Ben Judah

We must remember how they lived, not just how they died

So much of Jewish life in Europe within the past century was destroyed for ever, lost entirely from our collective memory

January 26, 2023 10:27

My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. When she was alive, I needed no museum or explanation of what had happened. Everything that had been done to her felt immediate. It was right there in the house. It sounds strange but I don’t remember ever learning about the Shoah. It was like I’d always known, or some part of it — at least what happened to her.

It’s more than 12 years now since she passed away. But even for me, as fewer and fewer Jews are left every year who bore witness to the Nazi genocide, I can feel something changing in the way we remember. It’s becoming abstract. The thing I first knew as a very specific family tragedy with names, not a universal symbol.

It wasn’t only us, from a Holocaust family, who grew up listening to the survivors tell their tales. It’s been the Jewish community as a whole: with talks, school visits and moments to listen woven into how we do things.

It was the opposite of conceptual — what I felt listening to them, with their thick Yiddish or Teutonic accents — hearing first-hand about what it was like to be hunted or experimented on in Auschwitz. But now I have this angst that when I have children they’ll never hear their voices. We have, I think, ten, at most 15 years left with the survivors who remember the Nazis.

It’s this abstract Holocaust they will inherit. One whose memorialisation isn’t only a Jewish thing but part of the fabric of British civic life. But even, I think it’s fair to say, from International Holocaust Remembrance Day to the United States Holocaust Museum off the Washington Mall, a fixture of Western culture.

As time passes, this Shoah, the one of official commemoration and education, feels increasingly removed from the one my grandmother and the survivors I knew went through. It’s the Holocaust as metaphor: as a universal symbol for racism and the inevitable endpoint for the violations of all human rights.

It was Elie Wiesel who defined the Holocaust as “a unique Jewish tragedy with universal implications”. That has always struck me as the right way to see it. And, of course, the right way to commemorate it. But lose the balance between each bit of that construction and you risk losing something important.

Focus too much on the Jewish and you miss what it has to say to everyone, forgoing a crucial tool to educate against discrimination. The practical part, in a thousand classrooms, of not only wanting never again, but a better world. Yet fixate on the universal and you risk scrubbing out the specifically Jewish reasons the six million were killed, its engine being antisemitism, not abstract “hate”. In Britain, it’s not the “universal implications” that I feel are fading. I’m sure my grandmother would have appreciated the Prime Minister pushing forward plans to build a Holocaust memorial centre in Westminster, “to be heard at the heart of our democracy by every generation come”, as the foreign secretary said, so that “we must all silently ask ourselves the difficult and searching question, what would I have done?”

These are exactly the kind of hard questions Elie Wiesel wanted Europe to ask itself. But I can’t help thinking that the boy who, before the Nazis arrived in Transylvania, studied Talmud by day and wept for the Temple by night would want us to ask profound questions of ourselves — specifically as Jews — too. It’s here, in the community, that I feel something fading. As the witnesses fall silent it is that sense of “a unique Jewish tragedy” that I feel we are losing.

I don’t mean in the sense we are losing our grasp of its shocking scale. It’s not the unique criminality I feel we are losing perspective on. It’s the Jewish tragedy: in the sense that the actual culture of Eastern European Jews is starting to feel truly lost. We know more about how they died than how they ever lived. The world they came from that would have been our inheritance has become a black-and-white picture and the cold concrete of a hundred memorial walls.

It wasn’t as urgent for my grandmother or Elie Wiesel’s generation to focus on the “unique Jewish part” of the Holocaust and not its “universal implications”. Because they were born there, in Germany or Romania respectively — they were the unique Jewish part — in the way they thought, smiled and prayed. Berlin, Sighet, Salonica; it wasn’t an abstraction to them. It haunted them. And that was why the fabric of their lives is what they spoke of the least.

I felt this loss and how to fill it in Warsaw, at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It wasn’t the educational panels about the medieval traders, davening in the morning, before striking a path through the woods, or the photos, pieces of clothes and suffering from the ghetto that got me. It was standing under the roof of the painted synagogue of Gwozdziec, Poland, which was burnt down in 1941 and rebuilt from sketchbooks and old photographs.

Standing there, looking up, so many thoughts raced through my mind. I felt overwhelmed by its riot of colour and animals. There were signs of the Zodiac, dancing beasts, floral patterns and geometric wonders lacing around our flame alphabet and the kind of swirls I’d associate more with a Tibetan mandala. This looks nothing like a synagogue, I thought, until I felt a tightening pain.

This is what the synagogues they destroyed used to look like. There were hundreds of them, from Lithuania to Ukraine, right across Poland and Belarus. Almost without exception set aflame. I was taken aback. This, suddenly bursting out of black and white, was the soul of shtetl. After all I’d read, after all I’d been taught about the Holocaust, I had somehow never learnt: this is how they lived. This is where they prayed, where they had their barmitzvahs and sang Neila. These colours, this for hundreds of years, was the Yiddish art of the synagogue.

And it’s not only vanished completely. It’s lost to our memory.

It looked nothing like the austere modernism or the 19th century orientalism of the synagogue as I knew it. Its intimate, low ceiling — the tent of heaven — felt instantly so much more at home, so much Jewish, than the deeply Christian architecture of both our temples and our Holocaust museums, with their Via Dolorosas, snaking an educational pathway through martyrdom.

I’ve heard people be moved to tears to see this in Warsaw. To see it there, alive. Suddenly not abstract and universal but specific and specifically Jewish.

Every generation, they say, has to make their own translation of the Torah, in order to truly learn from it. It’s the fate of ours to find a way to keep the memory not only of the abstract Holocaust, but of that civilization snatched away, without the survivors there to tell our children, with their fuzzy accents, about it.

I felt I found in Warsaw a treasure, showing us what that could look like, that reconnected me to the “unique Jewish tragedy” of the Holocaust which a necessary and noble mass education project geared to the “universal implications” cannot do on its own.

I wish, in Britain, we could build our own. What a fitting way to remember them. How they lived. Not just how they died.

January 26, 2023 10:27

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