Teaching Our Children the Pain of Memory
By Dr. Elana Yael Heideman
It is quite often that I am asked to guide families at Yad Vashem. It is, as always, a powerful experience and each encounter leaves a powerful impact - on me, and hopefully on those I am teaching.
Among one group were two 10-year-old children - a boy and a girl - who had both already begun to hear stories about the Holocaust. Beautiful, curious minds trying to understand why people would do this to Jews, to anybody. Staring at shoes and speechless, trying to make sense of some small part of the immense chaos.
Teaching 10 year old children - the next generation - of such graphic horrors feels almost impossible. How can I explain how a system was created to destroy us with the complete social acceptance of an entire society, and - through their silence - all of the world?
To help them understand the small, tiny steps they took to break us down, to destroy us. To simplify into a child's language the deception and lies, power and hate that drove human beings to commit such heinous crimes.
I can only hope and pray that I made a positive impact on them. That I didn't cause them...pain.
Elie Wiesel, my mentor, told me years ago about his first time teaching about the Holocaust to a group of university students. As the hour came to an end of the very first class, the students just sat there. Unmovable. Grounded in their seats by the sheer weight of the truth and memory that they were only beginning to inherit. And he realized he had caused them pain.
And still, he taught. In my many years of study with him, Professor Wiesel encouraged me to ponder this question of how I might cope with causing pain to someone else in the pursuit of perpetuating memory. Teaching about the Holocaust is going to cause pain and will be painful for us, the memory keepers, the links in the chain. For it is impossible not to stare in the face of such horror and not have one’s heart ache.
As educators, our added challenge is that we must keep the ache buried within while we transmit experiences, try to break down time and foster empathy in all who will listen.
We bring the stories alive, to emphasize not only the frightful circumstances but the impact that it had on the victims - on each boy, girl, mommy, daddy, brother, sister, grandparent...and of course, what that means for us today, why should something from which we are so disconnected should matter to us.
And then we, I, come home. To my children. And the emotions overcome me as I allow myself to feel the pain I hidden within, giving release to the tears, and finding my breath again.
I pray for the strength to continue teaching so that my children will always know not only of the Holocaust but of the tragedies before and since that have befallen our Jewish people. How the endless efforts to destroy our nation have failed to eliminate us from the earth. How our pride, our faith, and our resolve has kept us alive to carry on the memory of those lost along the way. And how lucky we are to have a Jewish state of Israel where we can live free.
Holocaust memory should not be relegated to one or two days of the year. Commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27 or the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on Yom HaShoah must be coupled with an ongoing pursuit of knowing more. Otherwise, the lies will again win. But it is these days on our calendar that are our reminder of our obligation, our connection.
Each year on these days, we bear the pain for the sake of a memory we dare not forget. And with the tides of hate rising around us, we must be willing to bear the burden as well. For if we have any hope for the future, it is that every generation knows of the Holocaust, and that every individual can find a way to make it personal.
The children yesterday had never seen a number on a survivor’s arm. One mom shared her experience that her favorite teacher in 4th grade had a number. She personalized it for them. She, we, all of us - WE are the conduits of memory, the only ones who can ensure that the suffering and murder have a lesson for future generations.
Every one of us who has studied, traveled, listened, and inherited the legacy of Jewish life. Every one of us who has been a witness to the witness.
Now is the time to take that pledge.
Whether as as teacher, a parent, or a fellow human being, we all have a voice in shaping the future. We all can make an impact by drawing lessons from one of humanity’s darkest chapters and seek out the answers of how to contend with the current rise to power of extremism that threatens mankind.
Unbeknownst to me, one of the moms captured some incredible moments that I will cherish forever. They represent for me the importance of my work - both in teaching the Holocaust and in helping to shape Jewish identity.
What is the experience that shaped your connection to the memory and understanding of the Holocaust?
What image comes to mind when you think "This shall never be forgotten"?
Seek it out and share it with others, so that they, too, can learn and remember.
Dr. Elana Yael Heideman, Executive Director and visionary of The Israel Forever Foundation, completed her PhD in Holocaust Studies, Phenomenology and Memory at Boston University. A Holocaust educator for over 24 years, she continues to educate and inspire the next generation to examine the intricacies of the Holocaust experience, the transformation of the human condition, and the future and purpose of Holocaust memory. She is available for private tours and lectures all over the world.
To book a presentation or to learn more about her work, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org