Remembrance: Our Obligation to the
Dead and the Living
"It was the closing days of World War II,
1945. After being driven through death marches, we wound up in a camp
called Guttendorf. People were dying left and right from hunger. We were
sleeping on bags and lying on boards. And every morning when we woke up,
there would be more dead bodies all around us.
"A good friend of mine was sleeping next to me, his name was Misha. One night, he woke me... and said to me, `I don't think I'm going to make it through the night. Please, remember what they did to us. Keep telling the world that the worst crime is indifference to the pain and suffering of others.' Misha and a thousand more like Misha make it our obligation and responsibility to not let the world ever forget what was done to our people."
These haunting words were spoken by Steven Springfield, a survivor and President of Jewish Survivors of Latvia, at the remains of Riga's Gogol Synagogue, which was burned to the ground (along with several hundred Jews seeking refuge within) by the Nazis and their Latvian collaborators in 1941. He was speaking to an audience of several dozen Latvian Holocaust survivors, their children and grandchildren. I was among them.
I visited Latvia with my grandmother, aunt and cousin in June, 2001 as part of a reunion of Holocaust survivors from Latvia. During the week-long trip, we visited surviving remnants of Latvia's once-vibrant Jewish communities: An old, empty synagogue, neglected cemeteries, and the childhood home and school of my grandmother. We also visited ghetto and extermination sites. Some of them had names which were vaguely familiar to me: Rumbuli, Smerle, Aizpute. At these sites, some of the greatest crimes in history were perpetrated in the name of Der Fuhrer and the Fatherland.
Before my trip, I was never able to fully comprehend the mind-numbing events of the Holocaust and the harrowing experiences of my grandparents, separated from me by oceans and decades. But my experiences in Latvia shattered this sense of distance. Returning with my grandmother to the sites of Latvian Jewry's annihilation completely changed my understanding of the Holocaust. As powerful as this was, nothing during the trip moved me like the story of Misha and his simple message. To me, Misha's words, uttered on his deathbed, encapsulate the Holocaust's greatest lessons: Never grow callous to human suffering. Tell the world what happened. Remember.
Hitler's victims were robbed of their possessions and posterity, their dignity, their lives. The horrors of the Holocaust, that tremendous human conflagration, cannot be reversed. The events of the past are beyond our control. But it is up to us whether the memory of the victims of the Final Solution will live or die. By telling their stories, documenting their experiences, speaking their names, thinking of them, and ultimately making them a part of our lives, we the living can ensure that they are not dealt a second death.
While writing about her experiences in the camps, my grandmother made it a priority to mention as many names as she could (Harpak). She explained that perhaps this was the only evidence that these people ever existed. She also attempted to include as much information about her experiences as possible, since the compelling desire to tell the world about what she had endured is what empowered her, like so many other Holocaust survivors, with the will to live.
But remembrance has more than just
symbolic value. By remembering, by sharing the story of a survivor, one
has the potential to touch people's hearts, hopefully preventing such
horrors from ever happening again.
With this resurgence of anti-Semitism, and survivors dwindling in number, recalling the lessons of the Holocaust could not be timelier. By telling the stories of survivors, by conveying the humanity of the victims, we can teach young people the importance of tolerance and the dangers of hatred, and hopefully inculcate in them respect for all people. Many efforts are currently underway to document the atrocities of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial museum, is currently building a database of the names of all the victims of the Holocaust (Martyrdom 8). Filmmaker Steven Spielberg has collected hundreds of thousands of hours of documentation and footage of survivors describing their experiences. One Holocaust survivor from my grandmother's hometown of Liepaja produced a memorial book containing information on all its Holocaust victims and survivors (Anders).
There is much that students and young people can do along these lines. As a fluent Hebrew speaker, I personally plan to translate my grandmother's Holocaust memoirs into English, and add my own chapter as an epilogue, describing the Latvia reunion. Such personal projects, however modest, can help ensure that memory endures.
Near the end of our Latvia trip, we visited a place called Skedes, outside of Liepaja. Today, it is a large, idyllic field by the sea, with rolling sand dunes mimicking the nearby ocean waves. In 1941, when the Einzatsgruppen passed through Liepaja, all the city's Jewish women and children, numbering in the several thousands (including my grandmother's mother, grandmother, and younger sister), were rounded up and shot in Skedes in a day of frenzied killing, and buried in mass graves (Anders, Harpak). Those sand-covered graves lay beneath our feet. More than any place that we visited, at Skedes the awful past was readily palpable, within physical reach. Standing at the site of my family's extermination, I was as close to my people's history as time and space could allow.
Before leaving Skedes, we recited Kaddish, the ancient Jewish prayer of mourning. Through this small act of remembrance, we declared to Misha and the Six Million, we remember. Never Again.
Anders, Edward. Jews in Liepaia. Latvia. Burlingame, CA: Anders Press, 2001. Davis, Douglas. "The Jews Did It," Jerusalem Post, Nov. 2004 Harpak, Lena. Memoirs, 1986.
Lauder, Ronald S. "The Usual Suspects," NY Sun, Mar. 16, 2004. "Shoah Victims on Database," Martyrdom & Resistance, Jan. 2004. Springfield, Steven. Speech, June 2001.
Wiesel, Elie. Interview, n.d. <randomhouse.com>
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