What is at the core of Jewish identity in America, and what is at the margins? A few years ago, the Pew Research Center asked that question in a nationwide survey whose results were published in A Portrait of Jewish Americans. The answers are illuminating. When it comes to their priorities, American Jews report that “having a good sense of humor” is roughly twice as important as “observing Jewish religious law,” and “working for justice and equality” is twice as important as “belonging to a Jewish community.” But about one issue in particular, fully seven in ten American Jews agree: the consensus across all denominations of religious observance and all demographic variables is that a core determinant of their Jewish identity is memory of the Shoah.
In 2013, when Pew’s report was published, the median age of Jewish adults in America was fifty, which means that most of those surveyed were born decades after the Holocaust came to an end. For me, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, there’s no puzzle about this: memories informed by my grandfather’s presence in my life are indeed a foundation of my own Jewish identity. And I’m gratified to know that a similar conviction is still alive in the minds and hearts of so many other American Jews.
And yet, so many decades after the events, what exactly does this signify, and how, if at all, is it connected with the other Pew findings about the nature of Jewish identity in America? In what exactly, if anything, does honoring the memory of the Holocaust consist? What, if anything, does it demand of us?
It’s this last question that I couldn’t help asking myself when my grandfather, z’l, died last October during the early hours of the holiday of Simḥat Torah, and what I can’t help asking my fellow American Jews.
Four years earlier, in May 2012, my grandfather Henry Silberstern had been sleeping in the basement of my in-laws’ house in suburban Maryland when he was stirred to wakefulness by the excited and joyous news that my wife Paula had given birth to a healthy baby boy. A few days later, holding my son Isaac in his arms, he beheld with his own eyes the third generation of his family.
This was a day that few could have predicted for him, and that he would not have predicted for himself. During World War II, his life had very nearly been taken from him as it was in fact taken from millions of other European Jews, among them his father, his brother, eventually his mother, and every kith and kin that he had known in the Old World. From the age of twelve through the age of fifteen, years in which he was growing from a boy into a man, he shuttled among five horrific Nazi concentration camps, finally ending up in Bergen-Belsen before being liberated by Allied forces on April 15, 1945, his fifteenth birthday.
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Many years later, looking back, he would insist that he was not brave, that he was not noble, and that he survived not through his merit or his virtues, not through cunning or strength, but by sheer luck. Nor did he ever tell his story as a morality play. As far as he could see, his suffering served no grand purpose. Just as he and the millions next to him had done nothing to invite their persecution, so the cruelty they bore was undeserved, and equally undeserved was his own survival. He did not triumph over the camps; he withstood them. He was young, and his body did not easily yield, and for some reason beyond his or our knowing he had not yet succumbed when the day of liberation arrived.
I myself am tempted to attribute his survival to ḥesed Hashem, God’s loving kindness: an unearned blessing, freely given. He, not an especially religious man, used different terms, and always strove to see things in their true human proportions.
But if surviving the terror of those years was not heroic, what was heroic was how he lived in the decades following. Any psychologist can tell you how formative is that period when we move from childhood into adulthood: the outsized influence it exercises on the way we piece together how we think about the world, internalize the lessons of life, and incorporate those lessons into who we become. What my grandfather heard and saw and experienced during those years was the moaning and shrieking of grown men, frigid cold, gray bleakness, bitterness, hunger, cruelty, torture, and the sight and smells of death, death all around.
It would be entirely understandable if the impression left on him was that God’s creation was not good, that life itself was not good—and that therefore it would be an act of kindness to spare another generation of Jews from being born into this world lest they share the fate that had been his and that of his murdered brother and friends. He must have wondered who had it worse—those who died, or those few like him who lived knowing that everyone else had died. Who after this would want to bring more children into the world, children begotten with the weight of the murdered Jews on their shoulders?
But he didn’t think that way. His best qualities are to be seen in the reality he built as a survivor. They emerged over six decades of married life in the family that he and my grandmother formed and nurtured together. Looking the Shoah in the face, they responded to death with life.
The Shoah had taken his mother Edith and his father Jan, so when he and Beneta had daughters, they made a new Edith and a new Jan. It had robbed him of his childhood, so they gave Edith and Jan a loving childhood. It had left him bereft of family, so he helped to grow a family of children and grandchildren and, by the end of his life, not just little Isaac in Maryland but three more great-grandchildren, one of whom will live out his days carrying the name Henry.
Mourning my grandfather, I see how his virtues unfolded, year after year, over the seven decades that followed the great crisis of 1941-1945. I remember and I’ll continue to remember the camps and their monstrosity, but I’ve learned the meaning of the choice he made to build a life in their shadow—what that choice implies, and what it entails.
His funeral took place on a Friday morning. On that day, a great Jewish story and a great American story came to an end. But a larger story was being propelled forward. As the sun set, my grandfather’s daughters blessed the God who commanded us to kindle the Sabbath flame, just as, every week on the same day and at the same hour, his mother had blessed the God who commanded us to kindle the Sabbath flame. On that night, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren praised the God who created the fruit of the vine, sanctified the wine in their cups, and blessed Him who brought forth bread from the earth, just as did his own grandparents and great-grandparents. And so it has been through untold generations of grandparents and grandchildren, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, in a chain unbroken by Theresienstadt, unbroken by Birkenau, unbroken by Bergen-Belsen.
My grandfather asked us to forgive but not to forget. And so when I think of him, of the things he loved, of the purposes to which he gave so much of himself, I see the dawning obligation a little clearer. That obligation begins with memory of the Shoah, but it does not end there. Yes, it is up to us to pass that memory on, so that a new generation can come to remember, and a new generation after that. But this act of transmission will be for naught if our memories draw us back only into thoughts of persecution and move us only to pity.
Honoring the memory of this Jewish past obliges today’s American Jews to bring children into the future. In the middle of the last century, dark forces rose up in the home of the Enlightenment to wipe out my grandfather’s family and to ensure that there would be no more Jewish children and no Jewish future. Auschwitz obliges us to summon that future into being. The American Jewish community has built monuments and museums to commemorate the Shoah; now it needs to build, and lovingly to fill, nurseries and schools. A Jewish culture that remembers the past at the expense of the future risks accomplishing what even the Shoah failed to do.
To what end will seven in ten American Jews have declared their identity to be wrapped up in memory of the Shoah if—as is confirmed by their below-replacement birthrates—so many of them have ceased to be fruitful and multiply, thereby helping to bring about the desuetude of their community and dishonoring what that memory commands them?