Today is Yom HaShoah: Remembrance of the Holocaust Day. The fifteenth of Nissan on the Hebrew calendar is the day designated to commemorate the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. I want to think about how we can continue to bring the significance of this day into our current lives.
Most of us don't actually remember the Shoah (or the Holocaust, as we call it in America) in the sense of revisiting our own memories. Almost seven decades after the end of WWII, there are few survivors alive to remember its horrors. And for those survivors, unfortunately, the traumatic memories often do not need a specific day to be told to reappear. Rather, those of us who were born after the war "remember" by devoting our hearts and our attention to the experiences of others.
This Yom HaShoah I feel especially engaged in a form of remembering, not only in the sense of thinking about the past, but also in the form of re-membering, or bringing together, members a family created from both blood and friendship.
Over the weekend, I celebrated the continuity of life -- a bat mitzvah and a recent wedding -- with the grandchildren of four women with intertwined lives, women who were family and friends, each with her own incredible story of strength, bravery and love. One woman died in the Shoah, but wrote a diary testifying to her experience; one survived the Shoah in hiding, and two acted as Righteous Gentiles. Sharing joyous occasions with the grandchildren of this group of women over the past weekend has been more than an act of remembering. Today, I feel the re-membering of and among family members: We are re-inscribing the stories of the Shoah into our experiences of the present.
My cousin, Rachel Ben Shaul, was a "hidden child" during the war. As a Jewish child born confined in a ghetto in Siedlce Poland in 1941, Rachel did not stand much chance for survival. Rachel's mother, Cypora Jablon Zonszajn, knew this. In August 1942, after a mass deportation of her ghetto's inhabitants to the death camp Treblinka, Cypora snuck eleven-month old baby Rachel out of the ghetto to the home of her close high school friend, Irena Zawadzka, a Catholic Pole, living with her mother, Sabina Zawadzska. At risk of their own execution, Sabina and Irena took in Rachel. Cypora's Semitic appearance, tragically, posed a great threat to them all. Cypora returned to the ghetto. There, she wrote a diary bearing witness to her experience. A few months later, when the ghetto was fully liquidated, and all inhabitants were sent to Treblinka, Cypora handed her diary to a friend who planned to escape from the train. Then she took poison, choosing to deny the Nazis power over her death.
For almost three years, Rachel hid as a Polish child, moving between the homes of Irena and another of Cypora's friends from high school, Zofia Olzakowska. Zofia, Irena and Cypora had been the best of friends in pre-war Siedlce. During the war, Zofia and Irena (along with Zofia's sister and Irena's mother) became Rachel's adoptive mothers, loving her without thought of the danger her presence posed to them. Irena, who lived close to Nazi headquarters in Siedlce, also bravely hid Cypora's diary. Rachel survived. After the war, she was sent to her uncle in Israel. She remained close to Zofia and Irena until she died.
I am writing a book about Rachel, Cypora, Irena and Zofia. I knew Rachel very well while growing up; she and my mother -- whose father was also from Siedlce, Poland -- became as close as sisters. I saw Rachel frequently for the decade that she and I both lived in New York City. I grew close to her son, my cousin Gal, his (now ex) wife, Liz, and their daughter, Talia, who is almost my daughter's age. My mother and I travelled to Poland twice to meet Irena and Zofia. We reviewed their photo albums from their days as high school friends and listened to their stories of Cypora and Rachel. As we share stories, read Cypora's diary, and look at photos of the past families, we engage in a form of remembering, and, or, re-telling.
In 2007, Zofia died. Her granddaughter, Zuzanna, wrote to tell me the news. That letter led to a deep and unique friendship. I visited Zuzanna in Warsaw in 2010. She visited me in New York in 2012. We email frequently, sharing updates on our lives and book and movie recommendations. When Irena died, Zuzanna visited her grave and lit two candles -- one from each of us.
This weekend, I flew to California to attend Talia's bat mitzvah. Dressed in a chic, navy sundress and white hi-top Converse sneakers, Talia embodied the epitome of teenage vitality and beauty. She sang gloriously, read from the Torah, recited traditional Jewish blessings, and kept a sense of humor and tremendous smile throughout the service -- not easy for a 13-year-old in front of a large audience. Talia has the same warm and glistening brown eyes as her grandmother, Rachel. Gal, Talia's father, no stranger to loss, delivered one of the most moving tributes from a father to a daughter that I have heard. It was as if the courage, trauma, and resilience of generations resounded in his wise and loving words. Although I flew in and out quickly for the bat mitzvah, the six hours there will remain etched in my heart.
The next day, yesterday, Zuzanna came to visit. She has recently married. She and her husband are celebrating her birthday and the anniversary of their first date here in New York. Although we've only met in person a few times, Zuzanna is among my best friends. We tell each other our deepest stresses and anxieties. We delight in each other's joys. I was tripping over myself with excitement to meet her new -- and wonderful -- husband. When she asked if there was anything she could bring me from Poland, I asked for the most valuable of treasures -- Zofia's photo albums to scan and copy for my book.Of course, she trekked them here.
Within 24 hours, I both toasted Talia -- Rachel's granddaughter and Cypora's great-granddaughter -- on entering womanhood and on beginning the next chapter of this family's story of survival, generosity and creativity, and I had toasted to Zuzanna's marriage. We couldn't have been farther from pre-war Siedlce, but the exuberance, love and friendship I share with this new generation is infused to the core with the memory and grief that we acknowledge today. For me, the weekend was truly a fitting precursor to Yom HaShoah.
Tonight, my husband and I will meet Zuzanna and her husband Lukasz at the World Voices of International Literature Festival, organized by PEN America, the organization for free expression and literature. As we recognize the continued fight for free speech, we also acknowledge Yom HaShaoh and re-member the past.