Book Review: Challenging the past

A collection of stories of descendants of Holocaust survivors shows how they are taking their parents’ experiences and creating a new legacy.

Participants on the March of the Living walk through Budapest. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Participants on the March of the Living walk through Budapest.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Florence Shapiro’s story and her conclusion moved me most. I found it in the middle of this vast collection of 90 biographical details and life stories confessed by the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
Shapiro, a Texas state senator and educator, recalls how her father suffered, always with a caveat: “What can I say, there was nothing we could do…” She recounts the pain burning inside her father – his furrowed brow, a pensive stare and very few clues with which to build a family tree – and concludes: “I believe God put me on this earth to be the bridge between my parents and their past, and my children/ grandchildren and their future.”
If this is not the very essence of the eternal Jewish faith, I know no better.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, who collected these stories in God, Faith & Identity From The Ashes, was born in the displaced persons camp of Bergen-Belsen. Today, he is general counsel at the World Jewish Congress and teaches the legalities of genocide and war crimes trials at Columbia and Cornell universities’ law schools. He divides his book into four parts: God and Faith, Identity, A Legacy of Memory and Tikkun Olam (Changing the World for the Better).
The prologue by Elie Wiesel includes excerpts from his keynote address at the First Conference of Children of Holocaust Survivors, where he pointed out that such children were frequently the subject of psychological studies dissecting their supposed pathology, trauma and guilt complexes. On the contrary, Wiesel says, the great majority remained healthy and generous with a sense of humor, literature and humanity.
No doubt, this collection is the best proof of their success and vitality.
“Where was God during the Holocaust?” was the most frequently asked post-Holocaust question. Rabbi Moshe Waldock answers those who have lost their faith: “This is a red herring,” he reflects.
The tragedy of the Holocaust was precisely not in the Divine realm, but rather in the failure of human beings to behave in the image of God. “There is no way,” Waldock argues, “to encounter Jewish life, secular or religious, Orthodox or unorthodox, traditionally observant or mitzva-free, without coming up against the place of God in our tradition. This is still the essential credo of a Jew, and the path of our renewal.”
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor, finds his identity in answering, to some degree, the call of the concentration camp among dutiful sons and daughters. The Nazis created the ideal conditions for a generation of Jewish psychotics, but did not succeed. Rebuilding lives was, for most survivors, a singular priority. What united many of their children was the impulse to rescue – if not their parents, for whom it was too late, then perhaps the world; and if not the entire world, at least their own people.
This theme is followed by Sam Sokol, the Jewish world correspondent of The Jerusalem Post, covering Jewish life around the globe. “As a journalist, I have continuously endangered myself in order to warn my people of threats to their well-being.
My ability to overcome my stress and to report from the front lines is the legacy bequeathed me by my grandparents, and their revenge against those who sought our destruction.”
Sokol remembers how his grandfather recalled Ze’ev Jabotinsky coming to his shtetl and telling the Jews to liquidate the exile and immigrate to Palestine. If today, in his reporting, Sokol sometimes feels like the only Jew in a room full of neo-Nazis, he is right where he wants to be. In regard to Ukraine’s anti-Semitic Svoboda Party, which at the time of his writing held 36 out of 450 parliamentary seats in Kiev, and had such prominence in the streets, Sokol was inspired to be there to tell the world what was happening.
Alexander Soros, the son of billionaire George Soros, has always accepted his Jewish heritage – whether he liked it or not. “As other members of my family remained in a kind of hiding, continuing to conceal their identities, I decided to get a bar mitzva to affirm my history and heritage.”
As a teenager, George faced mortal danger and watched his father struggle in the battle for humanity, forging fake identity papers and finding refuge for many Hungarian Jews among non-Jews. Alexander Soros says: “I only hope that had I been in the same position, I would have done the same thing.”
The book contains over 90 biographies, personal experiences and reflections demonstrating the multifaceted and diverse ways the children of Holocaust survivors inherited their parents’ experiences and turned them into their own legacy, expected to be transmitted to the next generation. God, faith and Jewish identity have indeed risen from the ashes and found expression in the frank meditations and confessions of all those who never gave up, but continued in good faith to be strong and objective.
As MK Merav Michaeli writes: “We cannot remain just the victims of the Holocaust. Because the discourse of victimhood cannot be a constructive one.
Nothing can grow from it. I came here in order to change that discourse into one of empowerment of mutual aid, of acceptance of the other.”
There is a moving testimony by Dr.
David Szenes, nephew of Hanna Szenes, who despite his tragic experiences in an Egyptian prisoner-of-war camp in Cairo, continues his fight against political oppression and limits on freedom of movement and expression. These and numerous other authentic Jewish lives, leave us with little doubt that the children of Holocaust survivors match their parents’ contribution to the world’s consciousness many times over, even if far too little has been known about it until now.
Every story, different as it may be, adds another worthwhile detail to Jewish and contemporary history.