Does the Holocaust still shape our Jewish identity?

Does the Holocaust shape the identity of those who do not have personal relationships with those who fled Nazi-Europe?

A group of American youths led by Jonny Lipczer at Auschwitz (photo credit: CHAD INGRAHAM)
A group of American youths led by Jonny Lipczer at Auschwitz
(photo credit: CHAD INGRAHAM)
I vividly remember my last conversation with my maternal grandfather. I told him I was going to visit Auschwitz as a youth leader. He said to me, “Go to Israel, not Poland – that’s where our future is.” My grandfather left Berlin in March 1939 for London. There, he met my grandmother, who arrived alone on a train from Vienna.
Prof. Yehuda Bauer said in an interview in 1998 at Yad Vashem, “The Holocaust has had a tremendous impact on Jewish identity. It affects all those who were born either before, during or afterwards. The post-Holocaust birth of a Jew is a victory over Nazism.”
Britain’s Prince Charles stated at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem in January: “The Holocaust must never be allowed to become simply a fact of history... The lessons of the Holocaust are searingly relevant to this day. Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart, still tell new lies, adopt new disguises, and still seek new victims.”
Do Bauer’s words still hold true? Has the Holocaust merely become “simply a fact of history,” as Prince Charles warns? Does the Holocaust shape the identity for those, who unlike me, did not have personal relationships with those who fled Nazi-Europe?
I met with Judith Heisler, a Holocaust educator at Yad Vashem, who trains teachers and works with students in Israeli schools.
Heisler believes the Holocaust still has a major impact on the identity of Israeli students. “In Israeli schools, as well as being part of the formal curriculum, the Holocaust is part of the informal educational experience. Holocaust Remembrance Day is a very meaningful day in Israeli schools and youth movements. Trips to Poland also play a central role in Holocaust awareness.”
She continues, “There is a difference in the way the Holocaust affects the generations. For the ‘second generation,’ their personal history was the Holocaust. However, for the grandchildren, great-grandchildren and those who do not have relatives who were affected directly, their identity is much more complex. As educators, we need to teach the lessons of the Holocaust in a way that our students will connect with.”
Heisler believes the question of identity is not simple. “We cannot make our students see themselves as victims. We emphasize how the Jews coped – less so with the destruction and murder. We teach them in a way they can relate to how the children lived and what it was like to be separated from their family. Most importantly, we emphasize how Jews retained their values, morality and humanity.”
She adds, “We make a point of showing how they kept on living as Jews – how they still had Seder on Passover and lit Hanukkah candles – they still lived as Jews on an individual level.”
On whether she believes there is a difference between the impact of the Holocaust in Israel and abroad, she says, “Israeli children live in a Jewish country and are thinking about going into the army. They integrate the Holocaust into their Israeli identity – in a way, we’ve moved on. On the other hand, the Holocaust is part of the psyche of the country – Yom HaShoah is a week before Yom Ha’atzma’ut [Independence Day] – this creates a clear link. Let’s also bear in mind the threat from Iran – indeed in 1967, we were worried there would be another Holocaust.”
Elie Wiesel participates in a roundtable discussion on ‘The Meaning of Never Again: Guarding Against a Nuclear Iran’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, in March 2015 (Reuters)Elie Wiesel participates in a roundtable discussion on ‘The Meaning of Never Again: Guarding Against a Nuclear Iran’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, in March 2015 (Reuters)
“In the Diaspora, the Holocaust plays less of a role in their identity, as they don’t live in a Jewish state and are simply less aware of it on a national level. Also, antisemitism and BDS are the problems they are dealing with – no longer the Holocaust. On the other hand, we need to use the lessons of the Holocaust to combat antisemitism and BDS. As awareness of antisemitism is part of young people’s Jewish identity in the Diaspora, so too, is the Holocaust.”
Heisler thought there was a difference in the role the Holocaust plays in shaping the identity of religious and secular students. “The religious schools have more ceremonies and dates in the year when they remember the Holocaust – including the Asara Be’tevet and Tisha Be’av fasts. The secular students just have Holocaust Remembrance Day. Also, the religious education system focuses on the spiritual survival and religious heroism of the survivors, which means there are a broader range of issues they can discuss.”
When talking about whether the role the Holocaust plays is changing, Heisler says, “Certainly it is. When we used to go into schools, we spoke about deepening our connection to the State of Israel, Jews not being the cause of evil, and the importance of volunteering. As Israel is becoming a more cosmopolitan, Western country, we now stress the importance of empathizing with the other, social activism and racism.”
She concludes, “This year at Yad Vashem is the year of the Righteous Among the Nations. This is very significant for us as teachers of the Holocaust. We use the testimonies of the righteous gentiles to teach about tolerance, respecting human dignity and helping minorities. They say there were 28,000 of them, but the number could be five times as much.”
Reut Cohen, who is involved with Zikaron BaSalon (Memories in the Living Room) – a community project that seeks to share memories of the Holocaust in an intimate setting – feels that the Holocaust still plays a role in shaping the Jewish identity of young Israelis, although she understands why some of her friends did not want to think too much about it.
“Most of my friends do see the Holocaust as being part of their identity – not just the ‘third generation.’ My grandparents were not Holocaust survivors, yet I am still affected by it. On the other hand, some of my friends prefer not to focus on the Holocaust – like some prefer not to think about the wars and terror attacks.”
She continues, “Going to Poland made a real impact on me – both as a Jew and a human being. It made me think seriously about why this horrific event happened and what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. After the trip, I read about the Holocaust – about Jewish resistance and survival.”
“In Israel, the Holocaust is part of our national identity – whether you like it or not!”
Jonny Lipczer, an educator for JRoots Jewish Journeys, believes the Holocaust plays a key role in shaping the identity of Jews from the Diaspora. “In the many years I’ve been involved in formal and informal Jewish education, few things have come close to the educational experience of a journey to Poland.”
“I’ve been privileged to lead groups – mainly unaffiliated Jews from North America – and have seen the profound impact it has made. People who didn’t previously express their Judaism suddenly feel a strong sense of Jewish identity.
“Having heard the stories of those who were in the depths of despair holding onto their faith, and risking their lives to maintain their Judaism, today’s students realize that they have a massive responsibility to ensure that the Jewish spirit lives on in them,” Lipczer concludes.
Rebecca Abeles, who made aliyah from Australia, says “I don’t think that the Holocaust was emphasized in our community in Melbourne, I barely remember the formal aspect of it. (I believe we were given a Holocaust history unit in school, but it pales by comparison with the daily interactions with grandparents and friends of grandparents and the daily reminders of the Holocaust in our parents’ and grandparents’ behaviors.)
About whether she feels she perceives the Holocaust differently now being an Israeli, Abeles says, “I don’t think there is a difference. The one thing I see as being different is the fact that I have come to meet many people who aren’t the descendants of Holocaust survivors and that presents as a big difference between us, creating somewhat of a gap in our experience of the intergenerational impact of the Holocaust.
Finally, about the changing impact of the Holocaust on Jewish identity now that the survivors are passing away, Rebecca says, “I think we are already seeing a resurgence in worldwide antisemitism. I don’t think it has much to do with how many survivors are alive. There was Holocaust denial even when a far greater proportion of Holocaust survivors were alive and thriving. I think it’s a matter of the passage of time and people’s limited memories. Even the next generation in Melbourne, who are direct descendants of Holocaust survivors, will not be directly touched by the stories of survivors. This will impact on the extent of their association with the Holocaust. How much more so for those who are not direct descendants.”
Upon accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in December 1986, Elie Weisel said, “For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
Is the Holocaust still part of our collective memory? As the survivors are dying and time is passing, the way it impacts us will change. Both in Israel and the Diaspora, each new generation has their own issues they are dealing with and ways of expressing their Jewish identity. The challenge of educators will be to ensure the Holocaust remains part of our collective and individual identity, in a way that is meaningful and relevant.