Enduring Memories of Holocaust Remembrance
Our family subscription issue of Life magazine, dated May 7, 1945, arrived on my ninth birthday. Its cover photograph, under the caption “The German People,” showed three men standing together. One had a bandaged wrist in a sling. The other two seemed unharmed. It was a curious sample, as though Nazis did not exist. I turned pages past advertisements and a two-page spread of “Yank Cartoons” that “Reflect the Humor of World War II.” Even for a nine-year-old who had experienced wartime school drills if a forced evacuation was necessary, and the fright of night-time blackout sirens in anticipation of Nazi air raids, “humor” seemed an odd word choice for a war that had claimed the life of my cousin Billy in the battle for Tarawa.
I finally reached the news pages, titled “War in Europe Draws to its End.” Four pages of photographs displayed American and Russian soldiers, wartime allies, celebrating victory — and life — with handshakes and toasts. Then came a frightening six-page display of photographs taken in Belsen, Buchenwald, and other death camps. Labeled “Atrocities,” they were introduced with the warning that “the things they show are horrible.” Indeed they were.
In the decades that followed I was too busy growing up to think about the Holocaust. The slaughter of Jews was long ago and far away. But that abruptly changed during a sabbatical year in Israel (1974-75) to teach at Tel Aviv University. On a day trip, I took my family to visit kibbutz Lohamei HaGettaot, founded by survivors of the Nazi slaughter of Warsaw Jews. In the Ghetto Fighters museum, with its powerful message of Jewish resistance, I fixated on a display case with nothing in it but a tiny shoe. From a million Jewish children of my age murdered in the Holocaust, little more than that shoe — and Anne Frank’s diary — remained.
Staring in pained silence, I was beckoned to the office of the museum director. In thickly accented English she brusquely asked a few questions about my background, family, and reasons for coming to Israel. Abruptly interrupting my reply, she asked for my response to the museum exhibits. When I mentioned the shoe, she sharply reminded me that I was old enough to remember the Holocaust. I was a Jew who might have been among those children. How, then, could I justify my decision not to live in Israel? If I truly cared about my children, how could I raise them in galut?
She was, I learned, Tzivia Lubetkin, a legendary member of the Jewish underground in Poland and a heroic fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in July 1943. With her husband Antek Zuckerman, who organized the revolt, and Mordechai Anielewicz, who commanded the ghetto fighters, she had helped to lead the Jewish resistance. With the ghetto ablaze she escaped through sewers, eventually making aliya to become one of the founders of the kibbutz, dedicated to the memory of the ghetto fighters. The museum, the shoe, and Tzivia Lubetkin were unforgettable.
So too was the shattering photograph, widely circulated, of a young boy (close to my age at the time) exiting from a Warsaw Ghetto building with other children and their parents. He wore a cap whose tip nearly reached his eyes, a short coat, and knee socks. Passing Nazi soldiers, with his arms raised in surrender, his look of terror was palpable. A photograph of “The Boy” became an enduring symbol of Holocaust horrors, when Nazis murdered children for the crime of being Jews.
But it turned out that the boy had survived the Holocaust in Bergen-Belsen. After the war ended he went to Palestine as an orphan. Raised by relatives, he lived in Israel for eight years before relocating to the United States with an aunt and uncle. Tsvi Nussbaum became a doctor, married and had four children. Repressing memories of the horrific terrors of his boyhood, he could not remember that he was “The Boy.”
Ironically, the tragic symbol of the children murdered by the Nazis was a survivor. But I still cannot remove my large photo of “The Boy,” who for decades has symbolized the Holocaust horrors that my immigrant grandparents, who had arrived in the United States from Eastern Europe decades earlier, had spared me.
Anyone who has been to Jerusalem is likely to have visited Yad VaShem, the Holocaust memorial museum on Har HaZikaron, the Mount of Remembrance. There is a children’s memorial where the names of murdered children are repetitively recited. It takes nearly three months to recite all their names.
The United States has its own Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. But I have long believed that the most appropriate American museum would be an empty building. It would testify to the appalling indifference of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his loyal sycophant Rabbi Stephen Wise, to the desperate plight of six million Jews.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019