I remember the day my little girl was born, just over 10 years ago.
I was the first one to hold her after the doctor pulled her from my wife’s womb. Tears streamed down my face as I gazed into this little person’s squinting eyes and saw her future in the reflection of tears. At that moment, I dreamt in my mind’s eye of all of the special milestones she would celebrate. Her first steps, first words, starting school, taking the training wheels off of her bicycle, skinned knees; her bat mitzvah, prom dates, college visits, walking down the aisle, and many more special times. I imagine many people with kids have had similar experiences.
However, when she was in my arms, just a few minutes into her life, and even as recently as last week, I never anticipated another rite of passage – when my daughter was old enough to visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the fallen of the Holocaust.
Our daughter is a precocious kid who is very dialed into her emotions. She might be 10 Â½, but emotionally she seems to me to be older and more sophisticated than I am much of the time. My wife and I discussed this trip at length. We agreed that the choice of going to Yad Vashem would be hers. Just because she could go did not mean she had to. We put no pressure on her verdict. Our daughter chose to go.
As she strolled through the halls of the museum, captivated with the photos, videos, testimonies, and history, I saw the girl who is usually talkative and full of energy now fidgeting with her lip and noticeably pensive. She, like most adults, had many more questions than answers. She was trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
When the tour ended with a personal story from the museum docent about his parents, adults wiped tears from their cheeks. My daughter was stoic. She showed no emotion. Was this one of those rare moments where she was a pure 10 year old and not the mature, high-level person I was used to, I wondered.
Now my curiosity got the best of me. Did we make a mistake by allowing her to visit the museum? Was she not ready? Did she not get it? Was she more focused on iPads and music? All of that would be fine too, but I was second-guessing our decision to take the training wheels off and allow her to begin this important ride down history’s road to our past.
I delicately tried to pry some thoughts and emotions out of this usually talkative prepubescent girl. She was buttoned up – a strange phenomenon for any 10-year-old girl, especially mine. I made no progress. Finally, out of sheer frustration, I pulled the headphones from her ears and blurted out over Taylor Swift as she played in the background, “Honey, did you understand anything that you saw at Yad Vashem yesterday? Do you have any questions? You haven’t said a word about it!”
“Dad, the Holocaust was horrible and really sad but, when we were here in Israel this summer lots of people died during the war and the sirens and hiding in shelters was really sad and scary too,” she replied. “And going to Har Herzl, the military cemetery where so many soldiers died for Israel, is really sad too. And dad, you are always talking on the phone about Iran not getting a bomb and I know it is because they could hurt Israel with that bomb. So what is different between Iran and Hamas and the Nazis? Don’t they all want to hurt Jews and Israel? The Holocaust was bad and sad, but so are all of these other things.”
She put her headphones back on her head and picked up with Taylor Swift.
I, on the other hand, felt like I had the wind sucked from my gut. She summed up a reality that we all know but perhaps often are afraid to admit.
The magnitude of the Holocaust is unparalleled. The scope of the atrocities and systemized killing of communities and Jewish families is beyond comprehension. Yet for this little girl, the Holocaust is as removed from her history as the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. She doesn’t know Holocaust survivors. They are not her teachers. They don’t sit near her in shul. They are historical figures. They are in no way real-life, modern people in her neighborhood.
When I was 10, I scanned every old person’s forearm for tattooed blue numbers. My daughter looks for a dangling Hamsa and red-stringed bracelets. She did not grow up in the wake of the survivors’ generation, as I and most of this column’s readers did. 1945, while yesterday for some, is a long time ago to her and her peers.
So what she is really saying was ‘Why is the challenge of that generation so much harder than the challenge of this generation?’ Other than the magnitude and scope of the Holocaust, I had little retort. For this innocent and mature young girl, this is where her confusion was most acute. She survived sirens and lived with fear and knew of funerals for soldiers and civilians. Why isn’t there a museum to that pain and torture and death?
What my 10 year old taught me through her visit to Yad Vashem is what we know but are afraid to say: Jews always have been the victims of anger and hate, targeted for our mere existence. Whether by Zyklon B in a gas chamber or by suicide bomber on a public bus or by a terrorist sniper inside a tank in Gaza, the pain for each family member is immeasurable. The tears taste the same. We have been persecuted with different weapons throughout history. When will there be a memorial to recognize the end of that persecution against the Jews instead of the latest iteration of it?
Sadly, I have no answer for her.
Yad Vashem is a sacred place dedicated to the memory, resistance, and survival of Eastern European Jewry during World War II. It is important to place wreaths in its halls and to make pilgrimages there when we are in Israel. It is a critical piece of the modern Jewish narrative and an important building block of the Jewish state.
Through this unanticipated rite of passage for my daughter I gathered new fear and sadness in Yad Vashem. Not the systematic killing of 6 million Jews, but for the fear that this memorial will lose its potency and relevance as Jews feel the loss and pain of today in place of remembering the suffering of yesterday.