The Holocaust is really too big and too dark to fathom. It’s larger than life, larger than death, even larger than evil. The human mind can’t quite comprehend an evil that wants to destroy a whole race of humans — and succeeds in destroying about a third of it.
No matter how many documentaries we may see, how many Holocaust museums we may visit or how many survivors we may meet, we still can’t fully absorb the reality that 6 million Jews — approximately the number of Jews living in Israel today — were murdered in a few short years.
My initial encounter with the trauma of the Shoah came after my family moved from Morocco to Montreal in the mid-1960s, when I first met Ashkenazi Jews. It’s one thing to hear about a nightmare; it’s a whole other thing to meet survivors and hear their stories. These stories put a human light on what was for me a deep and mysterious darkness.
Over the years, my relationship with this singular darkness has been uneven. At times, I have found it debilitating. I’d see images of Jews in concentration camps and imagine what it would be like to witness the agony and death of your own child — and I would recoil at the thought. Trying to imagine this kind of pain on a scale of millions was too much for my brain to handle, let alone my heart.
At other times, I would meet a survivor like the late Eva Brown — who lost 69 family members in the Shoah — and I would marvel at her resilience and love of life.
I would marvel at how she always accepted invitations — to join my family for Shabbat and holiday meals; to accompany me to the Maimonides Academy trustees dinner; to speak in schools, synagogues and at the Museum of Tolerance; to see a movie or attend a lecture; or to engage in any activity that would keep her busy and alive.
I would marvel at how, despite two bouts of leukemia during the last few years of her life, she continued to accept invitations; and how, when she spoke about her dark past, she would always end on a high note.
You could see this high note in the sparkle of her eyes, a sparkle that never left her, even when she was sick and in pain.
It was a sparkle that said: Despite all the pain of my life, it’s still the only life I have.
If you were down or in a funk, she was the best therapist in town. Spend a few minutes with her in her 1950s bungalow in West Hollywood, catch her positive vibes, recall that she went to 10 concentration camps in one year at the age of 16, and I dare you to still be in a funk.
For anyone who knew her, it was virtually impossible to be unhappy in her presence. It’s as if one message constantly floated above her: “Who are you to be down on life when this survivor is still so madly in love with life?”
This very love of life interrupted my somber mood last Sunday morning when I visited a Holocaust museum in Montreal, where I’ve been spending the holidays with my family.
After about an hour of seeing the familiar mementos of Shoah misery, I came across a short film on the Jewish ghetto of Lodz in Poland, which included testimony from survivors who ended up in Montreal.
Again, the images were hard to take. They were the ubiquitous Holocaust images we have all seen, of decrepit life and fearful faces.
But then, a survivor said something that cracked through the ice of my somber mood: “We were hungry,” he said, “but we had a symphony. We were hungry, but we had a theater.”
As he spoke those words, there was an image of Jews in the ghetto entering a theater. It was an impossible image: human misery meets high culture.
I’m not sure what it means that I remembered that one image above everything else I saw that morning.
It could be that I simply prefer good news to depressing news, or that Holocaust suffering is so overwhelming that I need a coping mechanism, something to reignite my faith in life.
Whatever it is, it gave me a tingle of Jewish pride. No matter how horrible their lives became, the hungry Jews of the Lodz ghetto still found time to gather a few breadcrumbs of life.
Maybe that was Eva Brown’s way of honoring the memory of her 69 family members and her 6 million Jewish brethren who lost their lives — she savored every precious breadcrumb of life that came her way.
That very idea is larger than life.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.