Monday, May 2, 2011

Remarks for the Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day)Survivors Service

I had originally intended to post the following remarks on my blog today.  I hadn't intended to post twice in one day - obviously other events got in the way.  Yesterday I gave the keynote address at the Annual Yom HaShoah survivors service in Denver.  This service has been held every year on the first Sunday after Pesach since 1950.  This year, three local cantors sang and three generations of survivors and their children gave their powerful testimony.

Remarks for the Yom HaShoah Survivors Service
May1, 2011
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel - Denver, CO

As a child, I was different than most of the other kids in my class.  You see, it wasn’t until I was in 3rd or 4th grade that I realized that most people in America didn’t have grandparents who spoke with a Yiddish accent.  I grew up in a sheltered world.  With the exception of my father’s family – who lived far away in Boston -  most of my grandparents’ generation came from Europe.
My mother was born in Leipzig Germany, in 1926.  An only child, she and her parents escaped the machinery of Nazi death in December of 1938 – shortly after living through Krystallnacht – the infamous “Night of Broken Glass that took place on November 9, 1938.  They were among the last who were able to leave.
The Shoah always has been a central part of my life.  My mother’s lost childhood in Germany has been replayed over and over again in the stories she has shared with my sister and me of growing up with the rise of Nazism; in the memories and faded photographs of the friends and relatives she lost, in the guilt she felt – and still feels – over being one of the lucky ones – one of the ones who got out before it was too late.
She and my father came from different worlds.  He was born in Boston – in the center of a thriving Jewish community.  Most of his extended family had come to America in the late 19th and early 20th century from Lithuania.  He was a second generation American Jew who grew up in a large community.
My mother loves to tell the story of the first time she met her future in laws – she was amazed at how loud everybody was.  They were all yelling at each other!  She didn’t understand what was going on – she had never been in the midst of an American, Eastern European Jewish family who who loved to argue.  That was the way they lived their lives.  They weren’t afraid of being themselves.  They never had to hide the fact that they were Jewish. 
Several years ago, I wrote the following poem about my parents:

My father -
Boston bred,
Cabbage fed,
Well read -
grew up in a 3-flat -
playing stoop ball and kick-the-can,
chased by bullies,
sneaking cigarettes behind the Shul .
He lived with aunts, uncles, cousins sprawled 
like so many pillows perched
on the overstuffed furniture -
the kinds you weren’t supposed to sit on -
unless company -
real company-
was coming.

He knew them:
Mavens every one.
Cheek pinchers,
A house of garlic--
yelling and hugging
speaking and feuding -
coming and going all the time.

(He longed for silence.)

My mother came here with glass in her shoes;
peeking through the curtains at the American Jews -
with their strange accented English,
marveling at their boldness,
cringing at their-complements.

Hers was a childhood of stubborn isolation -
of silence and significance,
culture and compromise
of being seen and not heard
watching P’s and Q’s -
of remembering and holding on
to the few mementos of a distant past long gone.

It was a good life,
and yet, there were times when it would have been wondrous
to complain about a cousin who
embarrassed her in front of her friends.


Growing up in Evanston and Skokie IL, our community was filled with men and women with numbers tattooed on their arms.  As I think back to my childhood of the 1960’s and 70’s, I now realize that many of my Hebrew school teachers were survivors.   I remember the fervor that they infused into teaching us Hebrew and, I also now realize the passion and the pain that they instilled in all of us as they taught us the language for which they suffered so much and whose syllables, consonants and vowels meant more than simply words on a pageI remember their tears, and sometimes their rage when we didn’t behave (which was all too often) – when we didn’t share their enthusiasm for Hebrew.

I remember the haunted eyes of those who stood to say kaddish at shul; who lost everyone and every thing that they loved.  I also remember those who could no longer pray – for whom the concept of God was destroyed in the smokestacks of Auschwitz.

Those of you who are survivors –who bear witness: by your pain, your dignity, the fleeting moments of triumph and the memories of horror – you who have striven to rebuild your lives – your very presence, your strength, your courage, and pride stand as a powerful reminder of the ability of the human spirit to withstand almost anything.  All of us here today pledge to carry your legacies into the future.

Those of you who are the children of survivors - you understand how pain can be passed on from generation to generation – and yet you also are the salvation of your parents – you who live in freedom.  You who are proud to be Jews – to proclaim your faith, to bear witness to the words:  “Am Yisrael Chai.” 

And those of you whose grandparents or even great-grandparents are survivors – who have learned of the legacy of love and loss that is a part of your personal history – it is to you that we dedicate not only this service of remembrance – but every day of our lives – so that you will, in turn teach YOUR children the importance of memory – the necessity to stand tall in the face of evil and speak out when injustice, bigotry or ignorance creeps into our consciousness – or that of our nation – and spreads its contagion throughout the land.

My dear friends, today we acknowledge the power of memory – and the legacy of martyrdom that is encoded into the fabric of our lives – the spiritual DNA that shapes our hopes and dreams – and the fears and pain that accompany them.

When, in the next decades, those who bore witness to the events that shaped our history are gone – it is we who will continue to tell their stories and, in doing so, work to bring nearer the day when all hatred, suffering and violence will disappear from God’s creation.

In the Mishnah we find the following:
“ Lo Alecha Ha-mlacha ligmor – v’lo atah ben chorin l’heebateyl mimenah
“It is not up to you to finish the task – but neither are you free to desist from carrying it out.”
Our sacred duty is to remember, to teach, and to live our lives in such a way that we honor the memory of all those who perished – and cherish those who survived.  No more and no less.
Ken yehi ratzon. – May it be God’s will.  AMEN

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