Last week, most Jews all over the world celebrated Passover, in memory of the Exodus and freedom, when they were slaves in ancient Egypt. Most Jews all over the world remember these days by laying a Seder table, specially with unleavened bread and retelling the story of the parting of the Red Sea. And, as it often happens in the Jewish calendar, festive occasions are followed by memorial services like Yom Hashoah, meaning Holocaust Day. The word Shoah in Hebrew means calamity and is almost always referred to the Holocaust memorial day by Jews. It is observed by saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, in Hebrew, which means prayers to the dead, a solemn remembrance day, when memorial candles are lit for those who perished during the Holocaust. Today, observing this day is done in different ways by Jewish communities all over the world, like reciting poems, reading letters, diaries like that of Anne Frank, narrating real-life stories of survivors or families relive the happenings in the lives of relatives, like grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, friends or neighbours, they lost in the Holocaust, when six million Jews were persecuted or died in Nazi Germany under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler.
In my younger days, I remember, my grandmother, uncle and some others of the family fasted, wore white clothes, as though they were in mourning. In the evening, they lit a candle and said the Kaddish. As Primo Levi said, “…it happened, so it can happen again… this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen and it can happen anywhere.” Those who followed Levi’s work know that he could bear his own dark inner labyrinths of terrifying memories.
The scars remain.
While traveling abroad, often one meets Jews, whose families were victims of the Holocaust and slowly, like old books, whose pages have either been torn or stuck together with their tears, they remember those who were theirs but had never met or do not even know what they looked like. Often, they try to trace resemblances in the physique or facial features of those they lost and are now part of their nightmares.
I have also known some old friends, who try to understand themselves and why they behave in a certain way, wondering if this is how one of their ancestors was, could have been. And is that why they are who they are?
In France, I befriended a survivor, a woman, who was hardly five or six years old when she lost her entire family when the ghetto they lived in was burnt down. Somehow, she was taken to safety and is a grandmother with a large family. Yet she lives in two worlds, of darkness and light: When the memories crowd her, of the yellow star stitched as a patch on shirts; of how she would often dig for potatoes when hungry, which her mother roasted or made soup with, and feels she is falling into an unknown void, from the balcony of a burning ghetto.
Or meeting an old friend, when he came to Ahmedabad and over dinner, told me, that he was a young boy when Hitler hoisted the swastika on the Eiffel Tower. His family had left for America. He was to follow them with an aunt in a car via Portugal, from where they were to take a ship with their meagre belongings and some valuables, abandoning their home, business and everything they owned. He was afraid and felt greatly responsible for his aunt’s safety. On reaching New York, they realised that all their valuables were stolen. They had to start all over again and the trauma of those days never left him, although he has done very well in his profession and is a great-grandfather. But, all his life, he was haunted by his cousin sister, shot in Belsen. He always had nightmares of seeing her in a ditch, face down, legs drawn up, arms outstretched, mouth open, dead, the yellow Star of David stitched on her breast like a wound. He told me that he had spent a lifetime trying to wipe out that particular image from his mind, but could not. Much later, he had read about Dachau, Treblinka, Wolzek, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck, Mauthausen, Belsen and Auschwitz, looking for her.
Then, I have also met some readers from western countries, who came to meet me, first on the pretext of meeting an Indian Jew, to understand that India was the only country in the world where Jews had not faced any form of persecution. After long conversations, they opened up, just to tell me that their ancestors had gone through the horrors of the Holocaust and had dropped a curtain upon the past. Yet, oft and on, they wanted to return to an area of Jewish life they had denied for themselves. Sometimes, they wanted to see an Indian synagogue, sometimes wanted to be there for the Friday evening Shabbat and participate in a festival, as they felt comfortable. On return to their countries, sometimes they went back to a liberal Jewish community or did not, but stayed in touch with me.
This evening, as I sit writing about Holocaust Day, from my window I can see the waning moon rising and I would like to quote a line from a psalm. “… they walked through the valley of the shadow of death…”
So, let us remember, “…lest we forget…”