Our TSTI in Israel group had just entered the incredibly powerful Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem. I had told the group we would meet them at the exit because one of our participants was on a personal mission. She, one of her daughters, and I headed away from the Children’s Memorial and, after a brisk walk, found ourselves in Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations.
As Wikipedia explains:
The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations is part of the much larger Yad Vashem complex located on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. Along with some two dozen different structures within the Yad Vashem memorial – which is the second most-visited destination in the country after the Western Wall – the Garden of the Righteous is meant to honor those non-Jews who during the Holocaust risked their lives to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
Hundreds of names were carved into the stone wall. Each represented an individual who, despite putting themselves and their families at risk, stepped up to help members of our Jewish community during those dark days. Each and every one of them deserves our honor and respect.
But we were not there to offer a general expression of gratitude. We were there in search of one specific name. We were looking for the name paying tribute to the individual who had saved our TSTI member’s mother from the Nazi death machine. If not for that one member of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” my congregant and friend had told me, her mother would not have survived and she, and her children, would not be here.
Her mission to find this amazing individual’s name became my mission. But after a quick but thorough search, we couldn’t find her. We were about to give up when the younger family member gave a shout. We ran over and, sure enough, there was the name of the individual who was responsible for saving not just one individual but generations of this family. My friend put her arm around her daughter and squeezed her tight. The power of the moment brought tears to my eyes and a chill to my back. As they stood there with their arms wrapped around one another, the emotions were so raw, and although not a word was spoken, the love between mother and daughter was palpable.
It was one of the most beautifully profound moments I have ever witnessed.
I stepped away to give them some time. And as I stood there I realized how very present the Shoah, the Holocaust, is in so many of our lives. Each year there are fewer and fewer living survivors. It is one of the reasons I am so grateful that many of our Bnai Mitzvah students choose to interview survivors as part of their Trumah Projects. But the impact of those dark days continues to reverberate throughout our community. That is certainly true for the children and grandchildren of survivors but it is true for all of us, as well. It is, I believe, one of the reasons so many of us are concerned about the rise of antisemitism and white supremacy in our country.
But as I reflect on that powerful moment now, there was even more to it. As mother and daughter stood holding one another and staring at the name of the individual who was directly responsible for their being there, they embodied the resilience our community has shown time and time again. Yes, their mother and grandmother endured the trauma of those dark days. And yes, she carried that trauma with her the rest of her life. But she did more than merely survive. She, along with so many of her fellow survivors, went on to lead incredible lives. And by doing so, they remind us that despite the many dark moments in our people’s history, we remain a community of optimists. We have seen the worst that humanity has to offer, and instead of being embittered, we seek out new ways to bring light and goodness where others would spread darkness and despair.
In the shadow of the Holocaust, it is incumbent upon us to redouble our efforts to create a world of equity. And, by doing so, we honor the lives of all those who perished in the fires of hatred.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen