At age three he was on the USS St. Louis.
When she was five years old, she was on the run.
They were fourteen and fifteen years of age when they lost their parents while living in the Lodz ghetto.
These are only a few of the many stories told by those child survivors of the Holocaust who ultimately made Cincinnati, Ohio their home.
As a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at the Holocaust and Humanity Center (formerly the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education), I have had the privilege to work with the testimonies and mementos shared by these child survivors as I work to curate a traveling exhibit on Children and the Holocaust. This is indeed a unique opportunity for a rabbinic student, and it is the singular reason that led me to return to the Holocaust and Humanity Center as a senior rabbinic student and for a second year as a fellow.
This experience—the process of listening to and receiving the memories and reflections of those who survived the Holocaust as children—is especially precious to me because this is also my legacy. My grandmother, Leila, was among those Jewish children orphaned by Hitler’s Holocaust. After the war, Jewish organizations resettled these children with Jewish families throughout the world. My grandmother was shipped off to South Africa, where she was adopted and raised in that Jewish community. Tragically, I know nothing of her Holocaust story because she died before I was born. I have often wondered about the lessons that she would have taught me had I been gifted with the opportunity to sit with her and learn about my family’s history. Since her story—indeed, my story by inheritance—has been lost, I hold the childhood memories of our Cincinnati survivors close to my heart.
In our tradition, we take comfort in and are strengthened by the memories of those who came before us. We remember them every year at the anniversaries of their deaths, and we recognize the impact they have had on us when we refer to them in our own words and honor them through our deeds. Whether we are recalling the lives of the rabbis from the Talmud or the lives of our grandparents who have since entered the life beyond, we are ever aware of our inheritance from the generations that came before us.
In his 2002 book, Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer describes the role of memory in Judaism in the following manner:
Jews have six senses. Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing…memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger.
Memory and the act of remembrance are essential elements of being Jewish. As a child, I learned that many Reform Jews stand during the Mourner’s Kaddish in order to serve as family for those Holocaust victims who have no family to recite Kaddish for them. I have taken this tradition into my heart, so I rise for the Kaddish in remembrance of those who have no one left to remember them. I feel moved to do this even in those more traditional communities where such an act is not customary.
The survivors whose stories I have had the privilege to receive have thus become a part of me. I, in turn, will share their stories as well as the stories of the siblings they lost during the Holocaust with yet another generation of Jewish children. Together we will fulfill the commandment to keep their memories alive in our lives. Now, as I stand so very close to the day when I will be ordained as a rabbi, I will be honored with new opportunities to engage with members of the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. I am grateful that the Holocaust and Humanity Center has given me the experiences of this year and further enabled me to teach the holy art of remembering.
Simone Schickeris currently serving as the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at the Holocaust and Humanity Center.