Linking Our Past and Our Future

This past summer, I worked at the Holocaust and Humanity Center in Cincinnati. I translated, from Russian into English, the witness testimonies of local Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union. The aged often struggle with a host of debilitating ailments that not only can diminish short-term memory but also may erase memories reaching back to childhood. It was remarkable to me that, although the survivors’ memories of recent events might be shaky, all of them vividly remembered their childhoods and their experiences during the Holocaust. After I listened intently to one man’s horror-filled stories, he challenged me to answer two questions that puzzled him. In fact, during nearly all of my meetings with survivors, I felt the unspoken presence of the same two questions: “Why do you study us?” and “Why do you want to remember these horror stories?” At the end of this summer, as I completed my fellowship, these two questions continued to echo, unanswered, in my mind.

My own past involves significant experience working with and around survivors. Despite the concern, care, and love that I felt toward these individuals, and despite my own familial connection to both victims and survivors of the Shoah, I was emotionally removed while they shared their testimonies with me. No story unsettled me, and no detail fundamentally disgusted me. I listened as one who has little faith in people. The survivors’ stories, their pain—everything—just made me grow increasingly bitter about the world.

This dilemma of disconnect was fundamentally and, I believe, permanently changed in June of this year, when my son was born and named after two survivors. As I watched the interviews and listened to the witness testimonies in the wake of my own recent experience, I heard things differently, painfully. When the survivors spoke of children being murdered, I could not hold back my emotions. I cried. I was distraught, and I didn’t want to be the recipient of any more of these testimonies.

My own life transition helped me answer the questions that had been revolving in my head like a Möbius strip throughout the summer. My newly recovered emotions helped me to understand the reasons why it is important to study the traumatic histories of the survivors and remember their horror stories. These historical accounts must become the stories of real people. We owe these memories, including those filled with the worst pain, to all of our children. In telling these stories to the next generation, we link them personally to those people whose names their lives will honor. This remembrance enables our children to inherit a powerful legacy of survival.

These testimonies tell the story of the persistence of the Jewish people. And they do more than honor the dead. Transmitting these stories is a way to ensure our future. Judaism is a faith that is rooted in a personal as well as a communal relationship with history. We are commanded to remember our actual, personal oppression and slavery in Egypt each time we read the biblical account, celebrate Passover, and participated in our liturgy. The reason we remember this chapter of Jewish history has everything to do with the next generation because the next generation will inherit Judaism from us. Just as we were transformed by the exodus from Egypt, our people and Judaism itself were fundamentally changed by the Holocaust. We have only begun to understand its impact on our collective psyche and how it has changed the Jewish world. Our Judaism without these testimonies would be like a Judaism without remembering our exodus from Egypt. Without having a personal relationship to the Shoah, we would not have a relationship to this generation’s story of Jewish survival. Without the story of our oppression, we do not have a story of redemption. By preserving these testimonies and sharing personally in our history, no matter how tragic, we link ourselves from our past to our future, for all the generations to come.

Shmuel Polin

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