My dilemma is around the Holocaust and how to relate to it. On one hand, I think I know plenty about it. But on the other hand, it really is not something I want to think about. I see the notices about Holocaust memorial events, but I never go. I honestly don’t want to use the rare night out with my spouse to go and see a Holocaust movie, even a big box office one – I would rather see a fun movie. I even find myself recoiling when the Holocaust is brought up. It is just too depressing. Recently, though, my children have been asking me about the Holocaust, and I realize that I have been avoiding dealing with it. Is this wrong? What should we be doing, if anything? How should we talk to our children about it?
Your question and your dilemma are normal and expected. By nature, we tend to retreat from that which is unpleasant, uncomfortable and painful. Despite the tragedy in our history, Jewish practice is one of hope and optimism. Our traditional approach is to not dwell excessively on calamities and catastrophes. Notice, in spite of Passover being a commemoration of our collective persecution as slaves in Egypt, the focus of the seder and the Haggadah is on gratitude for salvation. Likewise, our practice is to cluster the remembrance of multiple catastrophic events into one single day of observance rather than burden the community with an overabundance of fast days.
The Talmud addresses the issue of balancing mourning and living everyday life. With Tisha B’Av looming, this conversation is even more poignant. We are taught that after the destruction of the Second Temple some were inclined to become ascetics and refrain from eating meat, fruit, bread and from drinking wine. Rabbi Joshua sought to temper their mourning and said to them, “Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the blow has fallen. To mourn overmuch is also impossible, because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure.” Ultimately, the passage concludes with a prescription for resolving the quandary, “A man may plaster his house, but should leave a little bare. A man can prepare a full-course banquet, but leave out an item or two. A woman can put on all her ornaments, but leave off one or two.”
Life as it was cannot continue; we dare not go on as usual. But neither can it come to a halt with excessive forms of mourning. It seems that the Talmud understands that for most, to live in an ongoing state of sorrow is too heavy a burden. A framework of commemoration is identified through home, garb and food. Our homes must bear the reminder of the house of the Lord that was laid waste, our tables must reflect the cessation of our sacred offerings, and our appearances must evoke the absence of the priestly garb. Our mourning must be kept in check, yet remain ever a delicate presence.
The Holocaust, so fresh of a national calamity, presents a more complicated phenomenon to navigate. Its mourning and remembrance are more intense, yet considerably less codified and established. How do we remember the Holocaust? How much time do we devote to its commemoration and to learning about it? Is there such a thing as too much mention of the Holocaust? And of course, what tools can we draw on to help us share the Holocaust with our children?
Perhaps we can remember the murder of six million Jews as well as the destruction of the vibrant European Jewish life that once pulsated and animated the continent by drawing on the parameters of Rabbi Joshua. We could consecrate matters of home, garb and food — actions of private, public and inner life — by committing them to a palette of personal Holocaust memorial.
Commit to read one book a year about the Holocaust. You might suggest a particular work to your book group. Include core Holocaust history books on your bookshelves. Browse the internet for websites that provide information and even video testimonies of survivors, such as Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and of course our own local Washington State Holocaust Education and Research Center.
Films such as Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” “Schindler’s List” or “Life is Beautiful” are all a start to creating a home that gently connects to Holocaust memory. On the public front, yes, go to the yearly Holocaust memorials and begin to speak of the singularity of the genocidal Holocaust of European Jewry openly and meaningfully.
All of this will bring you to a place where you will feel ready to speak with your children. Lovingly and with care, you will slowly let them know about resistance, heroism and bravery. You will share with them the wonder of Jewish life — its vibrancy and creativity — before the Holocaust. You will consider testimonies that tell the tale of survival and hope, planning all the while how you will usher your children in with peace and hope.
We are an incredibly resilient people. Though it would be considerably more comfortable to live a life bereft of mourning and sorrow, keep in mind the powerful words of Elie Wiesel: “Not to transmit an experience is to betray it.”