January 27, 2023
The Massuah Institute for the Study of the Holocaust
Tel Yitzhak, Israel
Good morning, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is an honor to be here with you today.
We gather on International Holocaust Remembrance Day to preserve the legacy and honor the memory of both those who were murdered during the Holocaust and those who survived the atrocities of those dark and terrible years. Today’s theme of “preserving the memory of the Holocaust, without the testimony of the survivors” is personal to me as the daughter and granddaughter of survivors from Vienna who are no longer with us. The responsibility of carrying forward the personal experiences, the triumphs and tragedies, of survivors, our murdered family members, and those who left no one behind will soon lie squarely on the next generation. On me. On all of us.
Other than my two adult children, I am the only remaining Jewish member of my family. So the question of who will write our history has always been on my shoulders. The members of my family that survived rarely spoke about the family we lost or what they, themselves, experienced.
I had the only real conversation that I would ever have with my mother about the Holocaust mere days before she died. But that was after decades of witnessing her screams of terror in the night. The only time she ever spoke German was in her sleep. The personal stories, mementos, and photographs of much of my own family are forever gone.
6,000,000. Roughly the number of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. It is impossible to truly grasp that number. If we had a mere minute of silence for every one of the 6,000,000, we would be silent for 11.4 years. 20 years if we included all 11 million murdered by the Nazis. Those are large, incomprehensible numbers. But when there are names and faces and stories we can pick out, we are forced to really take it in. Stories like my mother, Susi, being ripped from her parents at 3 years old on Kristallnacht and hidden in a cabinet until they were reunited and able to flee later in 1939, miraculously able to make their way as refugees to the United States. Or her one surviving cousin, Lise, who was sent away by her parents to London on the Kindertransport alone at the age of 5 and ended up Catholic, robbing her and her children of their Jewish identity. Or my grandfather, Leo, who assisted his mother-in-law in committing suicide before fleeing his beloved homeland and all he knew and loved, including his parents, Rosa and Elias, who were murdered at Riga. The shame of what he was forced to do and the pain of all they lost haunted him and my grandmother, Edith, for the remainder of their lives. Or Lise’s brother, Herbert, who was too old for the Kindertransport but had papers to emigrate to Switzerland. He was turned away at the border, his papers stolen. Herbert was murdered at the age of 12 in a mass shooting in the forests of Latvia.
I understand, among other things, the generational effects of trauma, experienced not just by me and my community but by countless around the world. Why remember the Holocaust? It’s painful. It’s uncomfortable. Aren’t there already enough movies, books, recorded testimonies, memorials? Part of why we remember is to honor those who came before us. So that their memories are preserved and may serve as a blessing. But memory is also what shapes us and what teaches us.
The word Genocide did not even exist before the Holocaust. While others were targeted (Roma, Homosexuals, persons with disabilities,… among others), the extermination of the Jewish people was the primary goal of the Holocaust. It’s important to remember that it took place in the heart of Europe amidst a very cultured and civilized society. It can happen anywhere, at any time. Today, as we are gathered here to remember and to pledge Never Again, genocide, atrocities, and crimes against humanity are being perpetrated.
And still we remember in hopes that that will change. But memory is tricky. How often do two people remember the same event very differently? My husband of 32 years is here; you can ask him!
So we can’t rely on memory alone. There is a rise in Holocaust denial around the world. And we are losing the eyewitness generation of survivors, liberators, and, yes, even perpetrators (some of whom have told the truth). There are prolific publications distorting and denying the Holocaust, too many from seemingly credible sources, and now we see celebrities joining the chorus. Future generations will have to sort out fact from fiction. But first-hand real-time accounts, documents, and artifacts are powerful. The type of testimonial that can’t be denied and so must be preserved. Like the blood-spattered outfit my mother was wearing when a household member was shot in front of her crib as the Nazi’s came looking for her father on Kristallnacht.
For me, the legacy of my family has meant a deep and profound commitment to do everything I can to promote and protect human rights and to address human rights violations whenever and wherever they occur. And to study the warning signs so that we can be more proactive and not just reactive at places like the UN Human Rights Council.
And so we remember. And we honor. And many of us say kaddish for people we never knew. May their memories serve as a blessing and a reminder. Because what happened in the Holocaust didn’t just happen to them, it happened to all of humanity.