Natan Sznaider was born more than six decades ago in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany to Holocaust survivor parents. When he was 20, he moved to Israel and is today a professor at the Tel Aviv-Yafo Academic College, where he teaches contemporary thought. I heard him recently make an important distinction between Holocaust survivors and Holocaust refugees. The former lived under the Nazis, the latter were displaced because of Hitler but had escaped Nazi rule.
My wife is a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Part of her story can be seen in Every face has a name, to be shown at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival later this month. I’m a refugee who spent the years of World War II in various parts of the Soviet Union that weren’t under Nazi occupation.
What survivors and refugees often have in common is that they’re alive not because they were wise but because they were fortunate. I never tire of reminding myself and others that my parents and I survived because they acted irrationally, nay irresponsibly.
In 1940, when the Soviets asked them if they wanted to stay in Soviet-occupied Ukraine or return to their homes in Poland under Nazi rule, my parents, and thousands of others, opted for the latter. The Soviets, therefore, assumed we were a fifth column and exiled us to Siberia. The Germans never got there and we survived. Had my parents been prudent, we would have stayed and perished in the Holocaust.
The reason for their decision was a misguided faith in German culture and a pathological fear of Soviet Communism. To this day, it seems that many survivors and refugees are more comfortable with the political right than with the left. They lap up the writings of radical right-wing pundits – several of them Jewish – and eerie declarations by reactionary politicians.
They may profess commitment to Jewish values and the progressive teachings of the biblical prophets, but they seem to lose their sense of judgment when it comes to contemporary exponents of anti-liberal ideas.
For all my disdain for communism, I’m alive because of Communist USSR. My grandparents, aunts and uncles perished with their children in German-occupied Poland.
Growing up during World War II and its aftermath, I imbibed the tales of survivors and refugees. With time, I realized that what I heard may not have always reflected what actually happened. I now also know that what I myself remember from that time may not always tally with the facts.
Over the years, particularly around Holocaust Education Week in Toronto, I heard many lectures about different aspects of the Holocaust. Almost invariably, survivors and refugees insisted that only they knew what actually happened and that the academics and experts got it wrong.
Soon the world will only know what the academics teach, because every year the number of survivors and refugees diminishes. The world may then know more facts, but it’ll miss the emotional impact of testimonies. While the stories, whether or not factually correct, made an impact on audiences, the historic accounts are more likely to leave them cold. They’ll read about them in the way we read about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain more than 500 years ago or the pogrom in Kishinev at the beginning of the last century.
Which is an added reason why we should commemorate Yom Hashoah the way we mark many Jewish sacred occasions, including the tragic ones. What historians won’t be able to give us and survivors and refugees won’t be there to testify to, liturgy must provide. It must impress upon future generations that what happened to the Jewish People between 1933 and 1945 has changed Judaism for all time and imposed on us the imperative – in the words of the Toronto Jewish philosopher the late Emil Fackenheim – to survive in order not to give Hitler his posthumous victory.