Yom Kippur Memorial: A Prayer of Thanks to the Generation of the Holocaust
Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun—Yom Kippur 1999
“Ronnie, look at those pictures,” my father said, pointing at thousands of emaciated bodies tangled and piled in unspeakably high mounds. My mother sat by silently. Were her parents in that mountain of corpses? “This is what happened to our family,” continued my father. “Yes, Daddy,” I said.” Five years old, I already feel their frailty coursing through me. By seven or eight, on Kol Nidre night, I was struck with a terrible fear — not that I wouldn’t be written in the Book of Life, but that, for some wrongdoing I had done, my parents would be held accountable and they might die. Such are the upside-down thoughts of a first-generation child.
I was not born on the Fourth of July. We were not a Yankee Doodle American family. And it was not a normal time to come into this world. I was born just after WWII ended. My mother and father managed to escape together from Europe literally days before the borders closed. In time for them, but not for both my mother’s parents, who were killed, we believe, at Dachau. Not for my father’s mother and sister, who lived but were forever physically damaged, nor for numerous extended family who perished or found themselves in England, South America, and New York. Like many of us, I grew up in a uniquely lit shadow land – the threat of blinding nuclear disaster on one side — the black hole of the Holocaust and death camps on the other.
But today, as we say Yizkor, I am reminded not only of this dark history. This High Holiday, during which we explore our multiplicity as human beings, it is time to bring up the other side. I want to focus on the Holocaust’s complicated legacy, not only as the terrible burden it was, but also on the challenges buried within. Yes, the beliefs my parents taught me were seared with life-and-death urgency, a sometimes maddening, sometimes comical tension between hope and despair. Yet, at their core, those we remember this hour gave us deeply Jewish values, complex but enduring to this day, and vitally alive here at B’nai Jeshurun. What did our parents and relatives teach as they emerged from the nightmare that was their history?
“First, Ronnie,” my mother and father said over and over, “you must learn a profession. Make sure it’s something you love, but learn it. Because,” and here is the imprint of the shtetl and the Holocaust, “because, Ronnie, they can’t take away what’s inside your head.”
The Nazis never realized they actually strengthened my father’s and mother’s resolve that almost nothing is as sacred as learning. How many times I was ready to give up: The text was indecipherable, the assignment too hard, the task at first incomprehensible. But, for many of us, the idea of turning away from study — to a life of knowledge that is disposable — is barren at best. If we still believe part of life must be about learning, it is no longer out of fear that it will be taken away by others, but a growing recognition that in a culture of instant information, we also need to learn that which is eternal. Without this value we know we are in danger of deleting a glowing ember of life from ourselves.
“Do something good for the world. Make a difference,” my parents would say. And then came the message burned into them by the war’s betrayal: “Only, don’t be noticed, don’t make waves because that would be bad for the Jews.”
What an exquisitely Jewish dilemma: “Do good only don’t be noticed doing it.” Mealtime discussions regularly centered on the thorny question of who was good and who was not good for the Jews. And, the only people absolutely, positively good for us were, in my parents opinion, those two eminent Jews, Sandy Koufax and Eleanor Roosevelt. Never mind that Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t even remotely Jewish; of this irrelevant detail, my parents were never to be convinced. Her ability to do all the good deeds they would have liked to do made her inherent Jewishness a given. And their unbridled enthusiasm for Sandy Koufax is, of course, obvious: Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in the World Series on the High Holidays. Though they had absolutely no knowledge of or interest in the sport, this served as an immense source of pride for my parents, and it afforded them the utmost theological leverage over me. Each year the first benediction of the High Holiday was, “If Sandy Koufax, the best pitcher in the history of the world, who also happens to be a Jew, doesn’t pitch in the World Series, then you, Mr. Bigshot, can go to temple and do it with a smile.”
Every Jewish person who contributed to the world made an indelible impression, even as it made my parents more than a little anxious. Every Einstein, Ben Gurion, Salk, Meir made them feel more worthwhile. Not superior as in “You see, we’re better than the rest,” but a reminder that for everyone beaten or thrown into a pit, another one had taken the chance to be seen, just in order to do some good. Over the years, the value to do good prevailed. It thrived in our house just as it does in this synagogue. No matter how anxious it makes us feel, part of our life’s work is to do good. Even if it means being visible, and taking a public stand.
Ronnie, no matter how good anything is going — and here comes the dark shadow again – never, never say out it loud. Why? Because it can all be taken away in a moment.
This terrible insecurity sounds at best like a shtetl superstition, at worst like a curse of the Holocaust. But it, too, had another side. It was a prohibition against complacency and the worst interpersonal affront my parents could imagine — bragging. Throughout our whole Washington Heights neighborhood, not bragging reached a veritable art form. A visitor might inquire of my father, “So, Leo, how’s business?” My father, “Oh, it goes, it goes …” “Well, what you mean?” says the stranger, becoming perplexed. “I’ve seen better and worse days,” the response. More than a little frustrated now, the visitor screams: “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about!!” “Exactly!” my father would say, with the irrefutable authority of someone who had just uttered something entirely comprehensible.
“God willing” was another one of those phrases that grew like a medicinal herb in the rambling weeds of our conversation, a remedy against ever forgetting life’s temporal nature. To my increasingly urgent preadolescent demands for material goods or greater privileges, I would hear a decision so unresponsive that it might cause our “I want it now” children to consider litigation. “Ronnie, when we come home from work tonight, we’ll tell you what we think – God willing.” As the years went on, they became ever more adept at declaring the precariousness of it all. Like trapeze artists flying high above daily life without a net, they would say, “When I get back from the kitchen — God willing — we’ll talk about it, then.” “But you’re just going into the next room!” I would scream in a fit of adolescent apoplexy. “What are you saying, that we can’t even count on the time it takes to go from here to the other side of this door?” “Well, it may make no sense to you, but there are no guarantees,” their faces taking on a familiar pained expression.
How could you argue with a mother who left behind both her parents? Or with a father, the eldest of his siblings, whose family had been so decimated? Shaken forever by the turn of events they experienced, my parents became obsessed with their responsibility for anyone’s safety. You can imagine their reaction when, in its infinite wisdom, the State of New York gave me permission to drive a motor vehicle. Once, when I drove home at night, I had to ask my mother not to hang out of the window so visibly while waiting for me. I found this habit of hers just a little embarrassing in front of my college friends, whose parents did not seem to live in such a pitched state of fear and apprehension. “OK, I promise,” she’d say, never for a moment meaning it. Soon after, I drove by our house one night as a light snow was falling, and there was my mother at her usual post, hanging out of the window. I went into my parents’ room to kiss them goodnight, but she was pretending to be asleep. ”Oh, when did you get here?” she said, almost making me believe her feigned dreamy state. Until I noticed one small detail — her pillow was laced with inches of just-fallen snow.
It would never change. There was no way around the sense of precariousness the Holocaust had added. And yet, their lack of entitlement to a single moment was right on target. There are few in this sanctuary now, or later as the sun sets and the gates are closing, very few who could possibly believe we do have a guarantee to a single extra second of time.
“Ronnie, it is wrong to be unfair to others,” my parents repeatedly said. This was not simply a moral position, but far more complex: “Once people are allowed to treat each other badly just because of who or what they are, anything can happen.”
True morality and stark fear in equal measure. Whatever the motivation, in our house I did not hear a single racial, religious, or ethnic slur. If my parents so much as uttered a phrase that could be slightly misconstrued as a stereotype, no matter how mild, it was said in a hushed voice, as if our kitchen conversations were being broadcast live into millions of homes across the country. Stamped by the yellow Star of David, quarantined so as not to taint Aryan purity, they knew what was right, and were unsurprised by America’s racist underbelly. When my father was a traveling shoe salesman, he would come home from his route in America’s Southland and tell us stories of trying to find a place to stay overnight. The signs on motels read “No niggers, kikes, or dogs allowed.” They knew the Jewish truth: Unfairness toward anyone is like a cancer of the soul; it attacks the very thing it inhabits. Transmitting this sense of justice was a primary value, one we are deeply familiar with. And here at BJ we try to live the idea that bigotry is absolutely not an acceptable part of life.
Finally, they said to me, “Never, never give up. Just being able to say to yourself, ‘I tried my best’ — that’s what matters.”
It was 1939. The borders of Europe were closing fast. The Nazis were rounding up Polish Jews, and the Gestapo told my mother, “You have a choice. Turn your husband over or we will take your father instead.” Telling no one she went down to the Brown House, as Gestapo headquarters in Cologne was called. For seven hours she talked, wheedled, charmed, and did whatever else was necessary, finally convincing a sympathetic-enough bureaucrat to allow them 48 hours to flee the country. “How did you do this?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know all the details. With no thought on her part, she simply said, “I tried until there was nothing left to try anymore.” It was no accident that she had never mentioned this event until I was interviewing her for a Holocaust project. It was simply an afterthought; trying was a given, nothing special, something you just did.
Trying was also my father’s way. He was there for every test I took, read every term paper I wrote, said the Shema at my bed with me every night – no matter how exhausted. This is why, when I go to the cemetery these many years since he died, I am in the habit of leaning over and touching my cheek against his headstone. The rough texture of the stone feels like his unshaven face, a coarse, but tender reminder of how hard he tried every day.
And, trying is also at the heart of our congregation. In this culture of instant gratification, where winning at all costs is everything and where trying hard is being insidiously redefined to our children as the sign of the loser and the geek, we must remind ourselves it is one’s intention, one’s kavanah, that counts in the end.
Years later, after both my parents had died, I had the following dream: I am in a dark basement. A figure appears at the top of the stairs and says: “Come here.” “Why?” I ask, immediately afraid. “God is here!” came the answer. As I climb the stairs, I am increasingly scared. You see, though my parents never for a moment questioned God, God was somehow intertwined in my mind with the old terrors: the worries, the insecurities, the punishments for doing wrong, maybe the betrayals themselves. Every step I climb in the dream brings back another shadow of my childhood. By the time I reach the top of the stairs, I am trembling. I slowly open the door, and the figure says, “This is God,” and I look up to see a warm light; it is pulsating with life, love, and acceptance. For days I am filled with this incredibly joyous feeling until it fades. Only in the late 1980s, when I experienced my first service at B’nai Jeshurun, did this light suddenly reappear. It was then that the healing of my Jewish spirit and the Holocaust’s legacy began.
Like snowflakes swirling past each other on a winter’s wind, my parents and my children never touched. Their descent into the Holocaust and their slow emergence from it took fourteen years. They were very old to have a first child, and they were gone before their grandchildren arrived. As sad as this broken circle makes me, they understood children; they knew what to expect from them. But this place, B’nai Jeshurun, they never could have imagined or expected. The basic values, yes: God, prayer, good deeds, study, being fair, respect those who are different and never stop trying, — all these things would have been familiar. What my parents and many of the others we have lost could never have imagined, though, are these Jewish values — without the fear.
For the twelve years I have been a member of BJ, I have so often yearned to show my mother and father this place. And I know I am not alone. Almost everyone here today is connected to someone who went through the Holocaust, or who died before you could bring them here. Say to them now, “Come in and see. For we have worked to create a Judaism not of fear, nor of superstition, nor of unbearable suffering. Open these doors to everyone who has passed on: all our parents and grandparents, our aunts and uncles, brothers, sisters, friends … and even the children who have died. Come into our synagogue. You will see that out of the shtetl, the ghetto, the tortured upside-down world of the crematorium, we have made this. Fill this synagogue with them.
Can you imagine their reaction to the richness of these colors, to the passion and the haunting melody of BJ’s prayers? Can you imagine their wonder at a Judaism of such joy and light? And, can you even remotely imagine, given their harrowing life experience, coming into this house of worship and reading what is written on this banner high above the bima: “How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony?”
You are in our hearts, and you honor us with your presence; now we will honor you with Yizkor. We would not be here without you. And B’nai Jeshurun would not be what it has become without your beliefs. For a moment we are together. We remember the dark you went through and the light you helped us to create. And, for all of this, we say – thank you.