What is it to be a third-generation Holocaust survivor growing up in modern society? Our generation is the last to personally encounter Holocaust survivors, to hear the horrors from those who endured them. We are under pressure to carry their stories and testimonies to future generations. What does it mean to hold such responsibility?
I am a granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, both of whom sadly passed in recent years. Unfortunately, they died before I had the tools to question them about their experiences as I was not old enough to understand what the Holocaust was and the complexities surrounding it.
As part of the core curriculum in my Melbourne Jewish day school, we spend a semester of Year 10 studying the Holocaust. The intense study sheds light on multiple aspects and tackles the unanswerable questions of how the world was blinded into the belief that the systematic murder of an innocent people was acceptable. As part of the curriculum, we attended Holocaust memorial assembly in a non-Jewish school. The difficulty of attending an assembly where the information presented merely scratched the surface of what took place, while understanding that we should be thankful that people who have no direct connection to this event chose to study it, was the first of many conflicts that we had to attempt to understand.
A couple of months later, on a seminar in Israel for international Jewish youth, I participated in an activity that explored how previous generations in our family had dispersed around the world, where we are living now and where we see ourselves and the Jewish community in the future. Overwhelmingly the majority of our grandparents had come from Europe, but among the participants, not one of us was currently living in Europe. We discussed and explored the cause of this major move away from Europe and unanimously agreed that the Holocaust was the reason.
Interestingly, the American staff member who was running the activity was very opposed to using the term ‘Holocaust’. She, an American Jew, was seemingly annoyed by the topic of the Holocaust arising, almost hostile towards it. She held the strong opinion that ‘it happened, let’s get over it’. She disagreed with the stance that the Holocaust was unprecedented, and rather wondered why this genocide was given so much more attention than any other.
I found myself defending the importance of the event, feeling the need to make her understand. I was having this debate with an engaged American Jew, who was running an activity at a seminar for international Jewish youth. If she had no emotional connection to the Holocaust, what does this potentially say about the rest of American Jewry? I walked away from the activity shocked; my community in Melbourne is built by Holocaust survivors, and this was the first time that I had met a Jew who did not share this emotional connection. It led me to reflect on how much the Holocaust formulates my Jewish identity.
As part of a community impact project, I visited the local old age home and asked a group of people about their thoughts on miracles; whether they believed in them, or examples of experiencing them. In the middle of the discussion, one lady abruptly interrupted to speak about her personal miracle of surviving the Holocaust. She was unable to stop, speaking for almost half an hour. To witness the emotion in her voice as she told her story, was to truly understand the trauma that she endured. I am now faced with the challenge of passing on her story, for it is impossible to preserve, or even to describe the anguish that was in her voice.
“People are driving down this road like it’s just a road”. This is something that I overheard a classmate say whilst walking towards the crematoria in Terezinstadt.
My school offers a trip to Israel at the end of Year 10 as the pinnacle of our Jewish education before our matriculation begins. During this program, we travel to Prague for a few days and spend a day in Terezinstadt. I was fortunate enough to participate in this program.
Walking through Terezinstadt and seeing people going about their daily lives, walking a dog or buying something from a store, was the opposite of what we expected. The sign post that points to the crematoria sits just under the street name and just above the sign pointing to the nearest restaurant; the idea that people live a normal life in a place of such horror was beyond our imagination. For us, the road to the crematoria was so much more than a road. The mere thought of the crematoria was enough to make any one of us cringe in disgust, many of us having family members whose bodies were destroyed in that way.
More than this, the visit to Terezinstadt was particularly poignant for me, as it was the place from where my late grandmother, Mira Szalmuk, was liberated. Having only very distant memories of her, I learnt about Mira’s story through my mother and through reading Mira’s autobiography. My mother has located multiple Nazi documents about Mira’s journey during the war through various labour and concentration camps. I have read these documents as well as Mira’s vivid description of her liberation by the Russians in Terezinstadt. As part of an emotional conclusion ceremony, I had the privilege of sharing my grandmother’s testimony with my peers. It was an honour to do this in the very place where my grandmother was freed.
All these conflicting experiences surrounding the Holocaust, ring true of the incredibly high value, which both my community and my family place on the Holocaust as a key piece of my Jewish identity. However, it is also clear that parts of the international Jewish community do not place such value on it, and think it unnecessary that we spend so much of our time pondering it.
The responsibility of being a third-generation Holocaust survivor comes with the intense pressure to pass on the stories to future generations. It is unrealistic to think that we can convey the story in the same way a survivor can. It is unrealistic to believe that future generations will have the same capacity to form emotional connections to the Holocaust, and hence place a high value on it, if they never meet a survivor.
My Jewish identity is strongly built on the Holocaust. My generation’s biggest responsibility is not solely working out how to preserve and respect the memory of the Holocaust and how to foster an emotional connection to it in future generations, but even more importantly how to reimagine our collective Jewish identity without the Holocaust at the forefront.
(This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Report)