I've been drafting this post since January, starting around the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I usually keep my Holocaust philosophizing to a minimum on these channels. It's almost too easy to take up the mantle of "survivors' granddaughter" and assume a position of self-righteousness when confronted with any number of human rights or Jewish continuity issues. It's also a kind of weird trump card I just don't like playing very often.
So I don't share the links. Or jump into the online conversations. Come to think of it, historically I've also avoided any kind of public participation in Holocaust remembrance, even so far as avoiding seeing Holocaust movies. I don't think I saw Schindler's List until they showed it on TV without commercials (presented by Ford, right?). And I only saw Life is Beautiful last year when coerced by my husband. (Beautiful movie, but I was a wreck for days afterward.)
My reasons for avoiding the engagement are complicated. Sometimes it feels like it cheapens the subject matter to toss it around on the internet like this. Other times, I feel like the movies and the articles are targeting a different audience—people who don't know anything about the Holocaust but really should, not someone like me. I already know everything I need to know about the Shoah. And I know it from the source.
Growing up very close with my two survivor grandparents, the Holocaust was alive and well in my life, as strange as that sounds. There wasn't a family gathering where it didn't have to be remembered as a matter of public ceremony. If any conversation took a serious turn, Bubbie would jump in and make it relate to the Holocaust somehow. And before Zayde died, we all went to a huge-scale gathering of survivors at the USHMM. The Holocaust was almost a proper member of the family, not just a major cornerstone in our origin.
Because of this trauma's constant presence, I developed a thick skin and a dark sense of humor about it—as did (most of) my family, including my grandmother. That same trip to Washington DC had my sister and I shooting macabre comments at each other all day, some even to my grandparents directly ("Bubbie, are you going to see your camp friends today?").
I, like many other Jews of my generation, have mixed feelings about contextualizing the entirety of our Jewish identity with the Holocaust and its aftermath. There's only so much longer that it can stand as justification for how Jews act today. Eventually the statute of limitations runs out, just like it did for the other communal tragedies Jews suffered over the centuries. Maybe it already has. We can't be victims forever. (Though with recent events in Europe, maybe we can.) We can't only be identified by the bad things that happen to us.
But we can't forget either. Survivors are dwindling in numbers. Soon there won't be any people left who can tell us what happened to them. Soon the stories will only be available second-hand. Someday I myself will be unique, one of a small number of people who actually knew survivors in real life. My grandparents did everything they could to record and transmit their stories. They were interviewed and taped on countless occasions. They spoke in high schools, talking to kids who'd never met a Jew let alone heard about the Holocaust. They needed to know that what happened to them wouldn't be forgotten.
This year, Holocaust Remembrance Day is hitting a nerve for me in a new way. My grandparents—my survivors—are both gone. I look at these portraits of Auschwitz survivors and I can't help but see my grandparents among them, and wonder what their photos would have looked like had they been alive to participate. And I am so sad they aren't here to tell their stories anymore.
The last year has brought a number of occasions to confront their loss again and again. I named my son after my grandfather last May. My sister named her daughter after my grandmother in November. And in what might seem only tangentially related, was the deep dive dive my husband and I took into Ancestry.com this winter. The branches of my tree on my father's side hit a terrible wall in 1944. There are barely any records prior to that point. I only have misspelled names, mis-remembered birth dates, and fuzzy memories once shared with me by my grandparents of lives and families ripped away from them when they were just children.
For the longest time I thought I was desensitized to the Holocaust. Now I know how hard it actually hits me. Every day is a little bit Holocaust Remembrance Day for me. I owe that much to my grandparents.