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Reflections on Yom HaShoah

April 2009

Today is Yom HaShoah- Holocaust Memorial Day. It started last night at sundown when a siren blew. The siren blew again this morning at 11 A.M. All over the country, radio stations broadcast a minute long siren, both at night and in the morning. Schools, municipalities and people in their homes, tune their radios, waiting for this countrywide call to remember. Cars pull over at the sides of highways, traffic stops, as people get out and stand at the side of the road, heads bowed. School ceremonies begin with students and faculty standing for the sixty seconds of searing sound. Kindergartners rise from their sandbox play, having been prepared for the cry of the siren and they, too, stand. Workers in offices and factories stop, shoppers in supermarkets stop, and take a minute to remember. All radio and television programs this day are connected with the Jewish experiences of World War II, including personal interviews with survivors, movies about the Holocaust, and music appropriate for the solemnity of the day. It scares me, as I sit, glued to the TV, listening to yet another elderly woman tell her story, as another frail old man whispers out his memories of the horrors of his past. How much longer will these brave survivors be alive to tell their stories? How much longer will that generation be around to infuse us with their experiences, their courage, their deep understanding of what a Jewish Homeland means to us as a people?

This year the Holocaust Memorial Day hit home a little more strongly than usual. My seventeen-year-old daughter, Atara, came home two weeks ago from a school trip to Poland. My three older daughters went when they were in high school and this year was her turn. I’ve never been to Poland myself, and through all the preparations for her trip and the whole week she was there, my stomach cramped a bit at what she must be hearing about, what she must be seeing. The school prepared them extensively, until the girls were thinking, breathing and reading Holocaust. She called my mother-in-law and father-in-law, both Holocaust survivors, to say good bye. She asked them for the names of all their relatives who didn’t survive. She walked to our backyard and found a rock in our garden and inscribed all 13 names of the family that never came home, on the rock, and packed it safely in her bag. This rock, along with rocks brought by all the girls in her class, were to be part of a memorial built in Auschwitz, a memorial built of rocks from the Holy Land, pulled from Israeli soil. By the time she left to the airport, her sensitivities were tuned to a feverish pitch.

This journey was given the name “I seek my brothers” (Genesis 37:16) because they were going on a search to find their brothers—where they had lived before the Holocaust and where they suffered during the Holocaust. They were walking in our brothers’ footsteps, searching for a piece of our past. Atara told me that they first visited Yeshivot—massive institutions of great Torah study, where they were told to picture the glorious roar of Bible learning, where hundreds of heads were bent over sacred texts. Today they are empty. They visited synagogues still gracious in their magnificence and opulence, now sadly empty. The communities, the congregations, once alive and flourishing, wiped away.

Only then were they brought to the camps of mass destruction where Israeli flags were distributed. Some of the girls literally wrapped themselves in the flag of blue and white, as protection against what they were hearing and seeing, as a show of pride that their people were still alive. They walked through the streets silently, not flaunting their Jewishness, not flashing the fact that they were Israeli. Their group had a huge staff—teachers, rabbis, and a survivor who came along to tell her story. They also had a Polish guide and the woman kept mentioning how impressed she was with the girls. With their obvious devotion to G-d, with their thirst to learn and take in everything they could, with their level of maturity and responsibility to their people and their land. Atara couldn’t help wondering where this guide’s family was during the Holocaust, where they spent those years, doing what.

As my daughter visited Poland, I kept asking myself how modern Europe relates to the Holocaust. Are people ready to wake up and come to terms with their past? Don’t they wonder what happened in their towns some sixty years ago? Do they ever think that perhaps Jews were dragged away on the streets where they now live? Marcela Folbrechtova is one young European woman who is coming to terms with the past. She has been a good friend of Israel and of CFOIC Heartland for many years. She is from Prague, the Czech Republic, and grew up near there in a town called Pribram, in communist Czechoslovakia. Marcela says she never even encountered the term “Jew” or “Holocaust” until she was seventeen. Her school textbooks gave general facts about World War II but her teachers and even her parents and other family members, didn’t talk about the Holocaust at all. And then, when she was seventeen, her friend gave her Sophie’s Choice to read, and thus began her life’s fascination with the Holocaust. She started reading and watching films on the topic and then spent two years participating in the Malach project under the Shoah Foundation. She spent hours interviewing over 700 Holocaust survivors, hearing their stories, and taking down their words. She considers their testimonies “the most precious material I ever had in my hands. Many of the survivors said they wanted to survive only in order to be able to give testimony of the things they experienced.”

When Marcela offered to share the information she amassed with good friends and people in her church, she was disappointed. “They showed mostly no interest, even indifference.” I am moved by Marcela’s willingness to learn more about what happened. Marcela is standing up and being accountable. She is educating herself and the future generation, despite those who question her involvement in the topic.

Marcela joined the March of the Living last year. Like my daughter Atara, she walked through Auschwitz, saw the exhibits of thousands of eyeglasses, dolls, prosthetics and hair, taken from the people who were then exterminated. Marcela wrote an essay describing her reactions to the experience: “I am silent, feeling again the tremendous pain of those who suffered, were starved, tortured, murdered and gassed in the vast factory of death. . . The whole world gathered here, approximately 12,000 people… But there are no national flags; the only flags around us are Israeli flags. The huge crowd starts moving; we are leaving Auschwitz and heading to Birkenau, the most horrible extermination camp. The March is a 3 kilometer walk, commemorating the forced death marches of thousands of people. The Gate of Death to Birkenau is in front of us. A railroad goes through this gate. It is cold, windy, and it starts raining… in the proximity of the former five gas chambers.”

Marcela feels a need to share what she has learned and seen, even if the message is rejected over and over. She says, “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent—that is my life’s motto.” I know that Marcela and people like her are our friends. They have searched for the truth, faced the truth, and are spreading the truth. Together we must not be silent.

Atara showed me her pictures of herself in the same spot where Marcela had stood one year earlier, before the Gate to Birkenau. The pictures show her class of beautiful, strong, young Israeli Jewish women marching through that same gate, seeing those same sights. They are proof that the Jewish people and the State of Israel are alive and flourishing, that they were born out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

We must not allow the world to forget. The State of Israel, our beloved Biblical Heartland, is the answer.


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities