Today, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the horrors of the Holocaust loom large in the world’s collective memory. But for those who were personally affected, those horrors have never left. Born in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen, the son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, law professor Menachem Rosensaft has devoted his life to the keeping the legacy of Holocaust survivors and their descendants alive.
Rosensaft has been curating these voices since 1965, when he edited a magazine of essays, poems and short stories by the children of Holocaust survivors known as the Bergen-Belsen Youth Magazine. Today, he teaches classes on the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities. His newest project is the just-published book God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, a tapestry that weaves together the diverse stories of nearly 90 second- and third-generation survivors, all edited by Rosensaft.
Moment’s Rachel E. Gross talks to Rosensaft about how these voices offer hope for all survivors of genocides, and the importance of presenting them as models, not victims.
How did this book originate?
In 2013, I gave a guest sermon at my synagogue on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In the sermon, I tried to reconcile the presence of God with the horrors of the Shoah. That sermon was published on the religion blog of the Washington Post and ended up being brought to the attention of Pope Francis. Then, amazingly enough, I received a beautiful e-mail from Pope Francis himself.
Stuart Matlins, the editor-in-chief of Jewish Lights Publishing, read both the guest sermon and the Pope’s reaction to it, which had received a great deal of media coverage. He invited me for dinner, and asked if I would be interested in putting together a book of contemporary theological reactions to the Holocaust. I said it would be a great idea, but that we should broaden the theme to go beyond theological—to encompass cultural questions of identity and issues of tikkun olam as articulated by children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. The overall idea would be to answer the question: How has the survivors’ legacy of memory shaped who we are, and what we are doing with our lives?
I wanted the book to be a representation of who we are collectively and individually: a mosaic of the children and grandchildren of survivors, rather than a book with some kind of agenda. We tried to make sure there would be both political and religious balance. The contributors are Zionist and non-Zionist, secular and observant, nationalist and universalist, immersed in Jewish communal work and primarily focused on society as a whole. There are novelists, psychologists, rabbis, political activists, judges, editors and reporters. There are rabbis ranging from Orthodox, even haredi, to Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal. There are also avowed atheists. There are a number of women rabbis. The survivors who emerged from the Holocaust were incredibly diverse, and so were their children and grandchildren. I wanted the book to accurately reflect that.
For many years, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the USC Shoah Foundation have been collecting the oral histories of survivors. How does your goal in editing this book differ?
The oral histories are personal accounts. They are the testimony of what took place. The book is trying to make sense of those accounts, 70 years later. What is important to bear in mind is that we who were born after the Holocaust are not survivors—in any sense of the term. We did not suffer. We were not imprisoned in camps. We were not deported. We did not see our families murdered. We were never hungry. We were never tortured. We, for the most part, have lived comfortable lives with warm and loving families. Our connection to the Holocaust comes through our parents, our grandparents. We are their witnesses. Their memories, the stories they told us growing up, have become part of our consciousness.
Was that your personal experience?
Yes. My mother died in 1997. Our daughter Jodi, her granddaughter, had been very close to her. Six months after my mother died, when Jodi was a sophomore at Johns Hopkins, I took her to Poland for the first time. We went to Birkenau, where her grandmother had been imprisoned. It was a very gray, drizzly day. We walked in silence past the various barracks. Then Jodi turned to me and said, you know, it’s exactly the way Dassah (which is what she called my mother, Hadassah) described it. And I realized at that moment that there had been a transfer of memory. Jodi, who was born in 1978, 33 years after the Holocaust, had recognized the barracks of Birkenau through the stories she had heard from her grandmother. And to a greater or lesser extent, that’s the case for many of us.
What realizations struck you the most while editing these essays?
First was how individual they were. Each one really is a unique voice in and of itself. There is almost no redundancy. The other thing is that, across the board, the contributors were almost unfailingly forward-looking and positive. There is no giving into despair, no wallowing in self-pity of any kind. You get much more of a sense that they are looking at the survivors, at our parents and our grandparents, with awe. They see them as role models, as inspirations. The legacy that we receive from them is a source of strength, rather than a burden. That was remarkable.
What effect do you hope these survivors’ stories will have on readers?
It has now been 70 years since the end of the Holocaust and the liberation of the camps. When survivors emerged from these horrors, they emerged with absolutely nothing and no one. Their families had for the most part been killed, they had lost their homes, they had no place to return to. And yet they did not give in to despair. They started new lives for themselves, created new families, and settled in new countries. Within one or two generations, their children and grandchildren have reached the top of their respective fields throughout the world.
What I hope is that these stories will inspire the victims and the descendants of survivors of other genocides and atrocities; that they can see that if this was possible for the children and grandchildren of the survivors of the Holocaust, then it is equally possible for them. Hopefully this will give them a sense that all is never lost.