Religion

With Holocaust survivors aging, keeping memories alive falls to their children, grandchildren

The great majority of Jewish children who arrived at the Auschwitz death camp were killed. But about 700 survived and were liberated.
The great majority of Jewish children who arrived at the Auschwitz death camp were killed. But about 700 survived and were liberated. www.auschwitz.org

Judy Schindler was pregnant with her first child and searching for possible names in her family tree when she discovered how she got her own name.

She was named for her great-aunt Judith – a rabbi’s wife murdered by the Nazis at the notorious Auschwitz death camp.

Now senior rabbi at Charlotte’s Temple Beth El, Schindler, 48, also traces her passion for social justice to another family member targeted by the Nazis: Her grandfather, Eliezer Schindler, a Yiddish poet, activist and newspaper writer in Germany who spoke out against Hitler in the early 1930s and managed to flee the country before the Nazis came to his home to arrest him.

Schindler is among 88 adult children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors who contributed essays for a new book called “God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes” (Jewish Lights Publishing).

On Sunday, the book’s editor, Menachem Rosensaft, whose own Polish-born parents survived Auschwitz, will join Charlotte’s Jewish community as it gathers in Shalom Park to mark Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Rosensaft, who also teaches the law of genocide and war crime trials at Columbia and Cornell universities, said it’s increasingly falling to the children and grandchildren to preserve memories of the Holocaust as the world loses more survivors – the youngest of whom are now in their 70s.

“For us – the children and grandchildren of survivors – the remembrance of the Holocaust is simultaneously a broad responsibility to the millions who were murdered, but also a very individual obligation and commitment to our own family,” Rosensaft said. “We need to ensure as best we can that not only their death, but also their having lived, not be forgotten.”

For Rosensaft, born three years after World War II in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, that commitment includes a brother he never knew. As he writes in the introduction to his book, his brother Benjamin was 5 1/2 when he arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp with his parents in August 1943. In the moments after an SS guard separated him from his mother, the child said, “Mommy, are we going to live or die?”

All told, as many as 1.5 million of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis were children, including Benjamin. Rosensaft’s mother died in 1997, which means that now, “if I don’t remember Benjamin no one else will,” Rosensaft said. “If I wouldn’t have told our daughter, as she was growing up, about him, there’s no way she would have known. And there will come a day when I will tell my grandchildren.”

‘Not being complacent’

Schindler said the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, as well as those who survived, can also be honored by how their children and grandchildren live their lives.

In Charlotte, the rabbi said she’s tried to follow the example of her grandfather in her high-profile work on social justice issues – organizing a peace rally last month, forming interfaith alliances, and combating bigotry against gays and lesbians and other minorities.

In warning his readers early about Hitler, she said, Eliezer Schindler, taught her the importance of “being vigilant about the dangers of hatred, about speaking out, not being complacent, and not closing your eyes to injustice.”

And even though she didn’t realize her connection to her namesake, great-aunt Judith, until about 15 years ago, Schindler believes she’s continued the legacy of the rabbi’s wife by being a rabbi.

“Often the rabbi’s wife taught the women,” Schindler said. “So, unknowingly, I honored her memory by being a teacher of Judaism, as she was.”

In Rosensaft’s book, Schindler’s essay begins a section – “Tikkun Olam: Changing the World for the Better” – featuring those children and grandchildren who speak up for victims of intolerance.

Including non-Jews. In fact, said Rosensaft, the victims of the Holocaust are not honored by those who ignore the victims of other tragedies.

“The purpose of remembrance is not to look backward and create a shrine,” he said. “The purpose of remembrance is to make sure the good is not forgotten and the evil is not repeated.”

‘Life with a vengeance’

But Rosensaft acknowledged that evil is being repeated – in the past genocides in Rwanda and Darfur and in the slaughters now being perpetrated by ISIS, among others.

So the question is: Will the Holocaust still matter at a time when widespread killing around the world has become old news?

Rosensaft said the intensity of interest in the Holocaust could evolve in decades to come. “Each generation is going to have to find its own way of relating to the topic,” he said.

And he agreed that those killed because of their religion, their nationality or their ethnicity are all victims, he said, whether the weapon that does them in is a Nazi gas chamber in Poland or a machete in Rwanda.

But, Rosensaft said, the Nazi death camps, which necessitated the complicity of industries, governments and millions of ordinary people, remain “symbols for the potential of evil.”

Equally true, he said, is that the survivors of those camps – and their children and grandchildren – are also symbols. The hope, he said, is that they will continue to inspire the world, especially today’s victims.

“It would have been extremely easy in 1945 for Holocaust survivors to give up on the world,” Rosensaft said. “Instead, within weeks or months of liberation, they returned to life with a vengeance.”

Funk: 704-358-5703

Want to go?

The Charlotte Jewish community will mark Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – on Sunday (April 12), beginning at 6:30 p.m., in Shalom Park, 5007 Providence Road.

From 7-8 p.m, at the Sam Lerner Center for Cultural Arts, Holocaust scholar Menachem Rosensaft will speak and sign copies of his book, “God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors.” The son of survivors himself, he is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and was appointed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

Details: 704-726-4669; http://bit.ly/1CCRMxe

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