[A slightly different version of this was presented at the 2016 Sonoma County Yom Hashoah Commemoration.]
I was born so soon after the Shoah – maybe 15 years later, really just the blink of an eye. But for a kid, 15, 20, 25 years was an eon. I couldn’t feel the difference between recent history and ancient history. Both were information to be learned rather than experienced. As I grew I came to understand that there was something more personal about the Shoah than about Greece or Rome. It made living people fidget.
I absorbed that this had been a terrible calamity for our people, and I was – as we all were – charged with the responsibility never to forget.
I took this charge seriously. We all have, each in our own way. So as I learned stuff – places and names and dates; criminals and heroes; numbers (such big numbers!) – I learned them with a special imperative. These were things I had to remember. I could forget Alexander Hamilton and still be a mensch. But it was my job to remember Auschwitz.
What I didn’t yet understand was that there are different kinds of remembering.
Let’s say a ship passes and you didn’t see it, how do you know it passed? How do you remember it? Well, you can read a timetable in a shipping almanac, or look at a picture that someone snapped. That is one kind of remembering. The other way is to observe its wake. The ripples that are still splashing against the pier that you’re standing on or bouncing the rowboat that you're piloting. With experience, you can read the water of this moment and learn what it says about the ship that passed earlier: its heft, its speed, the texture of its hull and the groan of its engine.
We have done well, really very well, at remembering the Shoah in the almanac way. We have libraries of books. Museums and research centers and oral history projects and websites and more documentary films than you can count.
But we don’t as easily tune into our other ways of remembering. You see we are still riding the wake of the Shoah. We are still in the water, bobbing up and down.
No, we are the water, bobbing up and down.
We have no choice but to remember. Because the Shoah lives in us. It is in our bodies, in our bones. It has left physical markers on our DNA.
The Shoah lives in us. It gives us insight. It stirs our anxiety. It creates purpose in our lives. And it creates awkward silences.
The Shoah lives in us. It feeds our hunger for justice. Our need for safety. And our fear that everything could be taken away from us on a moment’s notice.
The Shoah lives in us. It suffuses our politics, stirs our deep compassion and sorrow, and is behind our quick anger at other Jews.
The Shoah lives in us. It informs our love of Israel. And our fears for Israel. And our blindspots about Israel.
The Shoah lives in us. It is in the room when we sit down for Seder. It is in our joy at our grandchildren’s B’nei Mitzvah. It is behind our very high and very low expectations of the world.
The Shoah refracts through our lives and beams out in a million ways, many of them sad, some of them quite beautiful, most of them invisible to the naked eye.
But Yom Hashoah is not a day of the naked eye. It is a day to turn our gaze not only toward history but inward to our own neshomes. To take the jagged shards of wholeness that we have inherited and, even when we can't repair them, even when we can't discard them, to imagine how we might assemble them into a mosaic. It is a day to shed light on the places of deep sorrow that we carry - even those of us who are not survivors or their descendants. Because we all carry it: as a people we have absorbed the Shoah's trauma and its sadness and we have reapportioned it all of us across the board.
So do not be afraid to look. Make friends with the shards. Love them if you can. This is not disrespect to this great shipwreck of our people. But some wholeness might create more buoyancy, offering us new ways to swim with grace in its wake.
I was inspired in these thoughts by the ceramic mosaic work of Leslie Gattmann. memorializing the Shoah.