We are haunted much in the way a cemetery is haunted. We bear within us the shadows and echoes of an anguished dying we never experienced or witnessed.
One of my ghosts is a little boy named Benjamin who arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp with his parents 67 years ago, on the night of Aug. 3-4, 1943. In her posthumously published memoirs, my mother, Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft, recalled her final moments with her son, my brother:
“We were guarded by SS men and women. One SS man was standing in front of the people and he started the selection. With a single movement of his finger, he was sending some people to the right and some to the left. ... Men were separated from women. People with children were sent to one side, and young people were separated from older looking ones. No one was allowed to go from one group to the other. Our 5 1/2-year-old son went with his father. Something that will haunt me to the end of my days occurred during those first moments. As we were separated, our son turned to me and asked, ‘Mommy, are we going to live or die?’ I didn’t answer this question.”
Benjamin is one of more than 1 million Jewish children who were murdered in the Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of over 6 million European Jews during World War II. Since my mother’s death in 1997, he has existed inside of me. I see his face in my mind, try to imagine his voice, his fear as the gas chamber doors slammed shut, his final tears. If I were to forget him, he would disappear.
There are other compelling reasons why the Holocaust must remain at the forefront of our collective consciousness. Tens of thousands of its elderly survivors live a precarious existence. Close to 25 percent of Holocaust survivors in the United States, and an even greater percentage of the survivors in Israel live at or below the poverty level. Often forced to decide whether to use their meager resources to buy food or medicine, whether to heat their homes or get their glasses fixed, they urgently need far more assistance than the meager monthly payments many but by no means all of them have been accorded under the German reparations law.
At the same time, our society is becoming increasingly insensitive to the enormity of Nazi Germany’s crimes. Earlier this summer, Sarah Palin urged her supporters via Twitter to read an article by conservative columnist Thomas Sowell that compares the Obama administration’s creation of the BP escrow fund to Adolf Hitler’s assumption of dictatorial powers.
Radio talk show host Glenn Beck recently promoted a book by an American Third Reich apologist of the 1930’s and 1940’s in which the author wrote that “the problem of the large number of revolutionary Russian Jews in Germany doubtless contributed to making Fascist Germany anti-Semitic.” Earlier, Mr. Beck likened my brother’s murderers, most of whom were never brought to justice, to idealistic volunteers when he disparaged President Obama’s plan to expand the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps as “what Hitler did with the SS.”
On the other side of the ideological divide, Democratic Congressman Jared Polis of Colorado said of the controversial new Arizona immigration legislation that it was “reminiscent of second-class status of Jews in Germany prior to World War II, when they had to have their papers with them at all times and were subject to routine inspections.” Whatever else one might think of the Arizona law, it is not intended to put illegal immigrants in ghettos or to ultimately send them to their death.
All such trivializations of the Holocaust are offensive. Its victims were not faceless abstractions to be used as two-dimensional rhetorical props. Their cruelly shortened lives and final moments deserve at least a modicum of humility and respect.
That is why future remembrance requires the perpetuation of the survivors’ memories. My twin grandchildren are 20 months old. Some day, I will tell them about Benjamin so that he may become a lasting presence in their lives. And my wife, Jeanie, will tell them about her grandfather, Joshua Bloch, who was shot by the Germans on Aug. 2, 1941, together with other leaders of the Jewish community in the Lithuanian town of Ivie.
Others will do likewise for grandparents, great-grandparents, siblings, uncles and aunts who were gassed, or starved in a ghetto, or succumbed to typhus in a concentration camp, or were betrayed by their Christian neighbors.
We who are haunted by the past must now pass on our legacy of ghosts.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft, an adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, visiting lecturer at the Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, can be reached at email@example.com.)