Near the end of World War II, my grandfather took his family to the movies in America. On distant shores, a war was being fought and the movie began with a newsreel of what was happening. They reported the murder of Jews, of concentration camps and my grandfather began to cry – “they’ve murdered my mother,” my mother remembers him saying.
They murdered my great-grandmother, Raizel. They murdered my two great aunts. They murdered hundreds of my father’s relatives – most with names we’ll never know. They murdered all four of my husband’s grandparents, and his uncle Binyamin Elimelech (for whom Elie is named). They murdered my husband’s uncle Shmuel (for whom Shmulik is named). They murdered Yehoshua, who sacrificed his life to save his younger brother. They murdered Chaim Eliezer (for whom my husband is named). They murdered little Gavriella (for whom my granddaughter is named).
Six million times, they killed them, gassed them, beat them, starved them, humiliated them, denied them life, denied them food, denied them dignity. Six million dead…more than 1.5 million children murdered. We’ve cried rivers of tears in their memory; we’ve lit enough candles to light the blackest night.
We’ve promised never to forgive, never to forget…even if the world denies what was done, we remember.
This is as it has been for 70 years…even more. This time, it seems so different for me. I have a new perspective. I have been where I never thought I would go and the experience remains with me.
Six months ago…I went to Germany – for professional reasons and perhaps, deep down, some personal ones as well.
It was a very difficult visit for me and in one very key area, I felt different. I have anger against many who persecuted the Jews…from the ancient Egyptians who enslaved us to Amalek who ambushed us, from the Romans to the Crusaders, from those who rioted in countless pogroms to those today who attack Jews simply because they feel they can.
What I feel for the Nazis is timeless, endless and without bounds. It is a hatred so deep, it borders on poison. And yet, I am well aware that the poison can run in two directions…and so I try very hard to ensure that I live my life in a positive way; that I raise my children in hope and not despair, in strength and not in weakness.
They must know what the Nazis did, and know that the answer to preventing the next Holocaust was never in the hands of the Germans, or the Europeans, or the Americans. We will trust no one with that task, other than ourselves.
And so my trip to Germany this last November, which coincided with my birthday…and Kristallnacht…the Night of Broken Glass when, in 1938, the Nazis rampaged through Germany burning Jewish books, synagogues and homes, beating Jews and announcing to the world that their leader had a plan,
I spoke with Germans – many of whom silently looked down to the Jewish star around my neck. Like me, they chose, mostly, not to speak of what stood between us – symbolized by that star. Some asked me if I was from Israel and without any hesitation, I assured them that I was.
Not one made a nasty comment; several expressed support for Israel; one responded by saying “shalom aleichem” and another “hava nagilah.” I smiled and was polite and held myself back from asking anything because I found there was nothing to ask.
I left Germany with a greater understanding than I’ve ever had before. This Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, which comes this Thursday, will be very special for me because for the first time, I admit that the Germans are as trapped as we are, even if they don’t fully know that.
They live in a world without forgiveness – no, I’m not even speaking of mine or anyone who is alive. Every Yom Kippur, Jews all over the world are blessed with an amazing gift from God, the opportunity to ask and be forgiven, to start fresh. We are told that we must approach those that we have wronged and do what we can to repair the damage, apologize, learn from our mistakes and finally to move on.
The Germans are stuck in a world without forgiveness because they murdered the very people from whom they must received redemption and pardon. We can’t give it to them – so whether we are willing to give it or not is irrelevant. They live, quite simply, in a world without Yom Kippur, forever.
I learned that I do not hate them; if anything, I pity them this reality. The Holocaust will always be that silent presence in the room when Jew and German meet. They will forever walk that tightrope, one that brings instant contempt if they dare to cross any lines or forget their role.
Each Yom Kippur, we Jews are “born again” into a new and better world – ours to honor or disgrace, ours to try harder this time and make up for what we failed last time.
As Yom HaShoah approaches, I will light a candle for the six million, I will remember Shaye and Raizel, and Yehoshua and Shmuel and Binyamin Elimelech and Chaim Eliezer and Gavriella and I will think too that the power to stop the next Holocaust is in the hands of their great great grandchildren, their great nieces and nephews, where it belongs.
No matter where you are, please light a candle Wednesday night or some time on Thursday and ask God to bless the memories of those who were murdered…in the sanctification of His name.
May God bless the six million; may God bless those who came from them, those who stand on our borders, watch over our waters, fly our skies and defend our people. Am Yisrael Chai.Paula Stern