Monday, July 27, 2015

God, Faith and Identity from the Ashes: Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors Share Their Stories

In July Oskar Groening, the “accountant of Auschwitz ,” was found guilty of 300,000 charges of accessory to murder. His trial is considered to be one of the last trials of the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust.  

Already, most who experienced the Holocaust are dead. Soon, all will be gone. But one group of people who were impacted by it remains: The children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. 

Their experiences are captured in God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, a new book edited by Menachem Z. Rosensaft.

In the book, 88 children and grandchildren of survivors share how the Holocaust shaped them theologically, politically, culturally and in terms of identity, education and careers.

Although none of them experienced the Holocaust first-hand, all were deeply affected by it.

“We did not see our families murdered, we were never cold, we were never starved, we were never beaten,” says Rosensaft, a child of two survivors.

“We grew up in comfort. And yet what we do have, what sets us apart, is that we grew up with our parents and grandparents. We absorbed their stories firsthand.”

The book is divided into four sections: God and Faith, Identity, A Legacy of Memory, and Changing the World for the Better.

In the first section, the writers reflect on how the Holocaust affected their faith. Some choose to believe in God and kept their faith, while some dismiss the idea of loving or caring God completely. Others have landed somewhere in between.

Eric Neilson’s grandfather lost his parents and two brothers in the concentration camps, yet he kept his faith in God.

“It strikes me that, for all my doubts and questions, if my grandfather can go on thanking the God of Israel . . . then surely I ought to consider doing so as well,” the Harvard professor writes.

“God was not present in the survivor’s home in which I grew up,” writes Israeli artist Aliza Olmert. “The missing niche of faith was filled by a socialist worldview and uplifting patriotism.”

“Both the God of consolation and the accusation against God live within me,” says Rabbi Moshe Waldoks. Adds former New York Times reporter Joseph Berger: “What God’s culpability or at least responsibility was remains a mystery that I’ll never resolve.”  

While reading the book one thing I found unexpectedly moving was how so many children of survivors grew up without any relatives—in Rosensaft’s case, both his parent’s entire immediate families were murdered.

“Like many children of survivors, I have been haunted by faceless phantoms of dozens and dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins,” writes Waldoks.

Growing up, Karen Friedman realized her family was different from her friends.

“Their family dynamics and experiences were just different from the rest of ours,” writes the grandchild of survivors. “I was always aware that my mother never knew what it was like to have grandparents.”

In 1984, Elie Wiesel, who survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald , delivered the keynote address at the first conference of children of Holocaust survivors. 
“It was you that the enemy sought to destroy,” he said. We were only the instruments. You were the enemy’s obsession. In murdering Jews, he wished to prevent you from being born.”

It would have been natural and logical for their parents to turn their back on the world, “to have opted for nihilism,” he went on to say. “And yet we have chosen you.”

And now, as the last trials of Nazis are held and the few remaining survivors pass away, these new chosen ones have the task of preserving the memory of their parents and grandparents for future generations.

“A generation will soon come of age having never heard firsthand testimony from a living Holocaust survivor," says Rosensaft. "The preservation and transfer of memory is the most critical mission that children and grandchildren of survivors must undertake.”

The stories in God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes show that many of them are taking that mission seriously.

From the July 25 Winnipeg Free Press.

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