From Memory to Meaning: Remarks on Yom Hashoa


In last Sunday’s NYT, Dr. Galit Atlas writes of a patient who is obsessed with reading obituaries,”I always imagined I had a twin brother who had died in childbirth. But I didn’t. My mother used to get annoyed when I joked about it. She thought it was another one of my crazy ideas about death. I secretly imagined we were both Noah. Noah One and Noah Two — like Thing One and Thing Two from the Dr. Seuss story.”


He was obsessed his whole life, until it was revealed, “The secret is that there was another son, about a year older, who died before Noah was born.” He felt it. The picture was not complete.

There was a brother that he never knew.

On March of the Living – the now yearly event where Jewish teens March from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom Hashoa, many of the Israeli teens wear t-shirts that say – אֶת-אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ- the words of Joseph when asking for directions regarding the whereabouts of his brothers, אֶת-אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ –  I am searching for my brothers.

We today?  On Yom Hashoa, we too are searching, אֶת-אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ. Where are our brothers? Our sisters? Mothers, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins? Here and then, suddenly gone. We sense their absence. We know there are more. Six million murdered – one and a half million children. אֶת-אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ

Gilah and I spent twelve days searching this summer in Beyalrus and Russia. We traveled to Minsk, Radun, Mir, Navardok, Velizh, Vitebsk Moscow and St Petersburg.

We are standing in Radun. A hint, a mere vestige, an inkling is all that is left of what was once a Jewish center with shuls, markets and of course the yeshiva. Yes, in my mind’s eye I can try to picture those who had once been here; the scurrying yeshiva students, the bustling women, and the children at lively play. I close my eyes and I see my Bar Mitzvah aged father in this town of Radun, where his father was born, where my great grandparents had once had a small store that was a grocery,  pharmacy, dairy.

In 1942 it ended for the Jews of Radun. What was the fate of our cousins?  Our family received the report years later. Some fled to the forest. Some were murdered. One beautiful young cousin committed suicide rather than be taken to a Nazi brothel. We follow the road out of town to the Jewish cemetery.

The few headstones that are left are worn out mostly beyond readability. The exception is the tomb of the Chafetz Chaim, It stands surrounded by pillars and is appropriately bedecked with stones, notes and candles; pilgrimages have been made here. Radun-ites are proud of their holy rabbi, preventing the Jewish community from ever removing his remains.

We make our way back to the far end of the cemetery, to the fenced off mass grave. There is a trench and a raised area. It runs about half of the length of the Jewish cemetery. A monument stands and tells the tale of that summer of 1942. The Jews had been marched here and then shot one by one. Yes, every town has their pit. The story ends here for the Jews even as life goes on in the town of Radun. No sign identifies the once grand yeshiva and no markers tell of the life that was once here – save this memorial buried back beyond the town limits.

Today, the story of Radun will have to be told by those who are only passing through. Those who come searching for lost brothers and sisters.

This week we reached the half way point of the Torah between the words דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ – darosh darash. Searching, investigating. Moshe searches for the appropriate response after the death of Aaron’s sons. Here  in the middle of the episode of the death of Aaron’s sons, דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ , darosh darash. It resonates with Yom Hashoa – Holocaust Memorial Day. There is a fire. Two sons are burnt. Moshe says of their deaths בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, through those who are close to me I will be sanctified. Aaron is silent, as we too are silent today. There are no words. There are no answers. We are searching. Investigating, darosh darosh. The Torah is split in half by these words of mystery as is our history. There is life before Shoah and there is life after – each half punctuated by intense searching.

Our response? Our mandate is to move from memory to meaning. It is not enough to sense that we are missing a brother. It is not enough to go and search, to ask, darsoh darosh. We must make meaning.  That meaning is to live that Jewish life that was so violently, ruthlessly, sadistically taken from our six million brothers and sisters and live it to its fullest. Sanctify Shabbat with unabashed joy. Study Torah with gusto. Wear your Judaism proudly. Let us turn to our children and grandchildren, as we them leading proud Jewish lives of meaning – let us say, as my mother in law – sole survivor of her family who lived through Auschwitz –  would say, as she pointed to her grandchildren, – “I won Hitler.”

As today’s Rosh Chodesh Hallel proclaims, לֹא-אָמוּת כִּי-אֶחְיֶה;    וַאֲסַפֵּר, מַעֲשֵׂי יָה.. We will not die – but rather we will live and tell of the deeds of the Lord.

R – E – S – P – E – C – T !!

Respecting others is a lesson that demands ongoing attention. You can imagine that spending time with so many youngsters as we do, that things pop up that need attention. After all, this is school – where children come to learn – if they knew everything and were perfect – well, we would have to close up shop! Our students are here to learn. And we, all of us, are partners in helping tour students to grow – both intellectually and emotionally. Toward that end we have articulated a number of shared values and behaviors in our “Working Together” document.  It is time to add a section on our respecting of others.

Here it is – I invite your comments, as we did in the summer regarding the whole document.

והוי מקבל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות

Receive every person with a kind countenance

Pirke Avot 1:15

Creating CommUNITY

SHA students and families represent a rich variety of backgrounds, neighborhoods and family traditions. It is our responsibility to build community in our classrooms, playgrounds and beyond – honoring every family – whatever their religious practice, their particular place on the Jewish spectrum or their political affiliation. It takes a partnership between home and school to create this noble culture. We expect families to speak kindly of each other, to all children and staff and to model for our students at all times  our shared Jewish values of human dignity, respect and our tradition’s mandate to receive every person with a kind countenance. “Receiving” in the sense of how we think of, treat and relate to “the other.”