Transferring Memory: The Task of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors

By Rosensaft, Menachem Z. | Midstream, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Transferring Memory: The Task of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors


Rosensaft, Menachem Z., Midstream


Night Fragments

   night fragments created
   in fire shadows
   we are the last and the first:
   the last to taste ashes
   from the cursed century's valley
   of unwilling passers through
   where God revealed His face
   to them alone;
   and the first
   transfixed by still burning yesterdays
   to reach beyond heaven and its clouds
   beyond crimson ghost illusions
   into ourselves
   imploding
   in search of memory

(by MZR)

Many if not most children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors live with ghosts.

We are haunted much in the way a cemetery is haunted. We bear within us the shadows and echoes of an anguished dying we never experienced or witnessed.

One of my ghosts is a little boy named Benjamin who arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp with his parents 67 years ago, on the night of August 3-4, 1943. In her posthumously published memoirs, my mother, Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft, recalled her final moments with her son, my brother:

   We were guarded by SS men and women. One SS man
   was standing in front of the people and he started the
   selection. With a single movement of his finger, he was
   sending some people to the right and some to the left....
   Men were separated from women. People with children
   were sent to one side, and young people were separated
   from older looking ones. No one was allowed to go from
   one group to the other. Our 5 1/2-year-old son went with
   his father. Something that will haunt me to the end of my
   days occurred during those first moments. As we were
   separated, our son turned to me and asked, 'Mommy, are
   we going to live or die?' I didn't answer this question. (1)

Benjamin is one of more than 1,000,000 Jewish children who were murdered in the Holocaust. Since my mother's death in 1997, he has existed inside of me. I see his face in my mind, try to imagine his voice, his fear as the gas chamber doors slammed shut, his final tears. If I were to forget him, he would disappear.

The preservation and transfer of memory is the most critical mission that children and grandchildren of survivors must undertake so as to ensure meaningful and authentic Holocaust remembrance in future generations. As the ranks of survivors steadily dwindle, this task becomes ever more urgent.

Growing up, we whose parents had come out of the Shoah believed that they were indestructible. After all, they overcame the German efforts to murder them, survived ghettos and death camps, and rebuilt their fives after the war. They also had a special appreciation and zest for life. In our eyes, they were truly the "greatest generation." It seemed to us that our parents would be here forever, and that they would always protect us, their children.

But age and the frailties of the human body are proving to be inexorable. All too soon, the voices of those who suffered alongside the murdered victims of the Holocaust will no longer be heard. Many sons and daughters of survivors have already lost one or both of their parents. My father, the fiery leader of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen, died in 1975 at the age of 64. My mother, one of the founders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., died 22 years later. Most survivors today are in their eighties, and many are in failing health.

The principal responsibility for transmitting the survivors' legacy of remembrance into the future has now shifted to their children and grandchildren. In his keynote address at the First International Conference of Children of Holocaust Survivors in 1984, Elie Wiesel mandated us to do what the survivors "have tried to do--and more: to keep our tale alive--and sacred." (2) It is up to us to integrate our parents' and grandparents' memories, spirit, and perseverance into the Jewish community's and the world's collective consciousness.

I do not mean to imply that the transmission, the transference if you will, of memory should be our only priority. …

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