As another Yom Hashoah nears, it is important to recognize that each year, there will be fewer alive who were witnesses to that horror in history. During my years as a funeral director, I've agonized over watching the growing number of Holocaust survivors fade rapidly from our midst.
Many of us fixate on the 6 million men, women and children who perished, but Yom Hashoah is also a time to pay attention to those who survived. They are part of the Greatest Generation that newsman Tom Brokow wrote about in his bestseller.
It took a special strength, courage and luck to survive the Holocaust. And now, the generation of the survivors is shrinking.
The stories and history that are told and remembered at these funerals cover the gamut of emotions — from inspiration to horror, from laughter to tears, from love to hate, from building up to tearing down, from hope to despair.
The stories I hear at funerals — told by rabbis, relatives and friends — is what you see in movies and on TV and read in books. Escaping the Nazis and joining the partisans to fight, or being rescued or hidden by Righteous Gentiles, or hiding gold coins in shoes to be able to bribe guards for food and protection in concentration camps, or finding a way for safe passage through Russia to the Far East in China or Japan. These are all hard-to-believe, but very real stories of survival.
There are stories about people who walked across Europe or hid in attics, in cellars, in closets, in dirt dugouts under basement floor boards, in barns and forests; stories about people who protected their children, their siblings, their spouses, their parents in ghettos, work camps and concentration camps; people who saved scraps of food and morsels of bread crumbs in order to survive and/or help others to survive.
Many survivors have shared their stories, their history (some reluctantly) with their family and friends, but many die with their secrets locked in their hearts. Yom Hashoah gives us an opportunity to encourage those who haven't yet shared their history to do so, and for those who are willing to share to be listened to and recorded. This is the essence of Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation project. The visual histories at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., are also very powerful.
Last month, I was in Israel and had the great opportunity to visit a new section of the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv. The section deals with the survivors who came to Israel after the Holocaust and just before the War of Independence, and the impact they had when they became part of the Palmach — the strike force of the pre-state army.
At least one-third of the Palmach was eventually made up of survivors who came to Palestine/Israel as "skin and bones," and became heroes who helped build the Jewish state. The last portion of the exhibit is a series of TV screens with visual histories of survivors of the Holocaust who fought in the Palmach during the War of Independence.
They are some of the great leaders and builders of the State of Israel. They achieved success in business, medicine, education, science, technology, law, the military, diplomacy, politics and philanthropy. They are stellar members of the "greatest generation" that made Israel what it is today.
In our own country and around the world, survivors played a major role in helping to shape the last half of the 20th century and lead us into the 21st century. They still play a part.
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel is one of the great examples of what these survivors have given the world. He once told me that "many people think the history of the Jewish people is written by our tragedies, but that is not correct. The history of the Jewish people is written by our response to tragedy."
We have two days in our Jewish calendar where we contemplate the tragedies of the Jewish people: Yom Hashoah and Tisha B'Av.
Maybe it is time to celebrate our response to tragedy. As we remember the Six Million, let us also remember the survivors — those who have already passed, and those who are still with us. Let us embrace, cherish and acknowledge them, as well as their contribution and gifts to us, our country, our people, our beloved State of Israel and the free world.
Elliot J. Rosen is a funeral director for Joseph Levine & Sons, and is an active leader in the Philadelphia Jewish community.