Students offer fresh perspective on remembering the Holocaust

By Sylvia L. Ginsparg

On April 12, 1951, the Israeli Knesset designated the 27th day of Nissan as Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Typically, it is observed after Passover in a citywide service whereby survivors share their memories. Yahrzeit candles are lit, Kaddish is said and then all return to their homes and agendas. 

Having recently published a book about Holocaust survival, I received several invitations to speak on the weekend of Yom HaShoah. Most daunting was an invitation to speak to the upper classes grades of the Solomon Schechter Day School. How could I explain to these children what we adults have been trying to understand for nearly 70 years? How could I be informative, yet not frightening?

I thought about our observance of other holidays, the customs and foods that symbolize our ancestors’ suffering in previous threats to Jewish survival. I realized that we have not established customs for remembering the Holocaust because some of the victims are still alive and able to relate their experiences each year. But the number of survivors is diminishing and this next generation will face the responsibility of determining how this catastrophic period is to be commemorated. I decided that I would present this reality to the children and ask for their thoughts about how they might respond to the challenge.

During my talk at Schechter, I asked how many students had Holocaust survivors in their family and if any of these survivors had talked to them about their experiences. A few hands went up in response to the former, none to the latter. I then pointed out that the survivors are getting older and “you probably will be the generation that will have to decide how to keep those memories alive as we do with our other holidays.” I asked for ideas and immediately more than a dozen hands went up.

Several said that it should be remembered more than one day a year. They thought that it should be a national holiday. They complained that they did not hear “much about it on the television news.” One child announced: “It (the Holocaust) lasted for four years!”

There were suggestions that the stories should be made into plays, documentaries and videos and that music be composed in remembrance. Some thought monuments “like the Arch” should be built and structures resembling concentration camps should be put together like sukkahs to remember how the victims lived. Some were interested in learning how the survivors stayed alive.

Only a few were familiar with the Kindertransport. I briefly explained about the 10,000 children rescued by the Kindertransport and about the 60-year reunion, which concluded with the statement, “If it ever happens again, we won’t send our children away, we will keep them with us.” I asked how the students felt about that. Surprisingly, their responses focused more on the survival of Judaism than the fate of the children. On the whole, they seemed to feel that the parents did the right thing in sending the children to safety because if they did not, “there would be no more Jews.”

Several divided the children into two groups, babies and older children. They expressed the feeling that the older children should have been sent to safety and the babies kept with the parents but for the reason that babies don’t know they are Jewish and older children do.

One girl asked, “Did any parents escape?” Another girl, with wisdom way beyond her years said, “It’s one thing to say what we would do but we don’t have any way of knowing what we would do. The kids here know their parents can’t be replaced and they know their parents want the best for their children.”

In the week that followed, I received thank you notes from 38 students and four faculty. The Director of the Upper School described the students as “engaged” and the discussion “thought-provoking.” Almost all the students began their notes with, “Thank you for coming to our school.” Several said, “The discussion got me thinking about how to pass on the stories of the Holocaust,” or “the lessons of the Holocaust.” One said, “It got me thinking about, “the burden of being the last one to tell the story.” Several said they had never thought about that “burden” before. Others said, “You were teaching me things about the Holocaust I never knew before,” and “I never thought about how we are going to carry on the survivors’ stories.” One child even indicated that she had a better understanding of her own family. Several said they appreciated being asked for their opinions and felt “inspired to learn more and to educate others about the Holocaust.” One said, “We need more people like you to keep alive the memory of the reign of Hitler.”

Obviously this is an unusual group of children. And they were very appreciative of being addressed as tomorrow’s adults faced with the awesome responsibility of keeping alive the memory of the Shoah without those who experienced it. What the parents and other adults can gain from this discussion is the assurance that this next generation is both intellectually and emotionally prepared to take their place as the next leaders in a very complex and at times, incomprehensible world.

Sylvia L. Ginsparg is a local psychoanalyst and author of “Never Again: Echoes of the Holocaust As Understood Through Film.”

 

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