Holocaust Day, my children, & my mind’s eye.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Auschwitz_Train.jpgOccasionally, on Holocaust Day or some other, random day, I will look at my children, and see them on a train.

See them starved. See their clothes in shreds. See them with blank eyes and sores on their faces, their hair matted, all joy, all light, gone.

My mind doesn’t allow me to go far down these paths (a fact for which I am eternally grateful), but it peeks down the path, toward the incomprehensible at the other end, and then I recoil in pain and tears.

If for no other reason that I know that I am not, really, seeing anything.

My mind providing me, unbidden, with an image it imagines to be something like Jewish children at the time of the Holocaust is simply me overlaying a hundred thousand photographs on top of my beautiful children’s faces. It’s nothing like actually seeing it. It’s not being a mother, probably even hungrier than the child, for having eschewed as much food as she could for as long as she could, in favor of her babies, her clothes also rags, an understanding (that the child can’t match) of the enormity of the darkness that surrounds them, has invaded their homes and their families and their very skin, looking at her 11 year old boy and seven year old daughter and knowing — knowing — that they will die.

Knowing that they will die horrific, meaningless deaths, deaths that she cannot in any way stop. The moment of wondering: Would it be better to find some way to kill them myself, to save them what awaits?

But who knew what awaited? And yet surely, many mothers and fathers found themselves hoping to find the inner strength to kill their own children, before the evil could overcome them.

I chose this faith, I chose this people. If I had been in Europe during those nightmare years, I may have been given a choice to walk away.

But my husband — whose four grandparents saw the writing on the wall in 1933 and left Germany to its devils, thus allowing the best man I’ve ever known to come into my life one night in December 1991, as we danced to loud music and laughed with friends, a week after I’d become a Jew — my husband would not have been given that choice.

My children would not have been given that choice.

I want to believe that I would not have left them, for any reason, but I know that the particular barbarism of the Nazis created circumstances in which people did things that were unimaginable, unspeakable, things for which they could never forgive themselves. I cling to the idea that I would have managed, at least, to stand with my chosen people, with my babies, and die with them.

Last night, we lit a yahrzeit candle together and made kaddish.

Today it burns on my stove, surrounded by drying pots and pans, in a kitchen with a freezer too full with shopping, at one end of a house that has never been cold. I scrub at the little bit of dried egg stuck on my burner, wash the dishes as a surprise for my husband, and when my son calls to say that he’s forgotten his folder, I get in the car and bring it to school, a note tucked inside to tell him I love him.

Because I can do these things, I do them, with gratitude and with a sort of stunned awe that I get to do them at all.

If my babies had been there, they would have died.

Yes, honey. I’ll bring you your folder.


I first ran this piece last year, but I have a hard time revisiting these ideas, though they are often in my heart, so I decided to re-up the post. Last night, just after we lit our candle, my now-8 year old daughter proceeded to stomp around the house, being a dragon. It’s a good thing to be a little Jewish girl being a dragon on Holocaust Day.



  1. In one of the online communities I frequent, when we want to leave a comment on a post to show that we’ve been there & have been moved, but don’t know what to say, we leave a “small stone” — like the pebbles Jews leave on headstones, to show that we’ve been there. It looks like this:


    • Thank you – that’s lovely.

    • efgoldman

       /  April 19, 2012

      Such a simple thing, and so eloquent. Looking down this thread, it has already become a meme. Thank you.

  2. Ash Can

     /  April 19, 2012

    Great piece, as always, Emily. I can’t, and don’t want to, imagine being in that or a similar situation, but it’s important that I make an attempt once in a while. It helps maintain a fuller perspective.

  3. Darth Thulhu

     /  April 19, 2012

    On the big front: Still a very powerful piece. Thank you.

    On the small front: Sweet to see that the boy has inherited the “leave that Thing I need behind” quirk.

  4. chingona

     /  April 19, 2012


  5. corkingiron

     /  April 19, 2012


  6. From a fellow Jew-by-choice: I do this too. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to stand or if I would have walked away. I pray we never have to make that kind of choice.


  7. caoil

     /  April 19, 2012

    Many hours later, and I’m still giggling at the thought of your dragon daughter.
    Thank you for reposting this, although I won’t deny it made me teary-eyed.

  8. nm

     /  April 19, 2012


  9. Bookwoman

     /  April 19, 2012


  10. Makovnik

     /  April 19, 2012


  11. Bob Toy

     /  April 19, 2012

    Duly shared on my Fb page…

    Never, ever again.
    We’re *still* here, you bastards.

  12. LizR

     /  April 19, 2012


  13. efgoldman

     /  April 19, 2012

    (o) If I had been in Europe during those nightmare years, I would have likely been given a choice to walk away.
    I’m not sure, actually, that you would have had the choice, had they come for you.
    That’s not a comforting thought, but nothing about tha history should be comforting.
    I’ve saved a pice about Eric Cantor to post snarkastically in the OTAN/student lounge, but I’m having second thoughts now.

    • You know, I wonder about that. I may have been given the opportunity in the most sadistic of senses, but likely killed anyway. You could well be right. It’s kind of a hard thing to think about logically. I’ve heard tales that went both ways. I think I’ll edit the piece to read “I may have been given…”

      Someone recently asked me if I should say that “we Jews” have suffered this, that and the other, and I answered that I would have been killed right along everyone else — “in for a penny, in for a pogrom.”

  14. JHarper2

     /  April 19, 2012

    When I think too much and remember too much this world breaks my heart.
    We need to remember and to light candles against the darkness.
    We must love one another, forgive one another, strengthen one another.
    But still my heart breaks.

  15. Eliezer

     /  April 19, 2012

    (o) (o) (o)

  16. socioprof

     /  April 19, 2012


  17. wearyvoter

     /  April 19, 2012

    This ran on our local NPR station today. I had never heard of the Kindertransport before, but here’s a link to the story: http://will.illinois.edu/news/story/kindertransport120419/

  18. Thank God your husband’s ancestors understood the evil they were facing. Those who’ve not studied much about Jesus of Nazareth, probably do not comprehend Hitler’s purpose. Quite simply, Jesus taught that God would allow Israel to rebuild, and that all our hope for the future, depended on that promise.

    So, to make a liar of Jesus, Hitler sought the one sure way to force all Biblical prophecy to become untrue. Which was, by destroying the Israelites, so those prophecies could never come true. Hitler would then be free to seize the institutions of religion and remake them in his image. (This was much greater than Hitler’s youthful ambition of someday becoming Pope…he now sought to rewrite the Word of God as his own).

    It still galls me, how many ignorant people act as if the Holocaust was a punishment visited upon the Israelites. It was not. Just as Job suffered because Satan wanted him broken, the Jews of Europe suffered because Hitler wanted to play God. Hitler’s Holocaust, which left a remnant of Israelites behind, failed for one primary reason: Like the King of Babylon before him, God judged Hitler’s kingdom and finished it, weighed him in the balance and found him wanting, and divided his empire among the Americans and Russians.

    And just as happened in the Fall of Babylon, God used the faithfulness of the Israelites to perform great deeds among the conquerors, reminding us all that He is God, and we exist through His will.

    We Americans should be mindful of the fact that God allowed us victory over Hitler, not because we were perfect, but because we were less evil than Hitler was. When we take up evil ways, and begin passing those same awful judgments, about who is allowed to live and who must perish, we invite the same retribution the Germans suffered, for tolerating evil in the governance of their nation. We are not gods and we should shun those who pretend to be.

    It’s a blessing to find people like you, Emily, who love God because He is good. Those who worship out of fear, worship falsely, for they worship the most frightening thing in their sight, and that usually is an evil thing that is making them afraid. Every German who watched those ragged, starving children being hauled to slave labor camps and then to death camps, knew that one critical word against Hitler could get him aboard that train to his death. Yet, people denied their fears, lying with great praise for their leader.

    The New Testament is silent on this subject and it is only my speculation…but I

  19. Beautifully written as always, Emily.