Memories that haunt and heal


By Jeremy Kay

For many of us, memory is a cherished companion.  We remember sayings from our elders, childhood explorations, loves gained and lost, and a host of other life events.  Even after the death of a loved one, the pain of loss is eventually replaced by the remembrances of a valued life. For survivors of the Shoah, however, memory can be an unbearable burden. Childhoods destroyed, families viciously ripped apart, and the toil of slave labor are but a few examples of experiences of the Holocaust that led to the worst of reminiscences.

Even the absence of memory can be painful in a way that few of us can fully comprehend. Henri Parens, a survivor and psychiatrist, writes: “Mournfully, I do not mean that I wish I had lived it out–I doubt I would have been any more gratified and grateful than I am today—there is still somewhere in me, this experience of feeling violated, injured, robbed, and insulted to extreme. Maybe it’s that I did not decide which life I would live; that I had to live the one I have lived, I could not live the one given me at birth.”

Dr. Parens was born in Poland, as a young child moved to Belgium and then, with his mother, retreated to France. In 1942, only 12, he was able to board a transport carrying 49 refugee children to America. On August 14th that same year, his mother Rosa, along with nearly 2,000 other Jews were sent from Drancy, a deportation camp only six miles north of Paris, directly to Auschwitz.

For much of his adult life, he has applied his childhood experiences to treating aggression in children as a world-renowned psychoanalyst, as well as fighting against intolerance and promoting peaceful solutions to conflicts around the world. Yet Parens cannot truly share his memory. Nor can any other Holocaust Survivor. We can learn and appreciate the stories of their varied experiences, even develop well-tuned empathy, but we cannot feel their pain.

Still, what happened to the survivors made them who they became. They seem wiser as a group, more comfortable with living life as it comes. It only makes sense, I suppose, given what they have lived through. And it is to our great benefit that they took root in our communities.  Victimized by an implacable hate, they ultimately were not victims. They didn’t just survive, they by and large thrived. We, the subsequent generations, whether direct descendants or as part of the larger Jewish community, cannot thank them enough for the legacy they have left us.

Each year as we commemorate Holocaust remembrance, Yom Hashoah, it is easy to notice that there are fewer and fewer survivors among us, here in our own community as well as around the world. However, there are still a number in our midst. I like to think of them as great men and women all. They should be treasured like precious jewels.

It is important to not let the lessons we have gained from the survivors and their extraordinary lives fade from our view.  We need their perspective now more than ever as we are once more faced with increased challenges around the world. The dwindling numbers of those who lived through the Shoah makes our recognition and acknowledgment each year of what they experienced even more necessary.

Jeremy Kay is the executive director of the Library of the Holocaust Foundation and a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s Maryland Holocaust Remembrance Commission. The JCRC’s Community-Wide Commemorations of Yom Ha’Shoah will be held on May 5th in Rockville and Fairfax.

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