A foul-weather friend who saw me through some hard times told me that the institution he worked for had undertaken a collaborative project with the March of Living organization. It was to be an intergenerational effort in which Jewish students would interview survivors in order to write an essay before embarking on the trip. Would I be willing to give an interview?
I’m openly reluctant to be interviewed. The interviews are usually pre-prepared and superficial. I pleaded interview weariness, but my friend would not let it go. He found a spot on my Achilles heel and shamelessly rubbed it until I surrendered.
My two interviewers arrived at Toronto’s Lipa Green Centre, one equipped with a laptop, the other with an iPhone, and both holding a sheaf of sheets in their hands. A quick glance at the sheet listing the questions bore out my foreboding.
To save the evening from platitudes, I suggested that we reverse the order of the interview. I would go first and interview them, and they would follow by interviewing me. What I wanted to find out was whether they had signed up for the March because of peer pressure, “Auschwitz fashion,” or some other adolescent whim. Their immediate responses were taken straight from the Holocausters’ handbook, giving off a stale odour with tired slogans such as “Never again” and “We’ll turn it around.”
To get around the sloganeering, I looked for language that was familiar to their own experiences and yet hinted at concentration camp realities.
“One of the most devastating encounters in the camps was the disconnect between cause and effect,” I said. “In your life, you take for granted that when you work hard on your essay, you expect a decent grade, and if you feel that you’ve been wronged, you have recourse to complain. This was not true in a concentration camp.”
Citing a paragraph from my book The Muselmann at the Water Cooler, I meant to illustrate the inmate’s helplessness to foresee the result of an action and calculate the consequences of his tormentor’s reaction to his move, being prey to his rapacious mood.
This palpable description of life under siege elicited questions that flowed from the depth of the students’ being, such as “How did you survive?” and “How did you feel after liberation?”
These two questions showed the inadequacy of the questions that they had been primed to ask, which were listed as “Suggested questions/topics: Details about their experience during the Shoah: Were they in a concentration camp? Were they a partisan in the forest? What was a typical day like?” In their formulation and tone, these questions conjure up a scene in which a mom greets her returning kid from summer camp with, “How was your day in camp?
And the counsellor, was she nice to you?”
After all these years, I can’t help but wonder why March organizers have failed to develop a language that would resonate with young people and at once convey the darkness of that time. The only sensible explanation I could come up with was that its leaders settled into the comfort zone of “If it ain’t broke why bother tinkering with it?”
Yet while it may not be “broke,” its parts are visibly worn out by age.
The intergenerational project is nearing its inevitable end. Survivors are a dying species, but memory should be kept alive. This requires shaping a tradition in which each March of the Living becomes a milestone on the road of remembrance, in the Hebrew sense of masoret, of passing on memory.
In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple, our sages created constructs and rituals that preserved the memory of the Second Temple for 2,000 years. Preserving the memory of the Shoah is doable. The intellectual and financial resources are available.
What is urgently needed is to think and act upon it.
Eli Pfefferkorn fought in Israel’s War of Independence. His memoir The Muselmann at the Water Cooler won a Jewish Book Award in 2012. He lives in Toronto.