This is a picture of children at a Purim celebration in Wieliczka Ghetto, 1942 (source: Remember Jewish Klasno, Lednica, and Wieliczka – Genealogy Group).
What did it feel like, to be reading about the failed plot to annihilate all the Jews, while outside a new, bigger and more ominous plot was raging? I can’t begin to imagine. I look at the faces of the children and not one of them looks even slightly amused, never mind happy or joyous.
Here’s another picture from the same source, a Purim play. Almost no one is as much as smiling, except for the kid in the front row who turned around, spotted the camera and flashed a conditioned reflex kind of smile.
Curiously, the intimate, curious, introspective examination of Holocaust is often taboo to those who were not affected by it personally. Perhaps they are filled with shame and dread, because they survived, living in relative comfort, while millions of their brethren perished. U.S. Jews were able to do so little for European Jews at the time, and they were understandably terrified of the possibility—not entirely outlandish—that the Holocaust could spread across the ocean.
Those of us who were directly affected by the Holocaust—I was born in 1954 into a world with virtually no relatives, only ghosts, stories, bits and flashes of a reality long dead, gleaned from my father’s memories—have no problem whatsoever dealing with the Holocaust in every aspect and manner. I own my being the son of a survivor, and I own the right to deal with it using artistic tools and to try and figure it out, one slow day at a time.
As a religious Jew, I definitely own the right to ask God every day why He took my family of pure souls, Ger Chossids, who never strayed from the path, and destroyed them in such a despicable way. I wonder about the religiosity of Jews who don’t, who pretend the Holocaust was somehow against the will of God, who ignore the existential challenge of it so they can stick to a kind of gefilte fish Judaism.
I brace myself and stare into the faces of these children to see among them my father’s seven brothers and sisters. Soon, I am able to see myself in this bunch, which is the apex of the artistic experience.
Has the Purim miracle set our expectations too high?
I sense the tension of the little actors onstage, reciting their lines, laboring not to interrupt one another, to come in on cue. I sense the constant, dim fear in the eyes of the children staring at the lens, not sure whether it even makes sense to feel hope at this point. It’s the spring of 1942 in Poland, everybody knows this will not end well.
I’ve experienced in my life being in the kind of mourning where a smile was just to hard to generate. But that was always a private affair. To see fifty children unable to produce a smile breaks my heart.