Building bridges to remember the Holocaust

Yad Vashem Council Chairman Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau reflects on his experiences as an ever-present at the March of the Living and why the Shoah will never be forgotten.

RABBI YISRAEL MEIR LAU stands at the main gate of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz with the words ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (Work sets you free), on February 1, 2011 (photo credit: MICHAL LEPECKI/AGENCIA GAZETA/REUTERS)
RABBI YISRAEL MEIR LAU stands at the main gate of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz with the words ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (Work sets you free), on February 1, 2011
He is a man who carries history wherever he goes, and he carries it for all of us, in a way. As an eight-year-old he was the youngest person to ever be liberated from the Buchenwald Concentration camp and many years later, in 1988, he would return to the extermination camps as the Chief Rabbi of Israel, heading up the very first March of the Living.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who has served as Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council since 2008, is a presence, in the most positive sense of the word; although humble and soft-spoken, one tends to hang on his every word, leaning in to catch every syllable as it drops off the sentence.
I have come to his home in Tel Aviv to speak about the 30th anniversary of the March he has become synonymous with, and his thoughts on Holocaust remembrance in a time where both antisemitism and outright Holocaust-denial is on the rise.
For the first years, many survivors participated in the March of the Living, fellow child survivors of Buchenwald Elie Weisel being one of them. Thirty years later, that number has dwindled, with only one remaining – Rabbi Lau (Noah Klieger having been unable to travel to the last few marches) – and the first question I ask him is what will happen when all Holocaust survivors are gone and how the rest of us can shoulder the responsibility of remembrance.
“The Shoah will always be remembered,” Lau says, “in books, letters and diaries, and the published mate- rial continues to grow year after year. The books written about the atrocities of the Shoah are living memories, and they mean more than any monuments, as they evoke feeling and understanding in the reader, and influence millions across the world."
We discuss Holocaust denial and how, ironically, it was the spark that lit the flame of the March of Living. Henri Roques, a French agronomist, created an international scandal in 1987 when it was revealed that the University of Nantes in France awarded him a doctorate for a thesis in which he denied the Holocaust. In the aftermath, MK Abraham Hirchson suggested that the outrageous Holocaust denial had to be met with a response, and eventually decided that a symbolic march should be held from the Auschwitz concentration camp to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, as both an open act of defiance and proof that the Jewish people are not only alive, but thriving, once again. That response became a tradition, and now, every year, more than 12,000 young people from all over the world participate, making them living witnesses to history and carriers of memory.
Rabbi Lau was at the first March, along with more than 1,000 other people, and he has been on every one since then, leading and teaching a new generation.
“What we are trying to do is build a bridge for these young people. For many of them, their first trip to Israel is at the end of the March, with the commemoration of Yom Hazikaron [Remembrance Day] and the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut [Independence Day]. We are not only conveying loss and pain but also hope and strength – that is the bridge that we Jews walk on, and that the March of the Living helps build, each year.”
And, as Lau points out, that bridge is also built between Jews from around the world, as they come together for the March of the Living.
“Israelis who attend the March leave Israel and return a little more Jewish. Diaspora Jews who go to Poland and then travel to Israel return to their communities a little more Israeli.”
Lau also adds that Holocaust denial in its way helps carry the memory and even reinforce it. “When our enemies mock or deny the Holocaust so strenuously they actually reinforce the fact that it did happen – why else would they use this to hurt us?”
“Most people in Iran a few years ago hadn’t heard much about the Shoah and they weren’t interested – then all of a sudden their president is telling them that it is a Zionist plot and never happened. For educated and curious Iranians it was an opportunity to ask questions about what he was talking about – because it hadn’t occurred to most of them before.”
Lau is full of stories and memories, and though I wish I could spend the day there, sitting with him and taking part of the lessons he so eloquently teaches, it is Friday and preparations for Shabbat are already well underway. He leaves me, however, with a poignant memory, from when he visited the Holocaust museum in Hungary.
He was shown around the muse- um and as his visit ended he asked the curator if he could stand by the exit, to see the reactions of a group of non-Jewish Hungarian 12th graders when they came out from their tour.
“I saw them when they walked in, and they were being kids, you know? Laughing, joking and eating the snacks they had brought from home. When they exited, their heads hung in sadness, eyes to the ground. I asked them in English what they thought of what they had just seen and they told me – ‘we are to blame. It could have been any of our relatives or even us – where was the world as this was happening?’”
Lau has tears in his eyes when he tells me this, and I am trying to fathom the journey he has been on; from a child even younger than those in his story, standing by the gates of hell, to returning as the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish State, teaching generations of Jews and non-Jews about the crimes committed and the lessons they compel us to learn.
As I depart the Rabbi’s home and leave him to his Shabbat preparations, I am reminded of a poem that I heard, long ago.
Let the memorial hill remember instead
  of me, that’s what it’s here for. Let the
      park in-memory-of remember,
let the street that’s-named-for remember,
  let the well-known building remember,
   let the synagogue that’s named after God remember
let the rolling Torah scroll remember,
  let the prayer for the memory of the dead remember.
Let the flags remember those multicolored shrouds of history:
  the bodies they wrapped have long since turned to dust.
   Let the dust remember.
Let the dung remember at the gate. Let the afterbirth remember.
  Let the beasts of the field and birds of the heavens eat and remember.
    Let all of them remember so that I can rest.
It strikes me that Amihai in his fluent and playful poetry understood what I am just beginning to grasp; that memory is not a document nor a plaque, but pieces of everything around us, and that the responsibility of remembrance belongs to us all. We, the younger generation, collect the pieces, with purpose and with care. We collect the pieces of memory and share them with others so that those who once faced the worst that man can conjure are finally allowed to rest.
Click here for more information about March of the Living.
Written in cooperation with March of the Living.