February 2019 – A Message about Holocaust Memorial Day

Dear friends,

On 27 January the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Growing up in Melbourne, home to the largest number of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel, the Holocaust was never far from my childhood and my Jewish experiences. My childhood was filled with proclamations of gratitude to the wonderful country of Australia for allowing us to live as Jewish people freely and without oppression. My grandfather, Mr Yossi Kaltmann, was a Holocaust survivor who survived six concentration camps and lost almost his entire family, including his grandparents, parents, sister and brother.

Like so many in Melbourne, the Holocaust is deeply personal and does not relate to a vague ‘six million’ but rather, thousands of Bubbas, Zaidas, Uncles, Aunties and relatives that were killed from our immediate family. As the years go on and the number of Holocaust survivors amongst us diminishes, the question as to how to remember such atrocities so that they never occur again, anywhere in the world, is something we grapple with.

A few years ago, to commemorate Yom Hashoah, Israel’s official Holocaust Memorial Day, an image (below) was widely released to try to provide some context which contextualises the current reality of Holocaust memorial. The powerful image depicted an elderly Holocaust survivor standing alone with a walking aid and reflected in the shadows were his family who perished during the Shoah. In addition, the shadow of the Holocaust survivor in the image depicted a little boy, showing that he was a child survivor who had now grown old.

As these survivors pass from our world on to the next, we on earth are left with the important mission of “Zachor! (Remember!)”

The older I become, the more I reflect on the difficult challenges that people faced. While in theory, one can learn about the tough decisions that people fleeing persecution made, whether they stay with the mistaken belief that things would get better, or to flee the unknown, the choices that people faced were exceedingly difficult. Who knows if, in the same situation, I would have chosen to uproot my life, wife, children and move away from my family to flee to the great unknown? Hindsight provides us with amazing clarity after the outcome is already known of course.

I recently read “Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Oyneg Shabbos Archive” written by historian Samuel Kassow and which was recently released in a documentary-style film. The book delves into the activities of the Oyneg Shabbos Archive who operated in the Warsaw Ghetto and its leader, esteemed historian Dr Emmanuel Ringelblum.

Dr Ringelblum gathered a group of people in the ghetto who were dedicated to recording their daily life during the German occupation. This group comprising historians, writers, rabbis, social workers, men and women from a variety of backgrounds, recorded information such as essays, diaries, wall posters, daily records of ghetto activities, final wills, photographs and manuscripts of the Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto.

Buried in three troves, two were discovered after the war and contained over 6,000 documents (about 35,000 pages) and are housed in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. One is yet to still be recovered.

They record the suffering, the kindness, the good, the bad, the terror and the humanity of people in the ghetto. As 19-year-old Dawid Graber, aged 19 recorded in 1942:

What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground….I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world. So the world may know ….We would be the fathers, the teachers and educators of the future….May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened…in the twentieth century….May history attest for us.”

As historian Samuel Kassow notes in the introduction to his book about Dr Ringelblum’s purpose in recording all aspects of ghetto experience for future generations: “….Ringelblum also wanted to cast a ‘stone under history’s wheel.’ He was absolutely convinced that the story of Jewish suffering, no matter how terrible, was a universal, not just a Jewish story. And evil, no matter how great, could not be placed outside history. The archive could … become a weapon in the struggle for a better future. Even though he … knew that most Polish Jews would not survive, he … continued the Oyneg Shabes…. One of his most important goals was to explain for future historians the behaviour of the ‘Jewish masses’ during the war….”

And so, in this period of reflection around International Holocaust Remembrance Day, educate yourself and those around you. If one forgets history, it is doomed to repeat itself. We have an obligation to ensure that the memory of those who were killed are not forgotten and that those who are amongst us ensure that the world does not repeat itself and again subject any people of any nation to such atrocities.

Take an extra minute to learn something new that you did not previously know about the Holocaust and teach it to someone else, so that the memories of those who are deceased is not forgotten, even after the Holocaust survivors who help us to understand the magnitude of the Shoah are no longer amongst us.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Gabi