I was going to write about another topic.
I had an idea as I fell asleep. But when I woke up, I discovered that today is Yom HaShoah, a day on which many focus their minds and hearts on the tragedy of the holocaust. I realized that my idea did not seem right today. It would feel like yelling loudly in a quiet theatre. Rude, unwelcome and disrespectful. So that idea will remain tucked away for another week.
This week, I’ll write about what the holocaust means to me, as a 21 year old, living in America.
I was first introduced to the holocaust by way of my grandmother’s history. As a tiny child, she escaped in the night with her young parents and baby sister. After a terror-filled journey that had seen many miracles, the small family made it to safety. My great-grandmother was the only survivor from her own, yet rather than wallowing in well-deserved grief, she and my great-grandfather built up a family, resulting in my life – one of hundreds of great-grandchildren.
As a Jewish child, in Jewish schools, I learned about the holocaust in various ways throughout my years. I heard stories, I saw clips and interviews with holocaust survivors. It was certainly a real thing in my life, but it wasn’t until I was nearly 18, that I truly confronted it.
On a trip to Israel, I visited Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. As we walked through the quiet halls, looking at what was left of millions of innocent lives, my heart shattered. The reality of it was so raw and horrible, items of clothing and personal belongings telling their silent story. I looked into the eyes of the victims in the images on the walls, and apologized for not having tried to see earlier. For trying to avoid holocaust films and books. For not being more destroyed by what they had been through.
I always use words, yet there are not enough words in the English dictionary to describe what happened in the holocaust, the wiping out of generations. Cruelty and horror are even too kind. It was more than that. It was worse than that.
I have been knocked down by far, far (far, far, far!) less.
Yet holocaust survivors have built their lives back up, put the puzzle together despite the missing pieces, painted their world with vivid color again. Despite every reason not to.
The other day, I overheard my five-year-old nephew having an existential crisis. He was trying to explain to his three-year-old brother how insignificant we are. “We are really just tiny!”
“Nu uh. We are not tiny” said his brother. “Etti’s not tiny”
“She is tiny. We all are tiny. The whole world is tiny!”
I smiled at the depth of wisdom he held. Perhaps he does not quite understand it all just yet, but he was taking his first steps into the endless wonder of who we are, how we got here, and what we are supposed to do now that we are here.
We are tiny. I am tiny. I am one solitary figure in a world with billions of people.
Often, my small daily decisions and choices seem to impact only me. But I know that despite my “tiny-ness,” I have the ability to affect so many. Holocaust survivors knew that – and they knew it was up to them to re-build a nation so thoroughly destroyed. Like my great-grandparents, so many of them went on to have large families, despite the unimaginable fear and anger they must have felt.
Today is a day that we remember the past – but tomorrow, we focus on the future. I often feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things, yet I have been raised to know that my actions count. That I am here for a reason, and that reason is not to serve myself, but to be there for others, to wake up each morning and figure out how I can do better.
My nephew’s words reminded me that yes, we are tiny. And that is something to remember- something to remain humble about. In the expanse of the universe, I am but a speck, if that at all.
But, it is crucial to still stand with confidence, to know that despite how tiny I am, my life has meaning – and I can and do impact all of those around me.
The holocaust had millions of victims. Millions. It is impossible for any one person to recite all their names, or to truly give remembrance to each one.
Yet every single one of them was a person, a human being, with dreams and hopes. They were never just a name, they were someone that was loved and worried about.
They were in no way just a speck.
I will never, in any lifetime, be able to grasp the magnitude of the holocaust and the idea that so so so many were ripped away from their lives.
But I will try to live fully because they were not allowed to. I will try to remember what they have taught me. I may be a tiny speck, but I am a speck that can change the world.
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