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We must see the memory of the Holocaust through to our children

2006
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Holocaust survivors and activists take part at a protest outside the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv, Feb. 8. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90 photo)

“Who won the last World Cup, Mommy?” my eight-year-old son asked last summer.

“Germany.”

“Yay!”

“No, sweetie, we didn’t want them to win.”

“Why not?”

“Well, we don’t… err… they don’t… we just don’t like them.”

Thankfully, the moment passed without much drama. But my husband later suggested that I shouldn’t impose my inherited view of Germans on our two young sons. “They are growing up in a world beyond that,” he said. “They won’t snub Germany like our generation does.”

That was a wake-up call. My kids will grow up in a world without Holocaust survivors. The memory of the six million, a core pillar of my identity as a third-generation survivor and a foundation of global Jewish ethos, will be a  historical footnote for them. My son’s innocent question spurred a dramatic change in my perception of Holocaust remembrance.

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Growing up in Montreal’s Jewish community, the Holocaust was firmly entrenched in my life. Even though my grandparents didn’t speak much of their wartime ordeals, I learned the importance of “Never Forget” at a young age. And my family never bought German products; travelling there was out of the question.

But as I grew older, I craved other cultures and narratives. After a day school curriculum steeped in Eli Wiesel and Anne Frank, I stopped reading Holocaust books. Nor did I join the March of the Living. I felt I had enough Holocaust in my life.

At some point in my early adulthood, “Never Forget” went stale. The mantra of my childhood lost its relevance and urgency. And when I moved to Israel, I preferred to focus on the pressing issues facing my new country, not the watershed event that pervades its history. I wanted to look forward; the Holocaust belonged to the past.

That all changed when my aunt and uncle asked my grandmother if she would join them on a trip to Poland. She agreed only because her children and I, her oldest grandchild, would join. It was on that trip that I first encountered Polish victimhood. I listened to the Poles we met, learned about their suffering during continuous foreign occupations and the valiant attempts of the Polish resistance to defeat the Nazis.

I also observed an unsettling defensiveness among Poles. When I asked – however gently — about the fate of the Jews in relation to their Polish countrymen, the Polish victim narrative was thrown swiftly back in my face. None of the Poles that I met wanted to talk about their ancestors’ role in the Holocaust. The Nazis were completely responsible; the Poles were their victims, too. The Shoah was a sterile historical entity, it seemed, surgically removed from the Polish experience.

Back in Israel, I started following the explosive debate surrounding Polish historian Jan T. Gross and others who are digging deep into the past that many Poles would rather ignore or forget. Polish officials have targeted Gross, professor emeritus at Princeton University, for his controversial studies on Polish violence against Jews during the Holocaust. He is believed to have inspired the country’s controversial new law, which incriminates expressions of Polish culpability for Holocaust crimes. Gross’s outspoken stance on Polish denial echoed my impressions.

If Germany winning the World Cup was my wake-up call, the Polish law cemented my transformation. I started reading Holocaust books again. I realized that I had taken Holocaust remembrance for granted; having lived in the shadow of its memory, I was accustomed to the fact that its emissaries – my grandparents and other survivors – would always be around. Now I understand that never forgetting is not enough. The world has failed in perpetuating the lessons of the Holocaust. The gargantuan task of reversing this failure lies with us, the third generation — and it has never been more urgent.

We will be the leaders of the Jewish community as the last witnesses die out. We must see the memory of the Holocaust through to our children and grandchildren and the rest of the world. We must share with them the haunting reality that despite massive efforts to record and commemorate, people and governments still shamelessly deny our past. We must aggressively challenge attempts to whitewash history and hold accountable those who obscure the truth.

Amid these dramatic developments, the World Cup is once again afoot, and there are favourites to pick. Will my family be cheering for Poland and Germany? I know I won’t, but my sons may. Either way, I won’t overshadow my sons’ sports euphoria with their family past – yet. They are still young. But when I do start teaching them about the Holocaust, I won’t sidestep those countries’ roles in the catastrophe that befell their ancestors, just four generations ago. I’ll teach them not only to remember the truth but to be vigilant of attempts to blur and erase it. That’s the best I can do. Ultimately, choosing what to do with that legacy – and which team to cheer –  will be up to them.

Born and raised in Montreal, Melanie Takefman is a communications strategist based in Israel. She is currently writing  a book about women and migration.