I originally sat down to write this post on Thursday, which was Yom Hashoah in the Jewish calendar. I had a lot of feelings and ideas flowing, but after reading all of the posts on Facebook from friends, colleagues, and others (magazines, archives, museums, etc.), I was left with a sense of overwhelming sadness and found I could not write a single word. So I am writing this post today instead, with Yom Hashoah still in mind.
I started off this Fulbright year in August, in Warsaw, Poland, at a conference for survivors of the Shoah and their families. I had many interesting discussions, met many inspiring people, and participated in a wonderful panel on resistance and rescue. I met Bertha and Bracha, and Paula and Rene, who inspire me each day to continue the work I do. But I realized, I do not need a Yom Hashoah to do this work. It doesn’t compel me in the same way- to have one day to remember, but all the other days we go about our lives, sometimes thinking of others, sometimes not. I don’t usually get overwhelmed, or sick, from my work. I can count the number of times it has happened. In March, when at Yad Vashem with Laura, I told her I would meet her in the museum after I had a few meetings. Two hours later I wandered through the museum and found her in the section about the concentration camps. I looked around, and started to literally feel sick to my stomach. I told her I would meet her at the end of the museum, and quickly walked to the end of the exhibit. I had been in the museum at Yad Vashem 5 times before, and never had this visceral reaction. I pinned it back to Poland, as I had visited Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Birkenau in August, and for the first time witnessed first hand what had happened to 2/3 of my people in Europe. The second time I felt sick was on Thursday.
I don’t need a special day to think about the horrors of the Shoah, and the importance of new and focused scholarship on the subject, with the main goals to teach and show so that we can learn and never forget. I have been told- why are you focusing on this subject? It’s all been done, it’s all been told. People are sick of hearing about the Shoah, especially Europeans, so why waste your time? But when I have a survivor who emails me for four weeks straight, asking when we can conduct his interview, as he does not know how much longer “he has” and wants so badly to speak with me, I know I am doing the right thing. Ultimately, it is not about me. I was almost embarrassed at the conference in Warsaw, that I did not have any family who survived the Shoah, and that I did not even know what happened to my great-grandfather’s family after he left Bialystok in 1929. But in documenting the stories of others, I feel redeemed, that I can be a witness to their stories that they sometimes can’t even tell their own children and grandchildren- at least not yet.
I have 12 weeks left of my Fulbright in Switzerland, although I know that when June 30 arrives, I will still not be finished with this subject. It has been the biggest blessing in my life, to have this opportunity. During the 12 weeks, I will attend a conference in Strasbourg, will work in the archives in Bern and Zurich, travel back to Israel to work at Yad Vashem, will conduct 10 more interviews, and will present my research at the US Embassy in Bern and the Jewish Community in Lausanne. I will work with Laura to find the most appropriate photos to show the human side to this project, and display them. I will be busy, but it will be worth it. We need some people in the world to think about the Shoah every day, not just on Yom Hashoah. It can’t be everyone, each person finds their niche and changes the world in his or her own unique way. This is my way, and the way of my colleagues, little by little, to shed light with information like “Jews Rescuing Jews”, my colleague and mentor Pat Henry’s new book about Jewish Resistance to the Nazis in Europe, and more.
I hope to post again in the next few weeks to keep you all updated. Thank you for allowing me to engage my philosophical side for this post.