are being killed because of their religion. Elie Wiesel, author and survivor of the Holocaust, compared the situation in Bosnia today to the Holocaust 50 years ago.

Fifty years from now, do we want to be shaking our heads and wondering why no one did anything? No! Fifty years from now, do you want to be reading an article like this, by a young girl who discovered that many of her relatives were killed? No! We must do something!

But it is not enough to stop the killing in Bosnia. We must also remember the killing in Germany, Poland and Austria. We must make their memories live on. One way is by reading the names of our dead relatives to an auditorium full of high school students.

When you hear Nechama Azoff, child, Derechin, remember that horrors can occur in a "civilized world." Horrors can occur in the middle of a prosperous country where art and music flourish. Horrors can occur in the middle of a city that hosted the Olympics ten years ago.

When you hear Sarah Duchovny, 39, Szumsk, remember that there are those who attempt to rewrite history and say that the Holocaust never occurred. If they say this while there are living, breathing, survivors, imagine what they might say when everyone is gone. Some claim that they were "moved" (how do you hide six million people?), others simply claim that these six million never existed (how can you deny the existence of six million people?). These people have the right to free speech, but you do also.

When you hear Shmuel Bitansky, 30's, his wife and two sons, remember that while this small family died, there are those who lived. They have stories to tell. Listen to these stories, record them, and tell them to others. Remember these stories for future generations.

When you hear Tamar Barshap, 23, Krzemeniec, remember to go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Go see the barracks that people slept in, and the shoes that they wore.

When you hear Nechama, Gitel, Pearl, Avramel, Chaim, and Zvia Azoff, all children, all died in Derechin, remember the words of the philosopher George Santayana. "Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it."

I will never think of the Holocaust the same way. I always felt sad, as a Jew, that so many had to die. But now, knowing that they killed my great-great grandfather, I feel differently.

This is in memory of the 20 dead that I mentioned in this article, the 54 others who were also relatives, and the millions and millions of others who were killed because they were Jewish.

It was published in The 21st Century, a monthly, regional, teen newspaper that I contributed to regularly for close to six years (1991-1997). It's now called Teen Ink and has an online presence. If you search the website for my first name, you can find everything that I ever published there. Some of the pieces are better than others. I might post some of the better ones here someday, so you can see how my writing career began.

1 comment:

Scraps said...

Wow...just found my way here from StepIma's blog. You were pretty profound for a 14-yr-old.

I hear what you're saying about needing to focus one's attentions on present problems. Not to forget the past, but also not to dwell on it. Most of us only have so much mental energy to invest, and we need to take care of ourselves in the here and now.