We, the generation that was born after World War II, have a special obligation to our grandchildren and great grandchildren. We must tell them what it was like growing up in the aftermath of one of the worst horrors of our history. Some of today’s children, when speaking about the Holocaust, seem to think it’s ancient history, akin to the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades. I don’t want to minimize the importance of those eras in our history. However, we must teach our children to appreciate and value what they now take for granted. They see overflowing classrooms, schools building new edifices, shuls full of people davening and learning: In other words, they see a vibrant Judaism, where none existed a mere 70 years ago.
When we were growing up, any new neighbor was welcomed with two questions. Where are you from, and where were you during the war? Everyone had his own story, of trauma, heartbreak and ultimate salvation.
Very few children of survivors had grandparents. If one had an aunt and two cousins she considered herself more fortunate than most of her friends. A friend told me that, as a child, she looked down on the few elderly people she encountered, dismissing them as worthless. It was only when she herself became a mother, and shared with her mother every smile and every milestone of her little daughter, that she appreciated the value of a grandmother. She first realized then what she had missed as a child growing up without grandparents.
A great many people came back after the war with the infamous numbers tattooed onto their arms. The Satmar Rebbbe, Reb. Yoel ZL said of these survivors that any man with these numbers on his arm who still puts on tefillim every day is worthy of having his fellow Jews beseech him for his blessings.
Today’s generation doesn’t even know what those numbers symbolize. A young man related that he was somewhere with his children when they encountered a survivor with the numbers on his arm. His children asked many questions, which he tried to answer. He himself was flabbergasted at his children’s lack of knowledge. “It is just one generation later, and the children know nothing,” he said. “When I was a child, three men who sat at our table in shul had the numbers on their arms. So did the shoemaker, and the lady in the bakery. There were even two rebbes and a few bus drivers in cheder who had the numbers.”
One thing that everyone knew, which was not discussed much, was the fact that many lost spouses and children in the war, and later remarried. The Bobover Rebbe, Reb Shlomo, the Klausenberger Rebbe and the Bairach Moshe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum of Satmar Zicronom Livracha, all lost wives and children, H”yd (May Hashem avenge their blood). They each remarried and raised beautiful families, while rebuilding their following, and establishing yeshivos and other communal institutions. Reb Michoel Ber Weissmandl also lost his family, H”yd, yet he remarried while establishing the Nitra Yeshiva anew on American soil. Who can fathom the faith and fortitude it took for these leaders of our generation to pick themselves up from the ashes and begin anew. With little money and few followers, they forged ahead, paving the way for Yiddishkeit to once again flourish.
In every neighborhood there were also private citizens with similar histories. Most withheld the truth about their past from their children, wanting that they should grow up carefree. However, sometimes the truth did emerge. It manifested itself as over-protective parents, who were reluctant (and fearful) to let their children participate in school outings, or go to sleepaway camp.
Many Holocaust survivors first started to talk about their war experiences as they got older. Some, who never told their children anything, somehow opened up to their grandchildren. Others took these tales along with them into the grave.
One Jewish man, who had spent several years in various concentration camps, developed an interesting routine when he retired from his job. Rain or shine, in hot weather or when it snowed, he would stand on a certain street corner, and count the school buses taking the children to yeshiva. He recognized every bus that passed his way, and he even knew which city-run buses carried children to yeshiva. Only when he was satisfied that he had seen them all did he return home. “This,” he said, “is the biggest revenge on Hitler, yms (may his name be erased). I am thrilled with every Jewish child that I see.” He continued this practice as long as he lived.
Our grandchildren should also be taught to appreciate a Jewish simcha. Today, now that the population has grown so much, Bli Ayin Horah, there are nights that every simcha hall, large or small, is booked with a Jewish simcha. Quite often, we have to juggle our time, having been invited to several affairs the same evening. In the late 1950s, a bar mitzvah was a major happening. Then we reached the mid-1960s, when the first post-war children were beginning to get married. A wedding was a major event. How many tears, tears of joy mixed with tears of painful memories, did the parents and wedding guests shed, reacting to the fact that they were witnessing a continuation of Jewish generations?
It’s brought up in Gemarah that when Moshiach will come, all the shuls and schools where Torah was taught, will be transferred to Eretz Yisroel. We should always remind our children to daven, that in the merit of those who rebuilt Judaism in the aftermath of the Holocaust, may we be worthy, together with our grandchildren, to see the coming of Mashiach with the ultimate redemption.
By P. Samuels
P. Samuels is a Brooklyn grandmother who always loved to write. She began to freelance once she got her own computer (no more sharing with her kids). Her main interests, other than writing, of course, is hosting and enjoying her children and grandchildren, and her writing is basically a reflection of her lifestyle.