The way Jewish youth have come to learn about the attempted extermination of Central European Jews during World War 2 has transformed over time. The genocide attempted by Nazis in Germany is institutionalized among religious Jews, with religious, family, and personal observances taking place in the home, synagogue and in pilgrimages to the death camps.
Sixty-seven years ago, after the end of the war, the extent of the Holocaust was unknown. Many people who escaped Europe, survived, or lost relatives to the Holocaust wanted to put it all behind.
“You had many people who simply tried to put that horrible past behind them even if they had nightmares every night, who made a conscious decision not to talk to their children,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of L.A.’s Simon Wiesenthal Center.
A significant stage in the remembering took place in 1952 when Israel established the national Holocaust remembrance holiday - Yom HaShoah.
“Shoah is the Hebrew world for Holocaust. It means, totally destroyed, total destruction, burnt up completely,” says Phil Liff-Grieff, with the Jewish education group, BJE. A vigorous debate ensued among Jewish leaders, he said, over whether commemorating the Holocaust would define the Jewish people by one tragic event.
“One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic,” Cooper quotes Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, “the most compelling message, really, is help younger generations put a human face on the suffering and try to put a context on why it happened and what steps we can take to remember and honor the memory of those whose only sin was to be born in a certain place in a certain time.”
That was Liff-Grieff’s job two weeks ago at Adat Ariel, a private Jewish elementary school in the San Fernando Valley.
Liff Grieff talked to about 50 children on Yom HaShoah. He projected a map of central Europe onto a screen. The kids are dressed in street clothes, some with Nike athletic shoes. The boys wear yarmulkes, religious skullcaps. “Where are your ancestors from?” he asks them.
“Poland. Poland. America. Germany. Africa. Poland. Poland. Israel. Mexico. Australia,” were some answers.
The Holocaust is part of this school’s curriculum, so these fourth and fifth graders know about the horrors.
“Here’s my question to you. Why? Why remember something so difficult? What’s it for? What good is it to remember?” Liff-Grieff asked.
So that it will never happen again, a student says. But Liff-Grieff tells the students he doesn’t want to dwell on the six million Jews killed. He projects a photo of Freddy Diament, the first Holocaust survivor that he traveled with to Poland, standing next to a building that was part of a dark chapter in Diament’s life.
“He watched his brother being hung in Auschwitz and promised his brother that he would never rest without telling the story. He told the story, always, everywhere. Here he is standing in the spot where it happened. Well, he passed away a couple of years ago,” he said as students’ eyes opened wide, some with tears.
“This is me, standing in the same spot, telling Freddie’s story. Telling his brother’s story,” Liff-Grieff said.
Remembering, a student says, shows respect for those who suffered in this and other genocides.
After Liff-Grieff’s presentation, students lit votive candles, recited a prayer for the dead - and then the cantor of the school’s affiliated synagogue leads students in a song that remembers Jews who resisted in Poland.
How Jews remember and teach the Holocaust isn’t set in stone, says Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “What do we want to teach our kids? And in the Internet era, what’s the best modality to do it? And what is it that we want to transmit about what happened during the Nazi Holocaust? Every generation is going to have to revisit it. That is kind of the Jewish way,” Cooper said.
And it’s a debate that’s part of - but not all of - what it means to be Jewish.