To be the child of a Holocaust survivor is to grow up in the company of ghosts. Once a large family, we were reduced to an inverted pyramid, and the lost generations were palpable in their absence. My father didn’t remember his grandparents and never knew half of his aunts and uncles. My grandparents missed their parents and grandparents, whose ashes lay in the dust of Buchenwald; their brown-eyed sisters and brothers, finished off by the SS; their many cousins; and all the children and grandchildren they would never have. You could smell grandpa's sorrow in his cigar, taste grandma's grief in the chicken soup. There was always a fifth child at the seder table, the child who did not survive to ask.
I have struggled for decades with what to say to this fifth child, my emotional Siamese twin, a child whose voracious hunger for a life unlived I could never sate. Long ago I realized that I could never laugh loud enough, study hard enough, run fast enough or sing beautifully enough to make up for the joy she will never experience, the lessons she will never learn, the races she will never run and the songs she will never sing. I have simply learned to live with her as my constant companion.
The 73nd anniversary of Kristallnacht is approaching, but the truth is that I cannot remember a single day when I have not thought about the Holocaust. At Wrigley Field, while everyone else is guessing the crowd count, I am thinking about how many stadiums-full it takes to reach 6 million. At train crossings, as the freight compartments rattle by, I turn up the radio to distract myself from imagining a one-way trip in a cattle car. I cannot breathe when I hear a German accent.
There is such a thing as remembering too much. I reached that point years ago, but now I think our community has, too.
This is not to diminish the survivors worldwide who found their voices, many of them when the Nazis planned a march on our own suburban Skokie in 1976-77. But in the decades since we have been inundated with books about the Holocaust, movies about the Holocaust, TV shows about the Holocaust, news stories about the Holocaust, speakers about the Holocaust, museums about the Holocaust, and commemorations of the Holocaust. And I think it’s doing damage to the next generation.
In the 2010 Chicago Jewish Population Study, JUF asked members of this community which aspects of Judaism were "very important" to their Jewish identity. The #1 response? Remembering the Holocaust. Not solidarity with Israel. Not caring for Jews in need. Not tzedakah. Nope, 81 percent of respondents went with the Holocaust, compared with 48 percent who identified participating in Tikkun Olam as "very important."
Is that the joyful Jewish legacy we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren?
We have done very well with remembering how much of European Jewry died. Now it is time for us to remember more about how they lived.
It's been said that to dance at a Jewish wedding is to dance on Hitler's grave. So let's do it. Let’s celebrate Jewish lifecycle events and holidays with abandon. And learn Hebrew. Study Torah. Visit Israel. Give tzedakah. Let’s send our kids to Jewish camps and schools. Host seders and Shabbat dinners. Join synagogues and youth groups. Let's roll up our sleeves and volunteer to care for those in need.
Let’s observe Yom Ha'Atzmaut as much as we do Yom HaShoah.
We will still remember. But we do more honor to the 6 million and our heritage - and the fifth child at my Seder table - when we light the weekly Shabbat candles than when we light memorial tapers.