“The lifetime of Sarah came to be one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah” (Genesis 23:1).
I offer what follows in tribute to the life of Sarah our matriarch, Sarah my grandmother on her 98th birthday, and the occasion of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
They were nights of broken lives and broken dreams, days of broken hearts and broken families. Six years worth of brokenness. Sarah learned to cheat death and to gamble with life, to speak in half-truths to her loved ones and to lie to herself every morning just to get through the day.
The year 1941 was the worst of them all, as she now recalls. With her one-year-old daughter Hannah in her arms, she would leave Siberia and her husband behind with the intention of starting a new life back in Berdichev, where her mother and father (and his 12 siblings and their families) remained. Her husband Izzy would leave his work in Siberia once she was settled with the family. Sarah sensed, however, that Jewish life in Berdichev was coming to an end. She cried to her father endlessly, pleading with him to return to Siberia with her. She ultimately prevailed, but just in the nick of time. She can still recall looking back from afar at the city engulfed in Nazi flames, the agonizing screams of her dying aunts, uncles and cousins being drowned out by the exploding bombs.
The lives of Sarah are 20 years and 6 years and 72 years, 98 years in all.
For twenty years before those six terrible years (1939-1945) of trading tomorrow’s ration slips for today’s bread, Sarah was a mischievous, happy girl. A talented seamstress, she was the choice of the wealthy shop- and factory-owners to make lingerie for their wives (bras, to be exact!). It was a talent that would ultimately keep her growing family fed. She found love; she had dreams.
For the past 72 years, Sarah has known love, and she has known loss. She has derived pride from the four generations that she has birthed, but her arthritic fingers are evidence that she’s worked hard for every morsel of satisfaction she enjoys. Her compromised sight and hearing may frustrate communication, but her mind still knows humor, sarcasm and wit; her heart still knows love, joy, disappointment and worry. And she can still dish out the guilt with the best of them.
Today, she feels her way around her daughter’s kitchen, finding a yogurt and two pieces of bread just where she left them. She carefully washes her plate and the serrated knife in the sink. I️ hold my breath, debating whether I️ should jump in or give her the control she desires.
Let her be, I️ decide. After 98 years, she’s earned the right to control her own destiny, if only until my mother emerges from the bedroom.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The 2013 Pew Research Center’s recent survey of the American Jewish community reported that, among those people who identify themselves as Jewish, a whopping 73 percent say that remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. That element of Jewish identity received the highest response rate, outpacing other suggested elements such as leading an ethical life (69 percent), caring about Israel (43 percent) and being part of a Jewish community (28 percent). Why does this element of Jewish identity receive such prominence? Is it the guilt that would accompany not remembering, the notion that we might afford Hitler (may his name be blotted out) a posthumous victory if we forget? Is it the particularistic notion that we must remain vigilant against our enemies who are constantly seeking to eliminate us? Is it the universal lesson that makes us better human beings because we will not idly stand by the persecution of any group?
This past Sunday night we commemorated Kristalnacht, the 76th anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass, the event that many say was the official starting point of the Holocaust. German Jewish shops were destroyed, men were beaten, detained and killed, synagogues burned. And rescue workers stood by to make sure that the fires didn’t spread to the neighboring non-Jewish homes and businesses.
The Rockland community observed the commemoration ceremony this year at the OJC. Over 200 people gathered to see the presentation of colors by the Jewish War Veterans, to hear the words of County Legislator Harriett Cornell and the personal testimony of survivor Paul Galan, and to stand in solemn solidarity with the 30 teens holding candles as the words of El Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish memorial prayer, filled the sanctuary.
As I think about the surprising Pew survey statistics, I can understand the relatively high importance we place on remembering the Holocaust in light of what I witnessed Sunday night. I felt our children’s hearts swell with pride as they watched our Jewish veterans salute the American flag, pledge allegiance and sing Hatikvah.
I felt our children’s souls ignited by the memorial candles they held. I felt our children’s minds understand at a level beyond words what it means to remember. Our children recognized that Jewish remembering is not passive. Our remembering is an obligation we fulfill that shapes our Judaism, our identity as Americans, and our humanity. For our children, the lessons of the Holocaust also inform their obligation to defend the values for which they stand, and shape their responses to social issues they confront on a regular basis, like bullying and intolerance. The Holocaust is six million individual Jewish stories of vulnerability, fear, insecurity, cruelty, powerlessness, hope, courage, faith, redemption and love. It is the story of our people as much as the exodus from Egypt, and it is a part of our narrative that must be told.
How will you remember? Participate in our Kaddish project. Match yourself with an individual who died in the Holocaust with no one left to observe their yahrzeit. Learn their story. Say Kaddish for them. Contact Larry Suchoff, our Holocaust Remembrance Committee chairperson, or just walk into the OJC office, to adopt a story. Perhaps remembering the Holocaust will become an essential part of what being Jewish means to you.
Rabbi Craig Scheff