THE BLOG

We Have Much to Learn From How Holocaust Survivors Managed to Retain Their Sense of Meaning

28/01/2015 08:50 GMT | Updated 29/03/2015 10:59 BST

We are often told that as Jews, we should end our "unhealthy obsession" with the Holocaust; that it is now time to move on. Whilst this may seem sacrilegious to some, as an educator, I would like to suggest that perhaps we do need to re-evaluate the messages that we take from this darkest period of recent Jewish history and their long term import.

In my capacity as director of JRoots, a non-profit organisation specialising in educational Jewish journeys for young people, especially to Eastern Europe, I have had the privilege of interviewing numerous survivors. Seventy years ago this week, many of these survivors were amongst the remaining few Jews able to stand upright, forced by the Nazis on the infamous 'death marches' retreating from Poland to Germany. The distance walked by some, that freezing January 1945, from Auschwitz to Bergen Belsen, is a staggering 500 miles. It is impossible for us to imagine their suffering. They knew that failure to keep up meant a bullet or freezing to death by the wayside, the tragic fate of so many. With superhuman strength, a few managed to keep going. It is their testimony that survives.

I will go to any lengths to meet with such people. Not with an obsession over the Holocaust, rather an obsession about Jewish survival and the enduring nature of the values to which so many clung, against all odds. I think there is a crucial difference. I yearn for the striking authenticity and straight talking approach of the survivors I have met. Having lived through life at its starkest, they say it as it is - often a rarity in the world in which we live.

In the face of brutality, degradation, torment and loss, many survivors understandably abandoned their Jewish traditions and way of life. We dare not step close to judge any one of them, and never shall we.

What is remarkable however, is the few who chose a different route. How, in the face of utter loss and devastation did some manage to cling onto the values and traditions they imbibed at home and go on to rebuild a destroyed world? In a modern, fast-paced, often superficial world in which so many of us struggle to pass on values and commitment to the next generation, there is a deep seated almost palpable quality of belief and humanity to these survivors that we would do well to capture. We have much to learn from how some managed to retain their own sense of meaning, of faith and commitment against all odds.

We live in a world where it is all too easy to blame our shortcomings on our upbringing and family circumstances, where many forsake responsibility for entitlement. These remarkable survivors picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and invested every ounce of physical and emotional strength into rebuilding their shattered lives, and are today proud grandparents and great grandparents of thriving proudly Jewish families.

The constant reference to the Exodus from Egypt almost forms the equivalent of a Jewish mantra running through all of Jewish life, liturgy and observance. Not only is it the main message of the Passover seder night and festival, but it is also a dominant motif running through all the other festivals and the Sabbath. Some may call this an obsession, I would rather refer to critical reference points; markers along the epic journey that form the bedrock of Jewish identity. Biblical Hebrew does not have a word for history, such that Modern Hebrew borrows the term historia. Rather, the word that the Bible uses is zikaron, memory.

Seventy years on is a significant milestone, however, we must not mark it by an over obsession with statistics, current waves of anti-Semitism or a sense of paranoia. Living memory, zechira, is not an obsession with the past, rather constant awareness of something that forms basis of our identity. It is the realisation that we owe it to our past to ensure its lessons impact on both our present and our future.

Rabbi Naftali Schiff, Executive Director of JRoots, CEO of Aish UK, Inspiring Jewish Journeys