Increasingly, the Remaining Shoah Witnesses Are Women
It sounds terrible to say that you have a Holocaust Remembrance Day routine, but in Israel, it’s generally true.
Normally, if one of my children is part of a school ceremony, I’ll go watch it. (For a few years, one of the kids had a terrible fear of the loud noise of the siren that sounds for the moment of silence at 10 a.m. on Holocaust Day and needed me there for reassurance, so I showed up at the school anyway.) But normally, the eve of the memorial day, my family tends to gather on the sofa and watch the national ceremony at Yad VaShem. The rest of the evening and the next day is spent quietly at home, watching in the numerous quality documentaries and movies that are shown on television, and discussing the Holocaust with the kids, helping them process the enormity of it in a private, intimate way.
Everyone talks about how you rediscover the joys of life through your children; it’s rarer to discuss how difficult it is to see your 6-year-old daughter learn about mass murder of millions of innocent men, women and children for the first time. I’ve complained before about the way in which Israeli children are confronted with such horrors at such a young age, but there isn’t much one can do about it other than be there to comfort and reassure them.
My daughter Tamar took great interest this year as she learned the details of the Holocaust for the first time. “Mommy, you know that last year in kindergarten we were too little to hear the whole story of the Shoah. But this year, in first grade, they explained it all to us,” she told me. She was the one who insisted on breaking our routine; she wanted to attend the local municipal memorial ceremony. “I don’t want to watch something on TV,” she said firmly. “I want to go a real ceremony.”
Who was I to say no? Besides, it seemed to somehow trivialize the ritual to watch it on the same screen on which we had been glued to the royal wedding festivities all weekend.
Tamar didn’t want to sit discreetly in the back or at the sides of the audience. As we searched for seats closer to the front rows, a kind usher let us sit in very front, in the VIP section in seats that had been reserved for City Council members who hadn’t shown up. We ended up sitting right alongside the Holocaust survivors who were being honored at the ceremony.
And so, as darkness fell, Tamar and I watched hand-in-hand as the survivors who live among us, the elderly of our city whom we pass on the street each day, rose carefully from their seats to the stage and lit the memorial torches as the announcer intoned their amazing stories. Most of them survived by a combination of clever decisions and luck: hiding in a neighbor’s attic for two years, figuring out how to avoid the selection process at the camps by hiding in ditches, fleeing from ‘death marches.’
I couldn’t help noticing that six out of the seven survivors who lit torches were women. As the survivors move into their 70s, 80s and 90s, it is inevitable: There are far more women left to bear witness to the great tragedy than there are men. The female survivors of my town looked so fragile, and yet stood so straight, strong and proud as they lit the torches memorializing the fallen members of their families.
Along with their stories of survival, the announcer described how each one reclaimed the lives, pride, identity, and Jewishness that Hitler made such efforts to take from them. They immigrated to Israel, married, built families, and had children. At the ceremony, they smiled at the descriptions of the impressive accomplishments of their children. (After all, as my friend Sara says “how many children of survivors do you know who are slackers?”)
These fragile, yet strong, old women are precious treasures — for Israel and the Jewish people. I feel honored to have sat among them at the ceremony. Tamar was right to want to attend the ceremony. After all, when she is my age, none of these brave women will be left. I feel indebted to my 6-year-old for pulling me off the sofa and letting me give them the honor that they deserve.
"I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my own body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening; some of us have yellow skin, others grey. When we do not meet for a few days we hardly recognize each other."— Primo Levi, "Survival in Auschwitz"