No event in Jewish history is as personal—and as universal—like the Holocaust. Thanks to countless people’s efforts, the universal lessons of the Holocaust are widely known; the dangers of antisemitism, the consequences of being a bystander, the horrors of genocide, the perils of mob thinking, empathy for survivors, and the lasting scars of childhood trauma. Yet as much as we, Jews, rightfully stand out as champions of this much needed human lesson, we must make sure we never forget the very personal side of the Holocaust; the side of who we lost; the faces, the lives, the potential, the childhoods, the scholarship, and the lives that never recovered—and never will. While we owe it to the world to make sure the universal memory of the Holocaust is widely known, we owe it to ourselves and our people to remember our brothers, sisters, cousins, and children that died in the Holocaust.
There is a well-known saying that says, “They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing and the second, a bit later on, when somebody mentions your name for the last time.” This idea is strongly echoed in a commandment from the book of Deuteronomy(chapter 25):
“If brothers reside together, and one of them dies having no son, the dead man’s wife shall not marry an outsider. [Rather,] her husband’s brother shall be intimate with her, making her a wife for himself, thus performing the obligation of a husband’s brother with her. And it will be that the eldest brother she [can] bear will succeed, in the name of his deceased brother so that his [the deceased brother’s] name shall not be obliterated from Israel.”
Death with no continuation is considered an obliteration, and it is for us, the living, to make sure their memories live on in a meaningful way. It for us to remember and remind future generations about the families they had, and in many ways still have. We must make sure we remember our family will never be complete without the memories of the beautiful family we had lost. I think of Florika Liebmann. She was born in Szeged, Hungary, and went to school there. In 1944 she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered at the age of 10. I never met her and have chanced upon her hopeful smile on the Yad Vashem victim’s database, a smile with so much hope, so many plans for the future, and so much faith in the world that could be. I think of the achievements she would have made, the friendships she would have formed, and the family she would have loved. All those cut down by capriciously cruel and murderous hate.
There is something tricky about numbers.
My grandfather, Rabbi Baruch Poupko, used to say: “We know how many adults, women, and children died in the Holocaust. We know how many died in every camp. What we do not know is how many Rabbi Soloveitchik’s, Rabbi Chaim Brisker’s, Albert Einsteins, Chaim Weitzman, David Ben Gurion, how many Torah scholars, scientists, and Nobel laureates walked into the gas chambers”. When lives are cut short—much more so on such an unthinkable magnitude like the Holocaust—an untold amount of potential and possibilities are also cut out. This lost life and potential for us to remember and memorialize in the most personal way.
Looking at the devastating expulsion of Judea, the prophet Jeremiah says: “O that my head was (full of) waters and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people.” (Jeremiah 8:23)
We do not have the option of reimagining the life of every person whose life was cut short during the Holocaust. We do not have the time, resources, and ability to examine to remember in full the details of every single child that died in the Holocaust. Yet, we cannot afford to pretend that we are a whole nation or a whole family. We cannot allow our remembrance of the Holocaust in universal terms to dull our very personal memory of those who we lost—the very flesh cut off of our nation’s living body.
Remembrance of the universal does not always diminish our memory of the personal; sometimes, the universal can even enhance our personal remembrance. This was the case for me, where my interest in the Holocaust made me look more and more into my own family history. While I was not aware of it before and thought that I didn’t have any close relatives who died in the Holocaust, my interest in Holocaust history inspired me to take more interest in family history. I discovered that my great grandmother, Peshe Chaya Poupko (nee Spair), had a sister named Fruma Lieba Levinson, who lived in the town of Radin with her husband, Rabbi Yehoshua Levinson, the grandson of the great Chafetz Chaim. Together they had eight children.
When the Germans came to Radin, Fruma Lieba and her eight children were murdered right outside the town of Radin. Her husband was later killed in Dachau in 1943. Knowing about the cousins I never got to meet, the family that I should have had, and the lives they should have lived was inspired by my general knowledge of the Holocaust. I now cherish their memories in my heart and do my best to learn about what their lives might have looked like. The universal also impacts the personal.
As we mark Yom Hashoah, we must never forget the personal aspects of the Holocaust that no other people in the world can memorialize. While the Holocaust carries with it the imperative of universal lessons which must be taught to every person in the world, we must make sure that its universalism does not take away from its personal side. We must remember the sisters, the brothers, sons, and daughters that are all part of our extended family. We should learn about their lives, who they were, imagine what they could have been, and remember that our people will forever be missing a limb, a part of who we are. While this remembrance will not bring back those lives lost, it might just restore ours to be a bit fuller, a bit more meaningful, and a bit more whole.
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.