It’s been nearly 78 years since the end of the Holocaust, a devastating period in which more than six million Jews were systematically killed, eliminating more than two-thirds of the European Jewish population and a third of all Jews worldwide. There are fewer than 300,000 Holocaust survivors still alive today, with an average age over 80. It’s more important than ever that we ensure the stories of the atrocities live on, lest we forget and allow horrific events like these to happen again.
My Jewish family left Eastern Europe about 50 years before the Holocaust, already suffering persecution in Poland, Russia, and Lithuania. (My DNA results confirm my ethnicity as 94% Ashkenazi Jewish, hailing from Eastern Europe.) My immigrant ancestors came to America for freedom to practice their religion and with hope for a better life. As self-made butchers, grocers, laundresses, and junkmen, they worked hard, contributed to their communities, and built families in the U.S. northeast. Their descendants were educated in America and became teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, and scientists.
For those Jews who didn’t flee Europe ahead of World War II, they suffered unthinkable horrors during the time of Hitler’s reign. Nazis took Jews from their homes, separated them from their families, sent them to concentration camps, marked them with tattoos, and exterminated them in gas chambers in a genocide – a coordinated attempt to destroy all Jews. The impacts of the gruesome events of 1941 through 1945 have had long-standing repercussions. Entire families were wiped out. Survivors suffered unbearable physical and mental trauma. Some escaped under assumed names, leaving their families and their pasts behind.
I learned about the Holocaust in school, like other Americans. I memorized names and dates, as I did for other world events – like wars, famines, and natural disasters. To me, it was ‘history’ – something that had happened well before I was born – and it didn’t feel personal.
And yet it happened in my parents’ lifetime to Jewish families like mine. My parents were just toddlers when the Holocaust was raging overseas; my grandparents and my living great-grandparents were all in Connecticut at the time, attuned to the tragedy befalling their tight-knit Jewish community. Now every one of these people in my family is gone. Who will ensure we never forget?
I grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, a well-off suburb with a vibrant Jewish community. There were no fewer than eight different Jewish synagogues in our town. My family belonged to a Reform Jewish congregation with more than a thousand members, its beautiful temple building standing since 1933. I attended Hebrew school there three days a week, went to Friday night services in the small chapel, and held my Bat Mitzvah in the large domed sanctuary. I was taught to read Hebrew, sang songs of worship, participated in tzedakah (charitable giving), and was encouraged to do mitzvot (good deeds). We celebrated Passover, Hannukah, and broke the Yom Kippur fast with my grandparents. Had my ancestors not emigrated from Europe in the late 1800s, all of this might have been impossible.
Though having a relatively large Jewish community, the West Hartford population was still only a few percent Jews. My parents’ friends and colleagues were of all different religions. I had plenty of non-Jewish friends from the neighborhood, school, and soccer teams. What religion they identified as simply didn’t matter to me. By the time I decided to marry a Catholic boy, no one was particularly surprised.
While I’ve raised my family in a multi-faith household with the love and support of both of our families, it’s important to me that my children – and all people – learn about and remember what happened during the Holocaust. So that we value and appreciate the freedom our ancestors fought for. So that we are inclusive and supportive of others who are different than we are. So that we fight against oppression. And so that we don’t allow hate and violence and genocide to rear its ugly head ever again.
There are many memorials and museums around the world that commemorate the Holocaust, including the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, and the Shoah Memorial in France. There are valuable online resources including survivor testimonies, the Some Were Neighbors exhibit, and genocide prevention education. Movies like Schindler’s List and the Survivors of the Holocaust documentary also depict the horrors and atrocities of the war.
For me, books are windows to another place and time. When I was a child, I read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a first-hand account by a thirteen-year-old Dutch Jew who hid from the Nazis with her family. I remember being moved by her words. When my daughter was ten years old, she read the book too. In a reflection she shared with her teacher at the time, my daughter wrote: “I think this book is good for everybody because people need to know about the horrible things that happened back then so they won’t repeat them.”
Historical fiction also plays an important role in bringing stories to life. This past month, I’ve devoured books by Kristin Harmel set during World War II: The Forest of Vanishing Stars, The Book of Lost Names, The Winemaker’s Wife, When We Meet Again, and The Sweetness of Forgetting. Inspired by true stories, these books are at once engrossing, educational, unsettling, and heartwarming. They describe vividly the horrors of Vél d’Hiv, the day when more than 13,000 Jews in Paris were rounded up and arrested. Readers feel the devastating losses – children separated from their parents, entire families obliterated. The books describe how ingenious forgers created false identities and helped thousands of children escape persecution. They bring to life the fear and struggle of Jews who hid from the Nazis in the forests of Eastern Europe. And they describe heroes of the resistance – Jews and Christians and Muslims who risked everything to save others.
Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorates the day the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated. Each year we honor the memory of victims and commit to sharing stories, educating others, and taking action to prevent future acts of genocide. We know there is still antisemitism today – swastikas, ethnic slurs, shootings in synagogues. We know some deny the truth of the Holocaust. We know of other horrific genocides in our lifetime – in Darfur, Bosnia, and more. As time passes, we risk that the events of the Holocaust will be forgotten and that history will be repeated. We must stand up against these atrocities and recommit to tolerance. We must never forget.
Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash