By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
This year I felt very little connection on International Holocaust Remembrance Day; I feel more and more removed from the Holocaust as something in the distant past. I feel guilty to feel this way since this was such a seminal event in our very recent history and people who went through it are still alive. Do you have any thoughts?
— Staycee M.
I do not think that feelings of guilt are in place. (Jewish mothers please forgive me!) The destruction of our Temple, for which we observe an entire day of mourning, was also a seminal event, resulting in the ensuing exile and loss of Israel. Even so, we all struggle with attaining some feeling of connection; for many it is an empty day of observances. This is because it is difficult to wholeheartedly mourn that which we never saw or can even imagine.
It is difficult for you to expect to feel much connection, assuming you are under 50-60 years old, as you probably did not grow up around many Holocaust survivors. Although it somewhat dates me, I feel fortunate to be of a generation which grew up surrounded by survivors, my own father of blessed memory included. This endowed me and many of the baby boomer generation with not only a historical connection to the Holocaust but also a deep emotional connection as well. It has given us a profound feeling of being part of Jewish history and all it entails.
I would recommend that you seek out and speak with survivors. Hear their stories, look into their eyes and feel a connection to past generations. Sadly, there are relatively few of these people left and they are all priceless repositories of Jewish history. There are, as you know, myriad books which all tell powerful personal stories and will add much depth to your understanding of what transpired (to the extent possible in writing), in addition to tapes, videos and museums. But with all of that, nothing compares to hearing it directly from a living source. We need to embrace them and hear what we can while we are still able to.
Another suggestion I have is to think about what you wish to accomplish by feeling connected to the Holocaust. Just to remember does not accomplish a lot and will not serve as a strong inspiration to do what it takes to remember. But, if by remembering and staying connected to what transpired will give you something for the future, and you have defined what that something is, you will find much more meaning in that connection.
Some find meaning in seeing the terrible consequences of racism. Although there is value in that, it will not be so valuable to you if you are not racist to begin with. It also removes the focus from the uniquely Jewish perspective of the Holocaust.
Personally, I think there is tremendous value in strengthening one’s Jewish pride by reading those volumes which relate the incredible tenacity and resolve so many Jews had to remain steadfast in their observance and Jewish values in the darkest of times and worst possible circumstances known to mankind. To read books like “Sparks of Glory” by Moshe Prager or “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” by Yaffa Eliach and others like them, one is bound to evoke the deepest emotions: tears of sadness mixed with tears of deep Jewish pride. The reader will never be the same. Anyone reading these words will invariable be inspired to do more, Jewishly, to bring honor to the memories of these people and avenge their deaths by living the ideals they died for. The lessons of the past should be a powerful springboard to propel us into the future!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.