Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. My Facebook feed is teeming with sad, despair-filled, morbid images and writings about the Shoah. There are also pictures that depict strength, both physical and mental, that are infrequently showcased in Holocaust collages. This year I find myself focusing on both survival and strength, as opposed to the misery and pain. Truth be told, there aren’t enough pages in enough books or Kindles to hold all the images of the death, destruction, darkness, and horror that occurred during that time. But sometimes, and may I not be struck by lightning for saying it, the pictures become too much for my weary head. After a while, I feel like I’ve seen so much bad, that my brain tunes out, shuts off, and might as well announce, “Rachel is on standby.” This year I told myself I wouldn’t read every story or article featured, watch every movie shown, or immerse myself beyond reason in all things Holocaust. Maybe that makes me selfish, but this year it feels like mental self-preservation.
Let me clearly state that I am NOT, N-O-T, comparing my life to the Holocaust. While I am certain that I lost relatives in the Shoah, I know of no survivors in my family personally. But there is something about the collision of today and recent family events and discoveries that have made me feel like I survived something and have received way more than say, a lousy T-shirt.
Families are very, very funny things. They provide endless hours of amusement, entertainment, stories for upcoming wedding videos (kids, you have been forewarned), insanity, pain, incredulity of the highest order, and a ginormous mix thereof. None of us, OK- most of us, do not come from cookie-cutter, sitcom-like families. Don’t know about you, but my challenges growing up were never solved in 30 minute intervals accompanied by background music. There was no laugh track, no scripted silences, and life continued without anyone ever reminding me that it was to be continued. My childhood was not necessarily a nightmare, though there were times it looked a lot like a battlefield. To quote one of my favorite people in the world, my awesome friend Orin Hahn, “I used to have a great deal of anger and resentment about the lack of normality and care I got. I realize now as I engage with so many people …. [that] I was receiving training. For how to be with myself and how to be there for others. To face the fires and frailty of being human. Sometimes we get a gift when we think we're cursed.”
And yet, some of those gifts came with rather large price tags. I thought I’d dealt with most of them, yet some seem to have recently cropped up like weeds. I will not go into the minutiae of what’s going on, but I can best describe it as the makings of one heck of a reality show. A reality show so unreal, that I presume ratings would be sky high and my family, millionaires. Nothing screams business opportunities like family stories I suppose. I’ll try not to think of the money I could make off of our secrets, despair, fragmentation, and pain that sometimes feels like it could fill a bottomless gulf. I have spent an inordinate amount of time obsessing about my mother’s health and, hopefully, short stay in a nursing home, family I’ve never met but hope to be able to one day, and the generations who have changed and I pray can change, their personal legacies. I realize that I haven’t just cried, but mourned, grieved, over missed opportunities, relationships, and the things that could have been. I came across a meme that reads, “Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.” Those are wise words, ones I must keep in the fore.
I cannot change what has happened and anyone who judges me on the trials of my past has no place in my present or future. Dwelling on why things happened, why they were orchestrated by the players involved, and why the stage was set for so much unnecessary grief, does me no good. As I reflect on these instances though, I find myself, sometimes despite myself, understanding that maybe the conditions I’ve rallied against weren’t unnecessary; perhaps there is a purpose to them. And perhaps one day I’ll find out what that purpose is. Or not. Had my past been different, the foundation on which I’ve based my future would have been too. I might’ve chosen a different husband, had different kids, lived in places I have not. There is a price we pay for the things we hold dear. Maybe I already know some of the why’s of my youth.
All this remembering, reliving… it’s not easy. Lots of feelings have been stirred and many have led me to a place of gratitude for being in Israel. Living here not only connects me to my Judaism, but my personal, spiritual, and existential roots. This is a powerful place.
I came across a quote by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor. His words speak to me deeply for reasons I think I understand. These words describe what I hope to accomplish in my personal life as well as a member of the Jewish People; to take responsibility for knowing what has happened so I can propel myself forward. The soul endures what G-d bestows upon it, even if the burden seems like more than we can bear. Perhaps if G-D has that much faith in me, I should too.
Here are his words…
“We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—hourly and daily. Our answer must consist not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the task which it constantly sets for each individual.”
May the memory of the 6 million serve as a blessing and may we all go forward with the strength that has always lay within us.