Tonight begins Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a day that usually leaves me both unsettled and confused.
Watching my children learn about the Holocaust from slick, well-designed and age-appropriate curricula has made me aware of just how raw and scattershot my own Holocaust education was. Holocaust education was a battering experience. I remember being constantly exposed to artifacts of the horror of it all with, it seems to me in retrospect, the primary goal of causing horror and pain. There were live and (a little later) videotaped survivor testimonies and lampshades made of flesh, endless pictures of doomed children and corpses. First-person literary accounts and art and music composed by the doomed. Having recently revisited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem I was reminded of the old complex, before it was remodeled in a kinder, gentler, way that gave thought to developing a story and educating. The old Yad Vashem was just a blindly thrown roundhouse punch.
The thing was, it connected. The Holocaust pains me. It evokes in me a diffuse emotional horror. I feel for my people, and those grotesque images play through my mind. I feel compelled to seek a connection.
And there’s the problem. I never had an organic, real connection to the Holocaust. My family, on both sides, came to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and did not stay in close contact with relatives in Europe. My family, I was always told, knew of no relatives who actually suffered. We were unscathed. I feel a need to connect, but that is perhaps only because I lack an immediate connection. It leave me with a fissure somewhere in my emotional response.
But it is not just this lack of personal connection that causes a certain sense of distance. For many, the Holocaust has been profitable. Politically, some have tried to use it to justify the unjustifiable. Many others have achieved fame or made good livings off it. While my children’s curricula are well-done (I wish that they existed when I was young), they leave me cynically wondering how many people must have profited through them. I sometimes feel that the pain that was so carefully created is now being exploited for the personal benefit of others, even as the last Holocaust survivors sometimes struggle to put food on their tables. My point here is not to condemn but just to note that I struggle with balancing my appreciation of this work with that of its material reality.
The other day I received an email from my mother. She was doing some genealogical research and stumbled on a “page of testimony” in the online Yad Vashem database. The page concerned a woman who bore her (Yiddish) name. Feige, according to the unsteady, block Hebrew script of her sister-in-law, was simply “exterminated by the Nazis.” It happened in Poland in 1943, the year my mother was born, and it dovetailed with a family memory that her name was changed at the last minute in response to a recent death.
Feige was a 26 year old single seamstress. That much is clear. Most everything else about the page of testimony, though, is odd. She bears her mother’s last name (my grandfather’s), but her father appears to have a different last name. Her sister-in-law, a survivor who must have been married to her brother, bears yet another set of names. Each of these anomalies, of course, can be explained. Most puzzling to me, however, is how word of the death of yet another obscure, poor Jew in Poland would have made it back to the U.S. so quickly.
When the Yom Hashoah siren sounds here in Jerusalem-commencing a moment of national silence-I will try to put aside the mind-numbing data and larger abstract and theological issues raised by the Shoah. I will try to ignore the voices around me that will use the Holocaust to score points and I will try to suppress what I know will be my cynical response to them. I will, instead, try to focus on Feige, this simple, almost forgotten seamstress, my distant relative, who died for no good reason.