The Holocaust is with me all the time.
I can’t say I’m “haunted” by it, but its everlasting importance informs virtually everything I read, or see, or hear about.
I, personally, lost “only” one family member — a great-aunt — in that greatest of all Jewish horrors. But I didn’t even know about that, or about the enormity of others’ losses, for many years…
I was an uninformed child when those things were happening. Did my parents know? If so, they never told me; both of them passed away without a word of it. I didn’t find out until 1978, when a four-part miniseries aired on television — NBC’s brave introduction to this sordid history. And neither did many others. Before that quartet of shows — starring a young Meryl Streep as the non-Jewish friend of a Jewish boy — most of America was either uninformed or silent. Afterward, there was no way not to know.
An apt metaphor: What happened was like someone had finally removed the recalcitrant first olive from a packed jar. Survivors began to come out of what had been a kind of hiding to share their experiences.
I belonged then to a congregation that had been founded by German Jews who recreated in Chicago the minhag of their own destroyed synagogue. At the time, I was writing for a general-circulation newspaper, and one of our temple’s founders asked if I would tell her story for everyone to read. I was incredibly humbled, and frightened, but it was my duty, my terrifying responsibility, to honor her request. On the morning that the story ran, my first telephone call was from that woman’s daughters, thanking me profusely for letting them know what their mother had never, ever told them…
And now, even after all the passed time, after the trials, after libraries have filled to overflowing with everything from academic histories to heartbreaking memoirs, materials continue to emerge that confront us once again, as if to make sure we will never forget. Some are not new, but there is one that is new to me: I have only recently become aware of The Auschwitz Album, which came to Yad Vashem for restoration exactly a half-century after the pictures in it were taken. They are the work of an SS man officially tasked in 1944 with photography as Hungarian Jews were arriving at the death camp.
It is still hard to imagine, let alone understand, how once-normal people could act as they did: screaming curses at their longtime neighbors as they were led from their homes, and then ransacking those homes afterward. Making people dig the pit that would be their own graves, then shooting them at its rim and watching them fall in. And this man, taking pictures as if he wanted to fill an album with vacation memories. But Yad Vashem tells us the truth: “In the photos, we see men, women and children step out of the overcrowded train, traumatized and fearful after their horrendous journey. They have no clue that they have just been delivered to a death factory, and that few of them will survive.” But the photographer’s snapshots have survived for them…
A recent column on the Dallas Morning News’ editorial page reminded us that many European nations’ churches signed a sort of apology after the war, an act of repentance for getting into Hitler’s “moment” and behaving like wild animals instead of human beings. We marvel at the coldness of one who could take such pictures as those that fill the Auschwitz Album and not see suffering humanity in his viewfinder.
Today, you can Google The Auschwitz Album, read its remarkable history of survival, and see the photos for yourself. You can also Google Holocaust TV miniseries to view the Emmy-award winner that brought awareness to America and helped traumatized survivors begin walking their paths to healing.
And may we all remember, always: Never Again!
The Holocaust is with me all the time.