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A Personal History Of Holocaust Remembrance

At this time of year, public memory in Israel is most intense. Things come to a head in the course of a single week, from the morning of Yom HaShoah until the end of Yom HaZikaron. I call this period Bein Hatzefirot, “Between The Sirens,” because it begins with a minute-long siren the morning of Holocaust Commemoration Day, summoning the nation to come to a complete standstill. It ends with the two sirens on Memorial Day for the Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims Of Terrorism. In a country where there are no degrees of separation, that has absorbed more Holocaust survivors than any other and has fought four major wars, not counting the smaller ones, the experience of loss is well-nigh universal. This period of national mourning, in turn, forms a dark coda to the weeklong Festival Of Passover, another milestone on the national-religious calendar, with its scripted happy end for all Jews everywhere. Between the Sirens forms a meaningful arc, all the more so when it includes the story of the Exodus. Here in Israel, the remembrance of things past can have a powerful and cathartic effect.

Another reason this season is so intense is that the art of collective memory and mourning is changing rapidly. There has been a fundamental shift in Israeli culture from the collective to the individual, from the grand Zionist tropes to the story of each soldier, male and female, whether of Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian or Druse extraction, and, by extension, to their bereaved parents and siblings.

Nowadays, in fact, bereavement looms just as large in the balance sheet of national memory as does bravery in battle. Only the most melancholy and heart-rending songs are performed at public gatherings, and new commemorative songs are composed each year.

When Israel recalls the War of Independence, the classic songs speak of “they” and “us.” The same holds true for the Six Day War. But not today, the grammar of remembrance speaks of “I,” “he,” “she” and the singular “you.” TV documentaries, screened from morning until night on Yom HaZikaron, show men, not only women, crying. What’s more, they are ethnically diverse, psychologically nuanced and historically layered. I never cease to be amazed at how many portraits of fallen soldiers contain embedded stories of the Holocaust.

This dramatic shift in focus toward the personal, interpersonal and intergenerational has had a profound effect on Holocaust commemoration as well. It is no longer sufficient to trot out the old slogan of “Holocaust And Heroism,” which sent the message that the shame of those millions who supposedly went to their deaths unprotesting was mitigated by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and other acts of armed resistance.

Now, every single Holocaust commemoration, whether it is held on campus, in school auditoriums, in synagogues, in Holocaust museums or in private living rooms, invites a survivor to give personal testimony in Hebrew to some aspect of the Annihilation. Most were too young to do battle. At best, they can testify to the heroism of small deeds: of parental sacrifice, bonding, loyalty and love. Their numbers, too, are dwindling fast.

Thus, the changing face of the survivor and the placing of the individual center stage have upended the accepted ways of commemorating the Holocaust in Israel. Although I did not grow up here, have never served in the armed forces and am not a child of survivors, this new memorial landscape feels to me like home.

Singing voices or, the story of my adolescent rebellion

My home was Yiddish Montreal. From a very young age I attended the anniversary gatherings to commemorate the liquidation of the Vilna and Bialystok ghettos. Later I went to larger gatherings organized by the Jewish Labor Bund and to the communitywide commemoration held at The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Commemoration, I understood early on, is not a solo activity. Yes, when Mother lit a Yizkor candle on the anniversary of her parents’ deaths, it was for us alone to see, but the heavy-duty memorial prayers were recited only in the presence of many people. Later, I learned that even the Kaddish cannot be recited without a quorum.

Yet not all memorial voices were the same. How tired and predictable was the ceremony at the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue! The great Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, one of two keynote speakers, had obviously thrown together his comments on the train ride up from New York. How thrilling, by contrast, was the gathering of the Bundists, beginning with the fact that they met on April 19, the actual date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (and that Mother disapproved of me going), and ending with the group singing Hirsh Glik’s Partisans’ Hymn, “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”), which I knew by heart.

But the voice that broke through the ceremonial fog was the voice of a Yiddish poet I had never heard before—Simkhe-Bunem Shayevitsh, whose epic poem, “Lekh-lekho,” discovered in the rubble of the Lodz ghetto, was recited almost in its entirety by my friend Khaskl’s uncle, with great solemnity.

What made his voice so real was that it was utterly unexceptional. Here is a father speaking directly to his only daughter, Blimele. His purpose is seemingly simple and straightforward: to prepare her for their imminent deportation from the ghetto, the only home she has ever known. And his approach is both practical and pedagogical; not only does he instruct her on what to take and why, but he also explains how this journey into the abyss fits into the millennial scheme of Jewish fate, hence the name, Lekh-lekho.

His basic message to Blimele is it’s our turn now, and since we’ve been here before, let us prepare as best we can, and thereby preserve our human dignity. The speaker is a Jewish father with profound knowledge of the ancient and recent past; yet as a prisoner within the ghetto of Lodz he has no knowledge whatsoever of the fate that awaits him and his family but a train ride away. This intimate conversation between father and daughter is a moment arrested in Holocaust time, which speaks beyond time and for all time.

I went looking for other such voices, and my timing was right. The moment I resolved, at the age of 16, to add my own voice to the Yiddish choir, the voices started coming to me. In 1964 I helped organize Yugntruf — Youth For Yiddish, mostly made up of high school and college students who had grown up in Yiddish-speaking homes. Besides resolving to speak only Yiddish among ourselves and publishing a journal by that name, our main group activity was the annual tsuzamenfli (a wonderful new word for “conference”), at which the performance of Yiddish songs loomed particularly large. Here, for the first time, I heard Hirsh Glik’s ballad, “Silence And A Starry Night,” commemorating the first act of sabotage carried out by the Vilna partisans. I heard Leah Rudnitsky’s lullaby to a nameless, orphaned child, “Birds Are Drowsing On The Branches.”

These songs were both familiar and strange. A song of armed resistance doubled as a love song. A lullaby, that most intimate conversation between a parent and child, was recast into an emblem of unspeakable loss.

If 16-somethings could rescue Yiddish as a living, spoken language, then there was a future for the memory of the Holocaust as well. For unless I and my generation could fashion our own commemorative idiom, this whole business would become lip service to the dead, where no grief was felt, nor any thought given to good and evil, remembering and forgetting, heroism and betrayal, Jewish destiny. If nothing else, I already knew what songs would replace the Memorial Prayer and the rousing anthems — songs that disassembled the catastrophe into a story of love and darkness.

Holocaust commemoration became my main extracurricular activity at Brandeis University. My soul mate, Hillel Schwartz, and I experimented with different media, genres, performative spaces and alternative narratives, from a three-act play about the failed uprising in the Vilna Ghetto to dramatic readings, to a three-day multimedia happening called “In Commemoration Of Spring.” These were the ’60s, when being Jewish and being rebellious were one and the same.

Liturgical voices: ‘Nightwords’

Then one day in senior year I attended a Sabbath morning service in a private apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that housed something called Havurat Shalom Community Seminary. It was Shabbat Zakhor, the Sabbath before Purim. It has a special reading from Deuteronomy 25, which recalls the enmity and gratuitous cruelty of the Amalekites. The person leading the service was Rabbi Zalman Schachter, a onetime emissary of Chabad who was then on sabbatical leave from the University of Manitoba. The service ended with a Mourner’s Kaddish unlike any I had ever heard.

Instead of using the standard liturgical tune, Schachter sang the Aramaic prayer to the melody of “Zog Nit Keyn Mol.” In so doing, he accomplished several things at once. He took a prayer whose design was vertical, to hallow and sanctify the name of God, and reset it along the horizontal plane of human history. Conversely, he took a melody that was resolutely secular, and actually composed in the Soviet Union, and harnessed its power for spiritual ends. Schachter turned Shabbat Zachor into a commemoration of the Holocaust.

Suddenly, the gratuitous cruelty of Amalek became the theological segue to the exponentially greater evil unleashed upon the People of Israel by the Germans and their willing collaborators. Schachter also wanted to give the Holocaust a redemptive spin: If today was Shabbat Zachor, Purim was soon to follow.

For me, hearing Schachter’s Kaddish was a self-defining moment, because it meant that the Yiddish secular world from which I came was suffused with religious significance, and that the most powerful way to respond to the Holocaust was the most indirect: by channeling, challenging and short-circuiting the traditional liturgy. A year later, after being admitted into the havurah, now relocated to permanent quarters in Somerville, Massachusetts, I wrote “Nightwords,” an experimental and experiential liturgy for Yom HaShoah.

The experience of writing “Nightwords” and participating in many of its public performances taught me several important things. It taught me that the medium was the message. I gave “Nightwords” the subtitle “A Midrash On The Holocaust,” because the essence of classical Midrash I understood to be the juxtaposition of sound bites. A rabbi from one century rubbed shoulders with a rabbi from another. The flow of quotations was associative and analogical, not discursive and logical.

My Midrash was radically eclectic. Elie Wiesel and André Schwarz-Bart rubbed shoulders with Herman Melville and Nikos Kazantzakis. Isaiah, Ezekiel and Rabbi Akiva “spoke” to Buber, Kafka and Kierkegaard. The Yiddish poets Abraham Sutzkever, Aaron Zeitlin and Jacob Glatstein appeared alongside Nelly Sachs, Anthony Hecht and Yehuda Amichai. All voices existed in dialogue across space and time.

And the more modern these voices, the more they talked back to God. “We accepted the Torah on Sinai,” Glatstein wrote in 1946, “and in Lublin we gave it back.” Glatstein chose Lublin, his birthplace, as the site of the counter-revelation because just outside town, so close you could smell the burning flesh, was the extermination camp of Majdanek. And lest there be any mistaking his subversion of Sinai, the poet took the words of the Hallel, from Psalms 115:17, and ripped them apart:

The dead don’t praise God—
The Torah was given for Life.
And just as we all stood together
at the giving of the Torah,
so indeed did we all die in Lublin.

Second, it taught me the power of language. Many participants in a reading of “Nightwords” were hearing Yiddish performed for the first time. Yiddish, they discovered, could be experienced as liturgy. A song from the Vilna ghetto (there were three) was both elegy and hymn. In each subsequent revision, I included more Yiddish sources, and increasingly drew upon poetry and prose that was written during wartime. Wartime writing in Yiddish (and Hebrew) I came to view as a source of Scripture.

Third, it taught me the meaning of performance space. “Nightwords” called for 36 speaking parts and for everyone in the audience to be seated on the floor, in concentric circles. (Lo these many years later, of course, only the most agile members of the audience still sit on the floor.) However configured, that performance space was the preserve of collective memory, and as such, it opened a space for new rituals to be tested.

Living room voices: The Holocaust as sound chamber

Thirty years later, “Nightwords ”was translated and adapted into Hebrew for use in the Israeli Modern Orthodox high school system. These students would presumably be able to engage with the choir of contemporary voices playing off the prophets and rabbinic sages. It pleased me to think that “Nightwords” was still considered edgy and appropriate primarily for the young.

But changes on the ground were leaving the educational establishment far behind. The revolution in social media in Israel, the most wired country on earth, made it possible for new forms of affiliation to be instantly generated.

Some two or three years ago, a grassroots organization called Zikaron Basalon, [Holocaust] Memory-in-the-Living-Room, was founded in the Tel Aviv area by a group of 20—somethings who had had enough. Enough with carefully scripted gatherings in large public arenas. On the same night that the rest of the country was gathered in front of their TV screens, at some heavily subsidized event, or was completely tuned out, a motley group of people who signed on over Facebook would meet in someone’s living room to hear a survivor give living testimony, followed by a performance of song or recitation, and ending with an open-ended facilitated discussion.

For Holocaust memory to be meaningful it had to be face to face, ad hoc and informal. The smaller the venue, the greater the likelihood of hearing the still, small voice of the survivor and of giving voice to one’s own questions and unspoken fears. What did “Shoah” mean anyway. and why does it loom so large in public discourse? Is it appropriate to laugh when speaking of the Shoah? Does the memory of the Shoah unify Israeli society or divide it? Do Israeli society and the State of Israel bear a special responsibility for this subject? Does the sanctity of the Shoah inhibit us from speaking openly?

Last year I was invited to speak at such an intimate gathering. At the orientation session for the Jerusalem area, I was the only graybeard and non-Israeli in the semicircle. It turned out, however, that the survivor who was scheduled to appear had just called in sick. So I convened a salon of my own, where we did a somewhat abbreviated reading of “Nightwords” in Hebrew. Since the parts were unrehearsed and more than half the participants were non-native speakers of Hebrew, things did not flow quite as smoothly as I would have wanted.

But then something unexpected happened. When the recitation and singing were done, and the assembled were left staring at a pile of (their own) shoes in the middle of the living room — a ritual of my invention — Mina Dasberg, our neighbor from down the block, was moved to speak. I had just explained that this evening had come into being in the absence of a living survivor.

“But I am a Holocaust survivor,” she said in an almost inaudible voice. “I hid out in the forests outside of Brody with my mother for one and a half years.” She explained that her adamant refusal at the age of 3 to join the other Jews in their underground bunker had saved her and her mother’s lives, and other mundane or miraculous circumstances that contributed to her being here, with us, on this Yom HaShoah, in Jerusalem. It was as if Blimele had risen from the dead to tell her side of the story.

What came to me that night after the group dispersed and the folding chairs were put away is that there are many young Jews outside the State of Israel who would respond to a Facebook post that promised to deliver what Zikaron Basalon can deliver: to meet other people in the neighborhood with more questions about the Holocaust than answers.

To enter a sound chamber of Holocaust voices both living and dead.

To do the memory work that can be done only in a group setting.

David G. Roskies teaches Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author (with Naomi Diamant) of “Holocaust Literature: A History And Guide.”


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