We carry them with us, those who loved us and whom we have loved. We don’t know what unexpected sound, smell, touch will suddenly bring their memory to consciousness. In such matters the passage of time is irrelevant. A month, twenty years: the dead speak in our hearts as if eternity were a single everlasting yesterday:
And pricking himself on a needle
Still stuck in a piece of sewing,
Suddenly he sees her
And cries quietly. (Boris Pasternak: The Zhivago Poems)
Yesterday was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day according to the Jewish date. My yellow candle has now burnt out. I lit it, as did tens of thousands of others, for a child, family unknown. Aleksandr Derevicher was 5 when he was murdered at Mariupol in 1941. I shall put the little card with his name in one of my prayer books; there I shall find it again, amidst the songs and prayers.
Zochrenu lechayyim, remember us for life: it’s the simplest, most poignant phrase from the High Holyday liturgy. We take those who loved us with us into the life they gave us, the life they enriched for us with their faith and wisdom, and no doubt also complicated with their foibles, their meshugaas. We also carry with us those they loved, and who loved them, and even the communities who nurtured them. Somehow, little Aleksandr Derevicher walks with us too, his own life, his childhood eagerness, so utterly and cruelly destroyed.
On the day before Pesach I was putting jars of the charoset my son had just made into parcels of food and wine for the Seder night to send as small ‘thinking-of-you’ tokens to families where there was illness or grief, when I recalled the letter my great-aunt Sophie sent to her brother in New York from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on April 8, 1941:
We finished our preparations for Easter. The house is in order. Dear Mama did a lot of work on the Easter gifts; we sent eight parcels…
Presumably she wrote ‘Easter’ instead of ‘Passover’ to bypass the censor.
Tomorrow I shall take down one of the sealed jars of fruit which I bottled in memory of Sophie because that’s what she used to do with her garden produce, and because my father taught me how to do it too. Nicky and I will serve it to our guests for Shabbat lunch.
I never knew Sophie. Yet she’s in my life, her memory for a blessing.
In his powerful book Who Will Write Our History, Samuel Kassow records the words of David Graber, a member of the Oyneg Shabbes group who hid documents, diaries, testaments in milk cans beneath houses in the Warsaw Ghetto:
What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world we buried in the ground…We would be the fathers, the teachers and educators of the future. But no, we shall certainly not live to see it…May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened…
The truth, the facts, must be known; every piece of testament is significant. Deceit and denial will only arm other hatreds. They already do.
But there is also something else, something no less important: zochrenu lechayyim, remembering for life, in the small, ordinary things we do, the foods we cook, the melodies we sing, the long and ancient tradition of compassion and community, mitzvot and learning, which is in reality a mosaic of the loves, fears and values of millions of lives, some lived into venerable age, some cut short by terrors.
To be faithful to those who perished, we must try to turn memory not only into warning, but also into wisdom.