The Holocaust is an inscrutable tragedy.  The enormity is hard to grasp…..except if instead of focusing on the bigness of six million, we focus on the “small” searing death of one life.

That’s the message I learned from this year’s Yom Hashoah ceremonies at TanenbaumCHAT.  It’s when we learn about one child, one boy, or one girl who was killed or sacrificed their life heroically or managed to survive, and we multiply that six million times, only then do we understand what six million means.  It’s in the individual’s story that we overcome the malaise of numerical numbness and begin to feel something.

At TCW the students highlighted the lives of victims their own age.  They shared the story of teenagers like Nina Wienstock who was just like any other girl. She enjoyed her life playing with friends and going to school until she was forced to leave her home in Krakow to flee to Lublin.  Here is an excerpt from Nina’s diary:

In late summer 1939 Germany invaded Poland… My parents decided to move to Lublin, to aunt Escia and her family. I do not remember the preparations for our departure or the leaving except that my parents were full of foreboding at what was to come even though nobody, at that time, had enough imagination to think of the event that would eventually take place.

We all loved our home and I feel sure that no one wanted to think that we were leaving for good. All this to explain, that without any doubt the preparations were made in an atmosphere charged with fear, anxiety, and unhappiness. I could never bear to see people I loved being unhappy. And feeling helpless to cheer them up, as a child I withdrew into my daydreams and do not now remember.

I put this forward as a fact and not as a possibility, because I recall consciously doing this later, when I was older, and events were too overwhelming. But to return to our move, I remember arriving. It was early autumn and I was wearing a grey tweed coat trimmed with fur and a hat to match. This was a new outfit and I loved it. I think I was still trying to pretend that things were normal but the others did not join my game. We all stood in the large kitchen and for a while nobody said a word. I recall the unease so different to the usual excitements of our ordinary visits and my overwhelming wish  to  break  that  strain.”

At TCK, students told the stories of resistors.  One was Abba Kovner who was part of a youth movement in the Vilna ghetto.  In an impassioned speech that was met with cheers and applause from the residents,

Kovner urged the Ghetto inhabitants to rise up and fight.  Here is an excerpt from his speech:

Jewish youth!  Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Out of the 80,000 Jews in the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” only 20,000 are left….Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe, and the Jews of Lithuania are first in line.  We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live at the mercy of the murderers.  Arise! Arise with your last breath!”  

Kovner and hundreds of ghetto fighters escaped through the city’s sewers and other outlets to the Rudniky forests where they joined the Soviet partisans in many combat missions.  There, Kovner and his followers operated a partisan division comprised solely of Jews, and performed many heroic acts of sabotage.  Kovner survived the war, made aliyah to Israel, joined the Givati Brigade to defend the newly formed state, testified at the trial of Adolph Eichman, and became an acclaimed writer.

It is the focus on one boy or one girl’s story that helps us fight the malaise of numerical numbness.

Six million Jews is a statistic, not to be minimized, but hard to comprehend.   It explains nothing except how much death came in the years between September 1, 1939 to September 2, 1945.

We understand the enormity of a tragedy when one life is at stake.  Instead of saying that six million died, we should say that one person died six million times.  That is how we avoid the numbness of big numbers.

The real horror of the Holocaust lies not only in the bigness but it its smallness.

The real horror of the Holocaust lies in the small, searing death of one person six million times.

And that one person was not a number.  That person was a father or mother or brother or sister or son or daughter or grandmother or grandfather, husband or wife, many of whose names we here today carry.

And the death of each and every one of them alone would have been worthy of commemoration.

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We at TanenbaumCHAT are very lucky.  We have dedicated teachers, hardworking students, and supportive parents.  We also have a team of shlichim who find ways to connect our students to Israel in class, between classes, weeknights, and weekends.

Last year, Shlomi and Yaara brought to TanenbaumCHAT a program that started seven years ago in Israel called Zikaron Basalon, literally “Living Room Memories.”  It’s a more intimate way to commemorate Yom HaShoah in which survivors share their stories with a small group of people in someone’s home.  A year ago, nine families hosted a survivor, and over 120 students participated.

I had the honour of facilitating one session at Elyanna and Ami Wenner’s home.  Our speaker was Sylvia Goodman.  Mrs. Goodman taught French at TanenbaumCHAT for many years, but more importantly, she is Elyanna and Ami’s grandmother.

Mrs. Goodman was born in Brussels, the capital of Belgium.  At age two, she was separated from her parents and hidden by an elderly Gentile couple who passed her off as their granddaughter.  Mrs. Goodman’s parents were sent to the the Malin (Mechelen) transit camp in Belgium which was liberated just before they were to be sent to Auschwitz.At the end of the war, Sylvia was reunited with her parents, and in 1951 she came to Canada with her parents who sought an English speaking country (the US wasn’t accepting many immigrants at the time).

Mrs. Goodman recalled what life was like as a child. She helped us imagine how painful it was for her parents to give up their daughter and how her surrogate grandparents helped ensure that she would successfully re-integrate into her parents’ embrace.  We all admired the way she maintained a positive attitude despite these and other traumatic experiences.  To this day, she is always cheerful and upbeat. You can see the sparkle in her eyes from the photo of her with the students; it captures her smiling personality.

The hour passed quickly.  Like any good teacher, she didn’t just lecture; she asked questions along the way.  The students listened with rapt attention.  They, too, asked questions.  Often, Yom Hashoah invokes a heavy mood.  That night, we left inspired.  We were inspired by Mrs. Goodman’s courage and by her instinctive affirmation of life.

This year, Zikaron Basalon will take place on Monday evening for the TCK community and on Tuesday evening for the TCW community.  We encourage students to make the time to be part of these “Living Room Memories” and meet these inspiring heroes from our community.

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Knowing the answers will help you in SCHOOL; knowing how to question will help you in LIFE.  –Warren Berger, author    “A More Beautiful Mind”

The highlight of most seders is the Ma Nishtana.  It’s the part of the seder that is reserved for the youngest child.  As a parent, I remember rehearsing these scripted questions with our four sons so that they were prepared for their 15 “minutes” of fame.

The remarkable thing about the Ma Nishtana is that the ancient rabbis said that ideally the Mah Nishtana should be not be recited.  The rabbis preferred that that children and adults generated their own questions instead of mimicking a scripted set of questions.  They intuited what modern research has shown: that around age 5 or 6 questioning drops off a cliff unless parents and educators make it safe, fun, cool, and rewarding enough to ask questions.

The Mishna in the 10th chapter of Tractate Pesachim says:  After the second cup of wine is poured, a child is given the opportunity to ask a question.  The nature of the question is irrelevant; It could be about the pouring of a second cup of wine or anything else that stands out at the Pesach seder.

If the child doesn’t ask a question, then a parent should draw the child’s attention to all the anomalies of the evening—the unusual props, symbols, foods, and customs that will appear throughout the night. Essentially, the Ma Nishtana wasn’t originally a set of questions that the child recited but a table of contents that was meant to spark his or her curiosity.

The rabbis wanted the seder leader to stimulate as many questions as possible.  In our home we do this by giving anyone who asks a question a piece of gum or candy.  Whether or not someone can answer the question is a different story.  We want to encourage engagement.

On all nights of the year, we live by Warren Berger’s adage–knowing the answers helps you in school; knowing how to question helps you in life.  On Passover, the holiday we celebrate freedom of thought and body, we add one more reason that questions are vital.  The ability to question is a sign that we are no longer disempowered slaves but a free people, free to make meaning of our reality and our sacred traditions.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the role of an educator is to “be a midwife to the birth of a question.” I would say that describes the role of the seder leader perfectly:  to create an environment and an experience where no one is intimidated and all are encouraged to ask questions.  Chag Sameach!
(For a list of sources in Hebrew and English, see https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/61965.)