Saving the Memory of the Shoah

By: Tania Bohbot  |  March 31, 2019

By Tania Bohbot

The new generation is here. Are we ready to continue telling the story of the Holocaust?

I don’t mean are we ready to commemorate it, to feel sad, to feel grief. It’s easy to feel sad and think for a moment, really just a moment, about the past. To let emotion overrun you… and then let it go only seconds later.

Instead, are we ready to tell the story of those who can’t tell their own, and then provoke change through it?

On February 20th, a panel discussing the future of Holocaust education took place in Yeshiva University at Rubin Shul. In one of the emails sent out publicizing the event, it asked the question, “How will we continue to engage an increasingly more distant audience of students?” As time goes on and survivors are no longer able to tell their story, how do we keep their memory alive? How do we assure that “never again” really will mean “never again?” In this panel– organized by the Student Holocaust Education Movement– Greta Elbogen, Marc Fein, and Dr. Tova Fish-Rosenberg spoke. They discussed  having appreciation for life, authentically learning about the Shoah, and learning how to be more human.

At the end of the day, what is the point of learning about the Holocaust if you’re not learning from it? If you’re not learning how to be more human, how to provoke change, and how to make “never again” a reality? It seems repetitive: the Holocaust was bad, you get it. Except you don’t. You don’t get it if you don’t understand that the point about learning history is to make sure the bad is never repeated. Learning history isn’t to say you know, you understand; it’s to affect the future for the better.

At the beginning of the panel, Greta Elbogen, a psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, read several of her poems from her book, God Plays Hide and Seek. Through her poems she spoke about having love, compassion, and an “appreciation for life, all life, not just yours and mine.” There is a certain attitude that comes with learning about the Holocaust. We mourn the lives lost and promise “never again.” However, that is not the only point to learning about the Holocaust. We learn so that it will never again happen to anyone else. That no person should be hurt. That no life should be taken. We learn this because life is precious and no human bleeds redder than another. Except, we forget that. We think about how terrible the Nazis were and that there can be no comparison. But the truth is that every life matters and every life taken due to race, religion, or personal belief should be taken seriously. It doesn’t matter that it’s not 6 million or that they aren’t Jewish. They are still human lives being taken. It is thus our duty to use our past in order to help others in the future.

Marc Fein, Director of NCSY TJJ Ambassadors Poland, spoke about the difference between having a performative experience and an authentic engagement. The performative experience is showing that you have commemorated the Shoah but not actually having it affect you. This happens when you go to a commemoration, listen to someone speak, or go to Poland and visit, but you don’t let it affect you. Not to say that you didn’t become emotional when the commemoration came to an end and the candles were lit. That you didn’t care when someone told his/her story, or that you didn’t cry in Poland. But what came next? You were thrust into an emotional experience, but did it change you?

As Marc Fein spoke, he quoted Elie Wiesel: “You must tell your story. This is because, if even one person learns from it how to be more human, you will have made your memories into a blessing. We must turn our suffering into a bridge, so that others might suffer less.” It seems so ridiculous. Learning about the Holocaust “to be more human.” What does that even mean? I’m a good Jew. I learn Torah and I try to follow the mitzvot. Why do I need to learn to be more human? Except we forget. We’re so entrapped in our own lives that it’s easy to forget. That it’s not just about us, but about every human being on this Earth.

So what does it mean to authentically engage and learn about the Holocaust? Fein went on to explain, “It’s authentically engaging with the material. Within history, with a location, with a story and then figuring out how I transform that into something. How do I create meaning out of it, that’s applicable to my life and the way that I live?”

When you learn about the Holocaust, don’t just listen to what others say. Engage. Become a part of the teaching and learning process. Don’t just hear the story, understand it. Understand the theme, the message, and how it connects to your life. We are so consumed with making people feel for that particular moment, we forget how to effectively incorporate a lesson into their lives.

As the new generation comes, and survivors are no longer able to tell their story, it is up to us to authentically engage with people. Don’t just tell people the story but make them a part of the research. Research what happened and the themes that can be seen in every story. Through a theme of bravery, compassion, tolerance, faith, etc. Don’t just read books and look for cold hard facts online. Go to museums, discuss testimonies, watch movies, and learn not just about the pain that came during the Shoah but the life that lived before. Look at the vibrant culture that encompassed the shtetls of Poland, the strength in communities around Europe, Yeshivas that learned, and the families that sang with love and heart. Don’t just remember the terror that came during the Shoah, but the rich Jewish communities that were alive before and that grew after.

It is time to grow as a people willing to be strong for ourselves and for others. At the end of the day, the past is the past. The Holocaust happened and there is nothing we can do to change that. Nevertheless, we can be the change that helps the future and assure a transformation in character in every human being for the better.