Finding a Balance between Remembrance and Renewal
The Jewish Service Corps midyear review in Jerusalem coincided this year with Yom HaShoah, “Holocaust Remembrance Day.” As the fellows returned to the hotel from the JDC office in Jerusalem on April 12th, a siren blared through the city, stopping everyone in their tracks. But this siren was expected and for two minutes, shop keepers, pedestrians, people at home, and even drivers got out of their cars and stood in silence, remembering the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. A flood of recent memories connected to this moment washed over me from the previous month: celebrating Passover in Berlin; seeing my grandfather’s concentration camp identity card for the first time; visiting the Berlin Holocaust memorial with my family; and arriving in Israel for my third time, but this time from Germany.
Last month, my father received documentation from a German archive of my grandfather’s identity card that was issued upon his arrival in Buchenwald, after a stop at Auschwitz. It was jarring to see his headshot on the card. No photos of him before the war exist in our family. He is young, skinny, with a clean-shaven head.
When my parents and little sister came to visit three weeks ago, we went to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, located near Parliament. Underneath, underground the memorial, there is a small museum with information about the Holocaust, including photos, letters and even computers set up with the Yad Vashem database. In this database, we found a list of family members, with our true family name Gelberman, from Khust, Czechoslovakia, who were in the Holocaust. Some forms had my father’s signatures, others were signed by my great uncle, my grandfather’s younger brother, who had also survived. This museum is one of many in the city, but it is brief and free, and along the tourist route. The information is personalized and interactive, much like the experience one has wandering through the memorial itself:
Museum visitors wandering through a room that recalls a graveyard, reading extracts from letters, books and poetry written by people during the Holocaust:
During the JSC seminar last week, Adina Navon (placement: Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda), Yelena Azriyel (placement: Kiev, Ukraine) and I led a session titled, “Renewal in communities with dark histories.” All the fellows took part, representing the communities also in India, Belarus, Moldova, Slovakia, Ethiopia, Israel and of course, Germany.
Adina, Yelena and I spoke briefly about our placements and then moved into what renewal we have witnessed during our time volunteering. I spoke about the physical symbols of renewal such as synagogues that were restored and reopened, museums that celebrate Jewish history and Jewish centers, such as Bambinim. I also touched on the more abstract themes of renewal within Germany, such as articles, seminars and events (like the Jewish Book Festival and Limmud) that show a renewal in Jewish intellectualism and creativity (this also applies to renewal among those who immigrated to Germany from the Former Soviet Union, where Jews could not practice their faith freely). But I also spoke about the importance of remembrance, and how renewal can both be boosted and diminished by remembering.
It was fascinating to relate our experiences to the ten fellows placed in Rwanda. They work with a teenage orphanage that is dealing with a living memory of genocide. The community struggles with forgiveness and renewal, but the children have hope, which is rooted in their Christian faith. From speaking that afternoon, we realized what an inspiration it was to swap experiences not just between those working in Jewish communities but also between those serving in Rwanda. Certainly, the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide are two very distinct and unique events. However, both the fellows in Rwanda and myself must address similar issues when working towards renewal. During the JSC seminar’s four days, we shared embarrassing cultural mishaps, hardships and disasters. But we also experienced renewal ourselves, by sharing these issues and then expressing our hopes for the next six months.
A week later, Israel celebrated Yom Haatzmaut, “Israel’s Independence Day,” with fireworks, barbeques and parties. Jews around the world celebrated Israel’s birthday, representing the ultimate example of Jewish renewal in the post-Holocaust, Jewish timeline. It was incredible to be in Israel for Yom HaShoah, Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day) and Yom Haatzmaut. After a week of remembering and collective mourning, Israel turned to celebration, renewing the country’s hope for the future. I was inspired with Israel’s ritual of remembering and then rejoicing.
Section of Jerusalem’s Rose Park donated by the German government. Can you think of a better symbol of renewal than a garden in the spring?
It was hard returning to cold Berlin on Thursday, especially after the Icelandic volcano extended my vacation for four extra days. But I immediately found comfort in eating hummus and pita made by my Israeli neighbors Thursday night and celebrating Shabbat at Bambinim, where the children decorated their own Yom Haatzmaut signs and the Israeli parents pointed out where they have lived in Israel on a map. One mother was overjoyed to see I had made Israeli salad for our humble Shabbat meal. Tonight, the celebration continues at a Yom Haatzmaut party on the Ku’damm, a main street in Berlin.
If there is one thing that I took home with me from the seminar and my time in Israel, it is this: As individuals we must mourn our losses in order to celebrate where we are today and find hope for our future. Similarly, for the Jewish people, it is gravely important that we have rituals to remember our past and mourn. But it is equally important that we recognize our accomplishments and celebrate our diverse and radiant communities today. Only by finding this balance, can we continue on the path to renewal, in Israel and throughout the Diaspora.