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Limmud 2018: The Responsibility of Remembrance - Review of Five Limmud Sessions

By Penny Jones Square, March 25, 2018

 

To remember means to lend an ethical dimension to all endeavours and aspirations.

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.  Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.

—Elie Wiesel

 

Remembrance is central to Judaism, binding the Jewish people, conferring divine “blessing” for their “lasting soul” and for their “survival” as a people. The insistent summons to not only remember, but also not to forget, is reiterated throughout Hebrew Scripture, enjoining Jews to take the commandments to heart, to commemorate the foundational memories that define them as a people and instruct them to live righteously. The Jews’ faithful adherence to this biblical injunction is the source of their survival through thousands of years of history. As Elie Wiesel has remarked: “I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people,” a resilience which he attributes to their “best characteristic”: “their desire to remember.”  It is the ethical response implied by the appeal to remember which has guided and sustained the Jewish people. Since the Shoah, the responsibility of remembrance has expanded as the call to remember the victims, issuing from the unmarked graves of over six million murdered Jews, and from the survivors, joins the divine call of the biblical command to remember.

 

At this present moment, when antisemitism, as well as the recent iterations it has assumed as a means of concealing or even legitimizing hatred of Jews, is undeniably on the rise throughout the world, when extremist Islamist ideology is advancing, and with it, the attendant menace of terrorism, and when Israel’s very existence is threatened by its detractors in the West and its enemies in the Middle East—those in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran calling for its annihilation—this responsibility to remember has never been greater. Limmud serves the essential exhortation to remember in its celebration and transmission of Jewish learning and culture. The sessions I chose to attend this year spoke to the necessity and value of this ethical desire defining Jews and Judaism.

 

Museums, as the repositories of memory, designed to protect, preserve, and commemorate particular past histories, ask us to remember, to learn, and to bear witness. When the memory being represented is of a traumatic past such as the Shoah, that responsibility is amplified. In conducting the tour of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre, Belle Jarniewski (Chair of the Centre and Canadian representative of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) emphasized the critical commemorative and educational function of the museum, which was established and funded entirely by Holocaust survivors, whose intention was to share their lived experiences during the Shoah with students of all ages and with the community-at-large through in-person interviews, recordings of their stories in video and written format, and through their personal gifts of artifacts, each of which “tells a story—of loss, of suffering, and of courage.”

 

Before entering the museum, we stopped before the wall of names of the survivors and of the Righteous among the Nations who helped them, above which is inscribed: “We will never forget; we strive for brotherhood amongst nations”—the survivors’ pledge never to forget implying their intention to transmit awareness and understanding of the Shoah in order to move others “to seek brotherhood.” At the entrance to the museum, foot prints of various sizes on the floor convey a sense of how closely the victims had to stand before being herded into the cattle cars. These and the replicas of boxcar doors (recalling those “which sealed the fate of so many of those transported to the death camps during the Holocaust”) through which we entered enable one to feel, not simply observe, something of the survivors’ lived experience. Inside the museum, text panels and maps relate the history of the ghettos, the resistance, and the camps, and cases of artifacts give evidence of the rich cultural life that was eradicated during the Shoah. The reality of Jewish resistance, which is often overlooked, is highlighted in the Star and Medals Case, describing the Belgian resistance fighter Samuel Reisman. Other cases relate the experiences of Maurits Kiek and Marianne Manheim Kiek, Barbara Goldfischer Schneid Goszer, the Rubenfeld family, and of Jarniewski’s own parents, Samuel and Sylvia Jarniewski. The centre conveys the tragic history of the Shoah in an affecting manner through these personal stories and objects while also affirming the spirit of resilience that sustained the survivors, and which persists in their hope that through the education the centre provides, “brotherhood” may be achieved.

 

Eran Plotnik’s presentation on the “Human Rights and Holocaust Study Program: A Journey from Bystander to Upstander,” which he developed and initiated at Sturgeon Heights Collegiate ten years ago, also gives hope that in remembrance progression is possible. In this extra-curricular program, students in grades nine to twelve take part in various educational activities that culminate in a trip to Washington, DC—with visits to the World War II Memorial, Washington Monument, the Freedom Is Not Free Memorial, the Martin King Jr. Memorial, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and other sites, and in alternate years, a trip to various destinations in Europe, including Dresden, Berlin (including a visit to the Topography of Terror museum), Prague, Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Rather than focus on one event as the March of the Living does, Plotnik’s intention is to provide a more comprehensive history which encompasses the evolution of WWI through WWII and after. By “walking history,” his students learn this critical history and the importance of remembering it, becoming sensitized to world issues. Because European history is not a part of the high school curriculum, this knowledge is in real danger of being forgotten and so of bolstering holocaust deniers and revisionist historians. 

 

Students from the program who were present, none of whom is Jewish, attributed their interest in the program to Plotnik’s personal connection to the history of the Shoah—his mother was a Holocaust survivor, and his father, who left Europe in 1939, was a paratrooper with the British Army SA. His passion for educating students on this crucial history is clearly affecting and contagious; it is what drew them into the program and what inspired them to become involved in other social justice and just cause activities within and without the school. The students expressed how the program was transformative, motivating them in their post-secondary school choices and volunteer activities. The slide show accompanying the presentation featured photos of the trips to Washington and Europe as well as of the various activities at the school “in which students act both locally and globally to make this world a better place.”

 
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