by Sherri W. Morr
Some Saturday mornings find me walking, swimming or a short hike; then home, breakfast, and the NY Times. Other Saturday mornings I might try to take in Torah Study or maybe go to services. This Saturday morning offered none of the above leisure and relaxing activities. I was invited to see a French film … on a Saturday morning at 9AM. Something about a mass arrest in France of its Jews in 1942. I knew something of this horrific incident by reading the novel Sarah’s Key. As they say, seeing is believing. Although the film was a movie, not a documentary, but based on fact, it made the little I knew about the incident come to life. Come to life and yet it ended in death. Mass death. All but 25 of the more than 13,000 Jews-men, women, and children (the youngest to die was 18 months) were killed, gassed at Auschwitz.
It’s not a new film and I do not know why it was showed now, on a beautiful December day in Palm Springs, California. It was co-sponsored by the Tolerance Education Center and the Desert Film Society. The cost was $15 to attend. There was free coffee and muffins. The theater was packed. Primarily the over 50 crowd. Watching the film was no walk in the park. It was hard. Really hard. Maybe even harder because it was such a beautiful day, and most of us were going somewhere after the film. Somewhere, anywhere, where we were free to do what we wanted. We were not afraid of being arrested, and housed for weeks in a bicycle vela-dome without food, water, medical attention, and proper (maybe even the most basic) sanitation. Thank goodness most of us, if not all, have never had our children ripped from our arms, or watched them die.
I know I walked out feeling incredibly sad, but also lucky. My life time has given me enormous opportunities, many based on living in a democracy, and regarding certain freedoms as my right and my privilege. Maybe we have to see horror to human beings who have done nothing to deserve such treatment to feel a connection. Unfortunately today there are still such atrocities. They may not be directly against Jews but they are against human kind (who we as Jews accord the highest value). They have committed no crimes to warrant being killed or slaughtered, thrown into a ditch as their final resting place. Maybe we are not speaking out or not speaking loud enough. When you see “The Roundup” (La Rafle) you will be reminded in a heart wrenching way that never forgetting is not enough. Not speaking out is not enough.
What makes people in 2011 still see Holocaust related films I wondered? Do we still need to see films (not to mention read books, hear speakers, memorialize the dead) to revisit education and learning about the Holocaust? We have the official mourning day Yom Hashoah and the resolution by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2005 to commemorate the Holocaust on January 27 of each year. How many times do we hear Always Remember, Never Forget. How many survivors (especially because they are dwindling in number) do we need to meet, and listen to? I suppose there are other questions that could be asked, but my overwhelming response to those questions and perhaps a myriad of others is yes. Yes, we need to remember, every day. We need to continue to talk about the Holocaust in spite of (supposed) research saying that young Jews do not feel a connection. It does not make them feel Jewish. It does not make them want to affiliate to the countless special programs synagogues, organizations, JCCs, and agencies devise for them. The Holocaust was their parents issue; the State of Israel belongs to their parent’s generation. Even the 50 somethings have difficulty connecting to the Holocaust. It was their parents issue also.
In America and also in Israel, millions of dollars are spent to engage younger Jews. Many young people who attended religious school (of some sort) know their Jewish history. College students can register for a variety of Jewish history and Middle East history classes; they can study WWII or international relations, all referencing the Holocaust to some degree. They know plenty about the Holocaust. Surely the boomers have studied, and experienced Israel as the answer to ‘never again’. Many programs, museums and memorials were dedicated to learning about the Holocaust. We say prayers numerous times a year in synagogue and at memorial days like Yom Hashoah. We pay our respects. I wonder if it’s enough. I wonder if future generations can ever experience the horror.
There are plaques that recognize this French nightmare. In 1995, France finally apologized in public. Perhaps it’s time to do it again. Figure out ways in which to teach the Holocaust. This time the audience though is different. We do not need to look for more expressions of remorse, or hear more speeches, say more memorial prayers; we are dealing with an entirely different audience. The need to hear and see the message electronically; they will respond to messages and rallies on line. They will tweak, tweet, like, text and share. So we need to mount a massive attempt to have our younger Jews and our unaffiliated Jews see films and documentaries about the Holocaust. Not just in the movies in the dark, but in ways that can generate conversation, dialogue, and questions. The most important question being, OK, so now what? How will this knowledge now affect me, who I am, and what I do. We cannot force feed, that is clear, but for all the living experiences we furnish, it’s time to see the reality of the past. Maybe back in the day when being Jewish and supporting Israel was more ‘in’, it wasn’t so necessary. We were excited, energized by the tiny new state; Now Israel is problematic. As a country it has issues, some just like any other growing democracy.
In 2012 we will acknowledge the acts of inhumanity in France 70 years ago. Now, is the time to begin a realization that memory like history is critical; you need to know where you were in order to move ahead, and know where you are going. Now is the time to do this. Of this I am sure.
Sherri W. Morr has spent the last several decades working and consulting in the Jewish community as a fundraiser, a teacher, and trainer, most recently as Director of the Western U.S. at the Jewish National Fund for 12 years. She has completed an MA and received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Her work outside of the Jewish world at independent schools, the Baltimore Symphony and Tufts University have given her an awareness beyond practice in the Jewish community. Sherri has 3 grown sons and lives in Rancho Mirage, California.