Sunday, April 23, 2017

Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Memorial Day

In my time I have visited Dachau, the concentration camp near Munich, attended courses and seminars at Yad Vashem, I have taken part in 70 Days for 70 Years, I have visited Anne Frank's hiding place in the attic in Amsterdam, I have listened to the testimonies of many survivors, I have read a hundred books about the Shoah. Despite all this background, each year the impact of Yom Hashoah takes me by surprise.

In 2015 I wrote this 100 word challenge. It took a long time for me to understand the implications of being a 2nd Generation Survivor. (It is capitalized because it's a 'thing'). I used to think - you weren't there, for heavens sake, survive already. But then a flatmate explained to me how it is growing up with parents traumatized and damaged, and I remembered certain friends' parents and grandparents from my childhood.

My family, on both sides came to England to escape the pogroms in the 1880s. If they left cousins behind, which they almost certainly did, my parents probably had 3rd or 4th cousins who perished. But we don't know who they are and 3rd or 4th cousins in large families of 5 to 10 children are distant relations.

However, my mother's family did bring over a cousin from Germany with her two daughters. The collective family employed them as maids and found them accommodation. I know this sounds incredible but that's how you got visa's in those days. After the war they lived on reparations, together, the mother and two spinster daughters who never fully recovered and suffered mental health issues until they died.

My mother also remembers sitting on the stairs eavesdropping as her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles discussed what they should do if Hitler conquered Britain. The options were to go into hiding or to commit collective suicide. There were strong arguments for both options.

During the blitz my Grandmother evacuated from Ladbroke Grove in London to Pitlochry in Scotland with my mother and her brother. Afterwards she would say, "I don't know why we went so far, we should've gone to Edgeware." But the underlying and unspoken reason for going so far, where no one knew them, was that if the Nazis took Britain they could disappear as Jews and continue to live as Christians.

So although my own family are not survivors, my facebook page is full of friends giving testimony about how their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts either escaped or were murdered. I lit my memorial candle and read about very young children sent on the kindertransport to England and who never saw their parents again. Other children who were sent into convents or the homes of farmers or maids for the duration. Others hidden in attics.

I read about men and women who lost their whole families - parents, husbands or wives and their children. They came to England, America, Israel, or Australia alone, remarried and some of my friends' parents are their second families. What must it be like to know that your parents had children before you who were murdered in Auschwitz? How could you ever live up to that legacy? How could you ever be good enough to replace those dead first children?

No cousins. No grandparents or uncles or aunts. Only ghosts and the lifelong pain in your parents' hearts.

Just last week I was talking to a friend about her uncle who was taken in by their Christian maid as a baby and lived with them until he was about 7. I asked her if they gave him back readily at the end of the war as some families refused to return the children without a fight. My friend said there was no problem as from the very beginning the 'mother' told him that he has a Mummy and a Daddy and a sister who love him and they will come back to get him after the war. The Mummy never came back from the camps. And I can't write this without crying. Yes there was also much kindness amidst the horror.

Tomorrow at 10 am the siren will sound over the whole of Israel for two minutes of silence. I've shown photos before of how the traffic, even on the busiest highways, stops and the drivers get out to stand by their cars with heads bowed in remembrance and respect. Every school has a ceremony starting with the siren at 10 am, including every schoolchild. Every citizen stops and our collective memory rises in prayer to the heavens. Lest we forget. Never again.


  1. Very moving - thank you for reminding us all.
    I remember seeing the numbered tattoos of some of my friends parents as a child. We knew what it meant but I never remember anyone speaking about it - not sure if it was still too soon for people to be able to speak of what they had gone through, whether it was considered to be respectful not to bring it up so as not to upset people - or if everyone simply wanted to forget.
    I have never been to any of the camps in Europe but I did visit the Jewish Quarter in Prague and it was very moving. All the names are on the walls - thousands upon thousands who never returned.

    1. I have been to great synagogues in Amsterdam and Antwerp that were built in the 1930s for upwards of 2,000 worshipers. A mere 10 years later they were used by only a small number of Jews who returned or stopped there as they fled Germany.