These two weeks hold three very significant days for Jewish people in Israel and elsewhere: Yom HaShoa, commemorating the devastation and the heroism of victims of the Holocaust, Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers and victims of terror, and Yom Ha’azmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
Established after the Holocaust and perhaps only because of it, the existence of the homeland for the Jewish people has been paid for by the lives of many, including the children of Holocaust survivors. Among those who lost their children to the wars of Israel were two Holocaust survivors in my own small extended family, my father’s second cousin and my mother’s cousin. Our families, once large, were small after the Holocaust. The connections between the handful of relatives who found each other after the war were warm and special. Their sons were my “cousins”, handsome and talented and loved, the pride and joy of their parents and of us all. The tremendous devastation that the loss of a son brings to parents and to siblings cannot be expressed, and the mind shrinks away from even trying to imagine it. On these days, I am thinking of my relatives, the survivors who lost their sons, and of the young men who never got a chance to grow older. With every year, as I age, my sense of the depth of the loss and the pain of the bereaved families becomes more profound, their ability to live on more incomprehensible. And yet, the families continued to thrive, and have produced beautiful, successful, productive grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This resilience and vibrancy of my relatives, as well as many other bereaved families in Israel, whether Holocaust survivors or not, is astounding.
The timing of the three dates, Yom HaShoa, Memorial Day for the Israel’s fallen and Israel’s Independence Day are meaningfully strung together to express the connection between the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jewish people in Europe, the establishment of a vibrant Jewish Homeland, and the terrible price of its defense. There are important connections and lessons to be taken from those who are willing to share their pain and their resilience with us, lessons which were powerfully evident in some presentations last week.
Michel Kichka, one of Israel’s most well-known cartoonists, spoke at the United Nations with candid authenticity of his experiences as the son of an Auschwitz survivor, as he tackled it in his remarkable illustrated novel “The Second Generation- The Things I Did Not Tell My Father”. It was particularly moving to hear the author describe the aftermath of his younger brother’s suicide, which was the impetus that moved him to create the book, addressing, as he said, the tragic but also the humorous and funny moments in the life of the Kichka family, and giving his deceased brother his place within it. Giving his brother his place and remembering poignant as well as funny moments in their shared family life was particularly important because Kichka’s father coped differently with the tragic loss of his son. He would not talk about him; not even during the Shiv’a. Instead, the loss triggered a flood of memories and Kichka’s father begin to speak about his own experiences during the Holocaust. Since then, the elder Kichka has written a memoir and has become a sought-after speaker, much revered by the audiences he speaks to. Michel Kichka spoke openly to the many young students who filled the General Assembly Hall, about the tensions between father and son, two very talented men, each seeking to find their way through the darkness in different manners, not always connecting well with each other, but showing so much creativity and resilience.
These very characteristics were powerfully present in the encounter of the 2000 people who attended Temple Emanuel on Sunday and had the unique opportunity to listen to Toby Levy, a vibrant beautiful eighty five year old survivors of the Holocaust who was a child in hiding during WWII. Toby embodies the capacity of many child survivors, to adjust and to surmount the tragedies that life shaped by the Holocaust had presented her with. Toby’s speech was an astounding manifestation of her capacity to transform herself in her later years, once again, to become an outstanding educator, who shares her legacy as a positive message about the possibility of moral behavior under the most dire circumstances, as so bravely shown by the rescuers who saved the lives of her family. I strongly recommend viewing Toby’s presentation, as well as the presentation by Amanda Lanceter, granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, Gina and Henry Lanceter, which can be viewed on the Museum of Jewish Heritage website or on youtube at this link .
Finally, I had the honor of hearing once again the incredible story of the Bielsky Brothers, told by Robert Bielsky, the son of Tuvia Bielsky, who spoke at the commemoration ceremony at Kean University, organized by the Holocaust Council of MetroWest and its director, Barbara Wind. The Bielsky brothers succeeded in rescuing 1200 Jews, whose descendants number around 20,000 today. As Robert Bielsky put it: ”From nothing but a ragtag collection of disheveled, malnourished, displaced, ill, and traumatized people, they became the largest armed rescue of Jews by Jews in all of World War II”. The Bielsky brothers first decided to escape to the woods to save themselves and fight the Nazis, and then invited and accepted all those who joined them, whether young or old, women or men, sick or healthy, and organized a large community that lived and functioned in the woods. The Bielsky brothers not only saved themselves and those close to them but took responsibility for all those who came to them. These untrained leaders organized fierce militant resistance to the Nazis, punished Local Polish Nazi collaborators in order to intimidate the rest of the population from hunting and betraying Jews, and led their followers to safety during the terrible years of persecution until liberation by the Russian Army.
At these times of failing leadership and divisive politics, when power is often abused by those at the helm of so many Governments, the Bielsky bothers are examples of incredible courage, of altruistic concern for the community, and of the possibility of ethical leadership.
We must teach the younger generations about the forces of good that lie within each of us, and about individuals that rise, often unexpectedly, like Moses in Egypt, to meet the challenges of their times. We must believe that such individuals are amongst us, even today.