Sunday, 27 April 2014

Yom Hashoah - Surviving

Yom hashoah. A day to remember the 6 million individuals who were killed for no reason other than that they were Jews. Over the years i've learned such a lot about the holocaust, tried so hard to come to terms with what happened, tried to find different ways to internalise, analyse, realise what happened to us. One year in school, a teacher said that we should draw a million candles, just to get an idea of how many six million is, because we just bandy the number around until it loses all relevance in our minds. So i actually started drawing little dots in the margin of my paper as he was talking, intending to get to six million. I thought,like a teenager, well, i'm only doing dots, not an actual drawing, so it won't actually take me that long.

I carried on in every lesson, dotting on this one piece of paper instead of doodling in some other way (as kids in school do). I got to about 100,000 in about a week, i think, before i ran out of interest and abandoned the project. it had made it's point, as far as i was concerned - if it took me that long just to get to 100,000 dots, then i begin to understand that six million is a really, really, really large number.

I just read this haunting and expressive post by Aryeh Myers on his blog InsomniacMedic (it's ok, go read it, i'll still be here when you come back. it's worth it). It got me thinking about survivors.

When we talk about 6 million lost, i think we should also remember those who survived. The survivors, like Rosa, who will always define themselves in relation to the terror and horror which they survived.  The ones who are still surviving, the ones who died in the last few years - few decades - with families and jobs and, well, lives behind them. Although they survived, part of them died, too. And perhaps, part of each and every one of us died also.

And because perhaps i can;t help casting about for wider patterns and ways of thinking, i think back to other traumas we have survived. We are all survivors. we, as a nation, have been through so much trauma. i remember that a teacher (i think it was in Midreshet Lindenbaum and it may have been R' Menachem Leibtag, but may not have been. i wish i could say it in the name of the original expounder) pointed out that at different stages in our history, the Jews who did not make a particular decision became irrelevant to the nation. Thus all of us now identifying as Jews today are the remnant who survived the tortures of Egypt and made it out; who entered the Land of Israel; who lived on the West Bank of the Jordan; who lived in Binyamin and Yehuda and not the other 10 tribes; who went to Babylon with the first wave of exile or are from the few who survived the massacre and forced marches of the second wave of babylonian exile, and did not stay in the Land to flee to Egypt and be lost; who chose to return to Israel with Ezra or Nechemia and did not stay in Persia or others of her 127 provinces; who survived the greek and roman massacres; who did not fall to the lure of Hellenism or nascent Christianity or any of the number of other possibilities that have been offered to us over the centuries; who survived pogroms and martyrdoms and crusades...and now this holocaust. We really have been whittled down so much over the generations.

The concept of post-traumatic stress disorder is only about a hundred years old, and it's a similar amount of time since Freud began the psycho-analytic approach and showed how much we are impacted by the experiences we go through, even when we do not realise it. I don't know about the whole concept of previous lives, but i think that we, as individuals who are part of this nation, carry with us a large and largely unnoticed psychological baggage from the lives that preceded our own. My mother says that the reason why no Jewish mother can go off on a trip without making sure that she has plenty of food is a sub-conscious response to the trauma that we all suffered when we left Egypt in such a hurry that we had nothing to eat but the dough that baked on our backs. Even now, however many centuries and generations later, we practise behaviour that was shaped by a trauma inflicted on our great-to-the-power-of-fifty-grandparents.

I think about how the Torah repeats so many times 'because you were slaves in Egypt'. The unconscious psychological baggage may be more intentional than it at first seems. There are behaviours and emotional responses that are expected of us because we suffered. Because we know what it's like to be beaten, to not be trusted, to be hunted and tortured and treated as expendable, and so we have to survive. Not to recover from it. When we say the slogan of 'we will forgive but not forget', is this why? Because we are survivors, and that shapes us differently. We were once slaves in Egypt - and Babylon - and Persia - and Greece - and Rome - and Spain - and Poland - and Germany - and Hungary. The trauma of those times cannot be wiped away. No amount of time, no amount of reparations, no amount of revenge can ever remove the scars of those experiences. It would be unfair, unreasonable, possibly insulting to expect us to grieve, accept, move on. Instead we have a framework that holds onto the trauma, the scars and the pain. We don't celebrate it, but we acknowledge it, and we acknowledge that it will never go away and SHOULD never go away. Every year we bring it out again, we revisit it and retell it and make sure that we never forget it, that even in 1000 years if we Moshiach has not come we will be reopening those wounds and crying again.

I think that tisha b'av, and yom hashoah, is not there for the dead. It's to make sure that we, too ,view ourselves as though we came out of Egypt - not for the salvation, but for the pain. Is yom hashoah there for the sake of the dead, that we remember them, or is it for us, that we remember them?

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