Today is Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and I have the distinct honor of observing it in Jerusalem.
From 1933 to 1945, the Nazi regime murdered 12 million people; six million of the victims were Jews. The other victims included Roma, Sinti, political prisoners, disabled individuals, and those who identified as gay and lesbian. They were all murdered simply because of their identity. The loss of life and potential is incomprehensible.
As a Black Jewish American man, I have always struggled to connect to the Holocaust. I felt no connection to the Shoah. I had no grandparents or great-grandparents or other relatives perish in the camps. My connection to the Shoah was through books, films, and museums - all through an educational lens.
I knew very few survivors in my community. Many of my friends growing up had relatives who were survivors and each year for Yom HaShoah, many of them would recite the names of family members that were murdered to honor their memories.
Today I remember Rose - Rayzel.
I never met Rose, but I attended her funeral. The day prior to her burial, I received an email asking for people to help make a funeral minyan for a Holocaust survivor. I volunteered for this mitzvah. One of the greatest acts of kindness that you can perform for someone is accompanying them to their final resting place.
At the gravesite, the rabbi officiating told us about Rose’s life: how Rose remembered the loving home she grew up in Poland and how her life was irrevocably changed during and after the war. The rabbi spoke of her life after the war and how despite everything that happened to her, she still found moments to smile. Her friends told stories of how she liked to cook. Cooking always brought her such joy because it reminded her of cooking in the Shtetl with her mother. Though she had lost so much, Rose never lost her joy of cooking.
Though I never met Rose while she was alive, I know she deserves to be remembered -all the victims of the Shoah need to be remembered. Their lost potential deserves to be honored; their memories, their experiences, are remembered and mourned, today.
Something changed for me the day we buried Rose. The Shoah was no longer a distant tragic Jewish experience. Hearing Rose’s story, experiencing a small piece of her world, and seeing how her life was transformed... I was changed. The Shoah became real. I saw myself in her shoes. I experienced the love she shared with her mother and cooking with the love I have for cooking with my parents. After hearing Rose’s story, the Shoah was transformed from solely being a part of the Jewish narrative to being a part of the human consciousness.
Today, throughout Israel, a siren blared for several minutes and the country paused for a few minutes. Cars, trucks, and buses came to a full stop on the road, people came out of shops - all to memorialize the victims of the Shoah. The siren wasn’t sounding only for Rose, but for all the victims. It sounded to remind all of Israel and the world that the Shoah is a painful reminder of what can happen when we let hate, racism, xenophobia run amuck.
Today, I remember Rose.