The value of Holocaust memoirs

With fewer and fewer survivors still alive, memoirs portray the human side of what happened.

Holocaust survive 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Holocaust survive 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
I have just finished reading yet another diatribe by a post-Zionist Israeli academic promoting the theme that the Holocaust was exploited by Zionists to create a Jewish state at the expense of the indigenous Arab inhabitants. To this day, goes the argument, the Shoah remains the vehicle by which the Palestinian Arabs are dehumanized in order to maintain the "occupation." It is yet another recycling of the distorted Palestinian narrative that is increasingly being promoted by a growing stream of pro-Palestinian scholars, many of them of Jewish origin. Such distorted "scholarship" highlights the need to ensure that young people gain a more personal appreciation of this terrible chapter in our history than the cold statistics of genocide and Holocaust studies convey. Educational trips for youngsters to death camps have had a positive impact. But the increasingly limited number of survivors still able to personally testify is making memoirs of survivors the prime vehicle for conveying the human aspect of the unbearable suffering individual Jews underwent. There are thousands of memoirs. Classics like those by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi stand alone and should be incorporated into the curriculum of every Jewish and Israeli high school. But there are others which, in addition to conveying the horror of the Shoah, also depict the vibrant Jewish life of communities that preceded the Nazi conquest of Europe, and more importantly, display the extraordinary triumph of the spirit by which survivors managed to renew their shattered lives and assume leading roles in the post-war Jewish revival. These memoirs have a special educational relevance for our generation. Anti-Semitism is again rampant, and with so many Jews taking the existence of Israel for granted it is important for youngsters to appreciate the impact of powerlessness on our people before the Jewish state was created. THE MEMOIR by Hadassah Rosensaft entitled Yesterday: My Story, with an introduction by Elie Wiesel, published by the Holocaust Survivors Memoirs Project and Yad Vashem, fits into this category. Reading Yesterday in the context of the challenges now facing the Jewish people is an uplifting experience. In the opening chapters Rosensaft, clearly a charismatic, cultured and articulate woman, describes the warm Jewish roots she inherited from her hassidic parents in Sosnowiec, a town in southwest Poland where she lived prior to her university studies in France. With the occupation, the process of dehumanization began, as did the plunder of Jewish property, burning of synagogues, and killings. She describes how her Gentile neighbors initially applauded the Nazi persecution of Jews. The deportations commenced in August 1942, when, in the course of one week, the entire Jewish community was assembled in the sports arena and one-third deported to Auschwitz. The remainder became slave laborers for the Nazis until a year later, when they too were deported. SHE GRAPHICALLY describes her arrival in Auschwitz, where her husband, five-year-old son, and the bulk of her family were separated from her and gassed. She depicts in riveting detail the survival, horrors, heroism and resistance which prevailed in a surrealistic, nightmare world which can be appreciated only by those who experienced these horrors personally. The experiences include her involvement in Bergen-Belsen with the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele and his inhuman experiments on inmates. But the most dramatic saga in the life of this courageous woman was how she managed to keep 149 Bergen-Belsen children alive until their liberation, and then brought them to Eretz Yisrael. She narrates how she subsequently met and ultimately married her second husband, Yossel, whose spouse and daughters had also been murdered by the Nazis. He was elected as the leader of the survivors in the DP camp, and he initiated Zionist activities and promoted the rights of survivors. Rosensaft describes events after the liberation like the cold and callous treatment of displaced persons by British bureaucrats and army officers; how her husband succeeded in commuting death sentences imposed by the British on Irgun activists; her testimony in the Belsen trials, the first major Allied prosecution of Nazi war criminals; her association with World Jewish Congress leaders, including secretary-general Gerhard Reigner, and the important contributions made by her and her husband within the global Jewish community. They were both honored by being appointed foundation members of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She died in New York in 1997. HER SON Menachem, the driving force behind the Holocaust Memoirs Project, was born in 1948 in the DP camp of Bergen-Belsen. He became the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Holocaust Survivors; a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council (1994-2000); was a former president of the Labor Zionist Alliance; and is now president of the Park Avenue synagogue in New York. Rosensaft's memoirs remind us that despite the burgeoning growth of anti-Semitism and renewed threats and frustrations facing Israel today we remain the most fortunate generation in 2,000 years of Jewish history. Hadassah Rosensaft's fellow Jews in Auschwitz could never remotely have dreamt that the Jewish people would rise, phoenix-like, from its ashes and emerge as a free and independent nation capable of defending itself. Our success today is in no small part due to survivors like the Rosensafts, who, in the face of the most unspeakable evil, refused to give up. Here are true role models which our generation - somewhat obsessed with hedonism and consumerism - would do well to emulate. The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public affairs and is a veteran international Jewish leader.