Seventy-six years ago today, Auschwitz was liberated by Allied forces after years of utterly unspeakable torment and death. And yet, the celebration of regaining their freedom and their identity was overshadowed by immeasurable loss, trauma, broken families and a kind of suffering that goes beyond what words can describe.
Among other things, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a day of stories. When our souls depart from this world and there are still people around to tell our stories, our lives can still have meaning. Such is the way of memorializing those we lost during the Holocaust. We tell their stories so that their memory may be a blessing, stories like that of Nachum Grzywacz and Izrael Lichtenstajn.
Grzywacz was born on Oct. 28, 1924, in Warsaw, Poland. Grzywacz was an idealist, and he grew up with a traditional religious upbringing. When the war began, he was spending his days working in a soup kitchen at the local school feeding children in need. He joined his friend, Dawid Graber, and his former principal, Izrael Lichtensztajn, to assemble a secret, hidden archive of what Jews were going through in the Warsaw ghetto.
Included in these archives were the diary and direct testaments of Grzywacz. In his final journal entry, he wrote: “Yesterday, we stayed up late, because we didn’t know if we will still be alive today, on 3 August 1942. Ten minutes after half past one, I’m finishing my writing. We want to stay alive not for personal reasons, but to alert the world.” Shortly after this entry was recorded, Grzywacz was murdered in the “Great Deportation.”
Izrael Lichtenstajn was responsible for protecting the archives that held the testimonies of people like Grzywacz. In his testament he wrote, “I don’t want thanks, monuments, anthems, I only want my brothers and sisters in Eretz Israel to know where my remains were. I want my wife Gela Sekstajn, a talented painter, to be remembered…I want my daughter to be remembered…She is worth sparing a memory too.” Lichtenstajn and his wife and daughter perished together in the Warsaw uprising of 1943.
May Their Memory Be a Blessing.
The United Nations adopted Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to pay tribute to the millions of victims that were lost, and to affirm its commitment to fighting antisemitism, racism and the many types of intolerance that culminate in violence against groups of people. On Jan. 27, every year, the world unilaterally pledges: Never Again.
But that pledge this year comes in the midst of a broken, divided and wounded country. It comes only weeks after rioters, insurrectionists and domestic terrorists stormed our capitol, including a man wearing a hoodie decorated with the words: “Camp Auschwitz: Work Brings Freedom” and another with the phrase: “6 million was not enough.”
In the midst of this chaos and the rising tide of white supremacy, systemic racism and antisemitism, we are left hurting and desperately crying out for justice and tolerance.
Dr. Karen Shawn, an associate professor at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, notably wrote that “if the perpetrators in our world are not hearing our cries, it is as if we haven’t called out.” She asks, “How can those who are escalating tensions and fomenting hatred balance the pain of their own fears and profound frustrations with understanding the devastating effects of their misplaced anger?”
Dr. Shawn’s words remind us that our cries for justice and tolerance — and those of the people who came before us — must be to change the hearts and minds of those who would be against us. “As this milestone memorial day coincides with the frightening increase in violent words and actions against us,” she writes, “may we have the Zechut, the merit, to rethink the content and manner of our pleas…may we find the words that can and need to be heard by those who are causing the chaos. May we help them to discover their own hearing ear and listening heart.” Dr. Shawn wrote these words one year ago, but they are no less relevant now than they were then.
There is an idea that largely informs the importance of Holocaust education. Dr. Norry LaPorte put it this way: “Rather than the usual dispassionate reason and argument that history asks of its students, the Holocaust reminds us of the need to have the courage to speak out when we know something is wrong, and to try to understand how it must have felt for the innocent victims of the Third Reich whose humanity was abused in the death camps.” The importance of learning from the Holocaust is not just in understanding what happened, but also allowing it to inform our ethical responsibilities towards each other.
“They died while I survived,” wrote survivor Ed Van Thijn. “It is not easy to live with that idea sixty-five years later. The best we can do to honour (sic) them is to identify ourselves with the ethical compass they were bearing, and pass it on from one generation to the next.”
This is what Holocaust memory is all about. It’s about more than just preserving the memory; it’s, as the Jewish saying goes, making their memory a blessing, and allowing their memory to inspire us to engage in Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place.
And “how wonderful it is,” wrote Anne Frank, “that nobody need wait a moment before starting to improve the world.”
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