To my daughter regarding her canceled Poland mission: Choose life!

While our consciousness of history is constant, our understanding of history constantly changes.

The site of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz is pictured during the ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, in Brzezinka near Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/NORA SAVOSNICK)
The site of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz is pictured during the ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, in Brzezinka near Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS/NORA SAVOSNICK)
Dear D,
I’m sorry that after hours and hours of serious preparation – including sacrificing precious vacation time – your class mission to Poland was canceled. I am well aware how different this Holocaust Remembrance Day would have felt for you, had you returned recently from visiting the Nazi death camps. Instead, the cancellation joins the long list of twists in this most unexpected year we’re all enduring.
But compare your world versus the world that consumed the Jews – and almost killed Zaide and Grandma Annie. When your trip was canceled back in February, the mere possibility of some epidemic that was far more life-threatening to the elderly than to teenagers like you was enough to trigger the state’s “Jewish mother” protective mechanisms. Since then, we have experienced a global quarantine straining hundreds of millions of people financially and psychologically, which essentially says “we love life” – and, yes, “we’re terrified, too.” But how’s that for proof that your life is valued and protected, especially in your home, Israel, whereas not that long ago, in super-sophisticated Europe, Jewish life was worthless – and ever vulnerable.
True, your life, as a Jew, an Israeli, a Zionist, is not valued everywhere these days. The last time I sat with my late teacher Elie Wiesel, he looked at me abjectly and said, “I never believed I would see antisemitism return, and so viciously.”
But unlike for him as a kid, for your grandparents and for millions of others, today, Israel is ever ready to protect Jews, wherever they are – and we Jews have cherished allies in the fight, including the United States and most civilized democracies, even Germany.
Your great loss in not going now is that the chances of traveling to Poland with a survivor drop dramatically each year. That only increases your responsibility, as someone who knows your 99-year-old grandfather and knew other survivors, to learn about the Holocaust, learn from the Holocaust, and teach about the Holocaust as something that happened to all of us, even though you were born 57 years after the Nazis surrendered.
BUT LET’S be honest. No one has to visit Auschwitz to learn its history, be guided by its memory, or pass on its lessons, especially not Jews – we live it year-round.
Our acute awareness of all we have suffered helps make us an eternal people. In the summer, the two Holy Temples’ destructions get us fasting repeatedly, culminating with Tisha Be’av; in the spring, the Nazi mass murder has us standing silently, as the sirens wail – and our tears flow.
Noting how all these dates, while separated by 2,000 years, can blur, Leon Wieseltier writes in his majestic book, Kaddish: “This is one of the great paradoxes of Jewish existence. The consciousness of history becomes so intense that it abolishes the consciousness of time.”
But while our consciousness of history is constant, our understanding of history constantly changes. In his fascinating new book, Bitter Reckoning: Israel Tries Holocaust Survivors as Nazi Collaborators, our neighbor Dan Porat charts how “Israeli society has moved from one extreme to another,” in judging kapos and other Jewish collaborators after the Shoah. In the 1950s, Israel prosecuted some Jews for assisting the Nazis. Today, we excuse even those who operated in that “gray zone.”  Porat understands that it’s hard to judge “those who were there,” which reduces all the Jews under German rule to Nazism’s victims. He fears, however, that if Israelis once were too harsh, today, they’re too soft, overlooking the noble choices some made, and the evil decisions others made, within that hell.
YOU HAVE learned how your grandfather – who survived forced labor in Romania but didn’t call himself a “survivor,” to respect the death-camp victims and others “who really suffered” – saw his image change in North America, too. Initially, people like him were dismissed as broken victims; he and others lived long enough to be celebrated today as survivor-heroes.
Beware such caricaturing, such extremes. Never reduce the Shoah to a few talking points or life lessons or stereotypes.
Remember: memory is a tricky thing. Like an anchor, it stabilizes us, so we can navigate safely, intelligently, in the real world. But as with anchors, we need just enough buoyancy to stay afloat, never being so flighty that we forget, nor too burdened that we drown.  Holocaust education requires sensitivity, remembering enough so “Never Again” colors our worldview, but not so much that it blackens our souls.
As an “identity Zionist” who emphasizes how lucky we are to live in a world where Israel can be our identity anchor, our values platform, our source of inspiration – with all its challenges – I regret weighing you down with the responsibilities of Jewish history. But it’s our privilege, too.
In Kaddish, Wieseltier, the son of two Holocaust survivors, sighs: “It is one of the lessons of Jewish history that the community of Jewish fate is larger than the community of Jewish belief.”
In other words, traditionally – and today, too – most Jews let Jew-haters define them as Jews, rather than defining themselves as Jews by loving Judaism.
You’ve already shown yourself as someone who loves Judaism and Jewish life and the moral path. That’s the key to starting a healthy Holocaust-learning-and-teaching journey. That perspective puts the Jew-haters – and our martyred millions – in context. It frees you never to forget “Never Again” while always remembering the Torah’s invitation – which you’re living daily – to choose life. L’Chaim!
Love, Abba
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.