Where angels move between heaven and earth

Never let the crass, superficial public discussion of the Holocaust undermine genuine remembrance.

flame 88 (photo credit: )
flame 88
(photo credit: )
Last year just before Holocaust Remembrance Day, I attended a dedication ceremony at Yad Vashem. Over the 25 years I have worked at Yad Vashem, I have attended many such ceremonies, and it is true that not all of them touch me deeply. This one, however, did. The Schwartz family, with their children and grandchildren, came to Yad Vashem from Melbourne, primarily to dedicate the Path of Remembrance and Reflection, a path that links the Memorial to the Deportees and the Valley of Communities. Throughout the path several stone plaques have been placed, dedicated to their lost family members. Certainly this is a fitting memorial at a place that commemorates the Holocaust and emphasizes that the Holocaust happened to individuals who were members of families and communities. Andor Schwartz, the patriarch of the family, spoke first, stirring me profoundly with his words. The author of a fascinating memoir, he has written about his life as an observant Orthodox Jew whose family lived in a castle and ran large estates in rural Hungary, and his experiences in Hungary during the Holocaust. In his memoir he describes Orthodox Jewish boys riding swift horses, making matzot for the surrounding rabbinical leaders on the family estate just before Pessah, and many other vignettes of a kind of life that is no more. From his writing I knew that his ability to evoke a scene is prodigious. At the ceremony, Schwartz described the ladder from the biblical story of Jacob, on which angels move between heaven and earth. He suggested that on Holocaust Remembrance Day that ladder is present in the surrounding gardens at Yad Vashem, and the six million martyrs use it to come to earth to be present as we remember them. I found it a lovely, evocative idea; it made me take pause and it made me smile. I'm sure this year on Remembrance Day I'll be thinking about those souls in the leaves of the trees around me. BABA SCHWARTZ, Andor's wife, spoke in a very different and more jarring vein. She addressed her words to her father, who was murdered in Auschwitz and whose name is incised on one of the stones on the path they were dedicating. Finally giving him a marker, in lieu of a real grave, she felt him present at the ceremony. She reminded him of their harrowing three-day train journey to Auschwitz from Hungary, and how he stood the whole time in the crowded cattle car so his wife and three beloved daughters could sit. She recounted to him their separation, and their initiation into Auschwitz where they were stripped, disinfected, shaved and given rags to wear. She described how she searched a group of passing men, looking for her father; suddenly she spied him and frantically called out to him, wildly waving her arms. Given her transmutation into an Auschwitz inmate, it took a while for him to recognize her, and when he did, he was so distraught at her appearance that all he could do was to hide his face in his hands and weep. This was the last time they ever saw one another. He was 48 and she was 16. She recounted this at Yad Vashem on the day before my 49th birthday; the second of my three daughters was 16 at the time. Baba made me, and everyone I saw around me, weep. I was deeply touched by her intimate conversation with her father and her expressed hope that he would be proud to see the entire family at Yad Vashem memorializing him in stone. I came away from the ceremony thinking, were I to be moved like this everyday at Yad Vashem, I'd have to use up the accumulated vacation days I have and then plead for more. I came away thinking, were such words not to touch me, I should offer my resignation immediately. Every year we commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day. Every year at least once, and usually several times more, we as a nation confront the tremendous emotional charge of the Holocaust. Some of us cry out - enough! Too much! Must we dwell on our trauma and sorrow?! Sometimes these are genuine voices, yet they are misplaced. In part they stem from the omnipresent crass, superficial public discussion about the Holocaust that contributes neither to our understanding of it nor to our identification with it. These past 12 months have seen the Holocaust harnessed to such diverse subjects as the controversy about satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and the disengagement. Certainly we need oppose the political and gratuitous emotional manipulation of the Holocaust that is rampant in our world. But we should not allow misuse to make us callous or indifferent. When Israeli society becomes indifferent to the Holocaust, or for that matter other related events of great human suffering, we might as well call it quits. We need to be able to weep about the Holocaust, and no less important, we need to be able to continue documenting it, researching it, pondering it, and teaching about it. If we don't, we may well feel inured to it, and when we hear the genuine, sincerely voiced words of an Andor or a Baba Schwartz, we may close our ears, instead of being moved and inspired. The writer is director of the Yad Vashem Libraries.