Forceful voices for remembering the Shoah

Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin will speak at Sunday’s Maryland Community Yom Hashoah  Commemoration, where the final poem of the late Herman Taube will be read. Photo by Lloyd Wolf
Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin will speak at Sunday’s Maryland Community Yom Hashoah Commemoration, where the final poem of the late Herman Taube will be read. Photo by Lloyd Wolf

It was once explained to me that throughout the annals of the world’s genocides and mass destructions, one unique aspect of the Shoah was that the victims — the Jews — were the most literate in history.

From the time of the Holocaust until today, Jews have struggled to find meaning in what they experienced. They explained and described almost every detail, depicting, or even reconstructing, a world that to us is only vaguely familiar. They’ve written stories, memoirs and plays. They’ve painted, and they’ve composed music.

It follows then, that when the Jewish community felt the need to annually commemorate the events of the Holocaust and to memorialize the Jews who perished, it was to the survivors themselves who we looked up to for structure and meaning. Of course, there were elements in the ceremony that were comfortably within our tradition, such as El Maleh Rachamin and the Kaddish for Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), interspersed with the recitation of the places of our destruction.

Survivors and their descendants made pledges to reconfirm the legacy of the Holocaust, along with a memorial candle lighting. There were poetry and songs of remembrance. Dor L’Dor, a program putting together young people with survivors was established. Later, “Unto Every Person there is a Name,” a joint project of Yad Yashem and B’nai B’rith, was introduced. Here, the names of those who died in the Shoah were read aloud. Those in the community was encouraged to read names of their own family.

Among the most forceful voices for maintaining a proper solemnity when remembering the victims in the Greater Washington community was Nesse Godin. Whenever an idea was proposed or song suggested for the program that seemed a bit off-point, Nesse spoke up, reminding us that we must first think of those who perished and also to keep the survivors in the forefront. Although, she did not persuade every time, she did so much more often than not.

And why not? Nesse Godin is a rare survivor. As a teenager she endured so much tragedy, yet emerged from the depths to create a successful life. Then for decades, she has recounted her experiences in front of audiences, on television and at the Holocaust Museum, adding real significance to the admonition to never forget.

When planning for this year’s Maryland Community Yom Hashoah v’Hagvurah Commemoration began, there was a feeling that, instead of the usual keynote address from an academic or politician, we should again consider a Holocaust survivor. As soon as Nesse’s name was mentioned, all discussion ended while our eyes turned to her to see if she would accept. She did.

Nesse deserves every bit of the recognition and credit she receives. But she would, I think, be the first to reject the nature of such tributes. Instead it is our great honor to gather as a community on Sunday and together hear one of our own. It is a clear and unbreakable link between the horrible events that we recall and our own time.

Another powerful force helping us bridge the years from the Shoah until today was Herman Taube. For decades, each year Herman would compose an original poem in Yiddish, his native tongue, for Yom Hashoah. His empathy for the experiences of the survivors and his passionate and profound grieving for the death and destruction that they left behind caused him to write poetry of invocative imagery and often terrifying beauty. He insisted that we remember each individual as well as the Jewish world in which they lived, whether large city or tiny shtetl.

To listen to Herman recite his Yiddish poetry on Yom Hashoah was almost as if we were sitting along the edge of the Euphrates, in Babylon, listening to the Psalmist cry out in lament.

Herman died in March. He was 96. This year, we will not be able to hear him deliver a poem in his gravelytoned Yiddish. However, Taube, as you might expect of a writer of his stature and talent, had already anticipated this year’s assignment and his final poem, “A Plea from a Chestnut Tree” will be able to be read by one of his sons in his absence.

Perhaps in a Yom Hashoah to come we will begin to revisit his earlier writings. Frankly, at present, decisions about the future commemorations are of no real concern to us.

For now we must heed the voices of those who have “open, unhealed still painful wounds” as Herman Taube once described. We must pay close attention to the survivors who were there and their families who know them best. Doesn’t that seem especially important this year when we in the community come together to recall the heroes and the martyrs of the Shoah?

Jeremy Kay is the executive director of the Library of the Holocaust Foundation and a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Holocaust Commission. The Jewish Community Relations Council’s annual Maryland Community Yom HaShoah v’Hagvurah Commemoration will take place on Sunday at 3 p.m. at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville. Visit for more details.

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