It is Yom Ha Shoah (Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah), or the Jewish Holocaust Day of Remembrance as it is commonly known. It is distinct from the more public day of remembrance for the Holocaust (which occurs in January) in that it is intended for the Jewish people to reflect on the loss and persecution that occurred at the hands of the Nazi regime in Europe in the 1930s and 40s.
I was born into a family that experienced that period in a multitude of ways. The stories of survival are miraculous and heart-wrenching, but they are long and mostly for another day.
In short, my mother is from a Jewish German line, whilst my father is of Cornish and Welsh stock. His family was transported in 1804 for smuggling and then soon after freed in the early days of the Sydney colony in which they ultimately thrived. In fact, a relative of ours was the Fisher in the Fisher Library at the University of Sydney. He didn’t have any kids and the library is a testament to how much he disliked his niece's marital choices.
In this way, I have two quite different genetic legacies. Both engender stories of forced displacements and separation from homelands and families, but they are essentially different.
In the case of my mother’s line, there are two stories at play. My grandfather’s father, Otto, was a travelling salesman who got wind of the terror looming on the political horizon in time to spirit his family to safety in Australia quite early on. I have no idea what happened to his parents or most of their relatives except one — an Aunty, who went to Argentina on her own and remained there.
My grandmother’s family were more entrenched in German life and were extremely lucky to have made it out to Australia, via India. What my grandmother didn’t talk much about was who was left behind. She would nod sagely and smile wistfully and move the conversation on politely. It’s not that she was avoiding the subject, I think she literally had no idea what happened to the majority of the people they left behind.
My story is a happy one for the most part. I have been shielded in many ways form the immense trauma and tragedy that so many endured thanks to a combination of privilege (they had the means), good decisions (they found a way out) and an element I can only call ‘mystery’ or ‘synchronicity’, or perhaps just blind luck as they went through several potentially life-threatening sliding door moments and were miraculously okay.
We’ll never know why it was us that we made it when countless others didn’t. We’ll never even know exactly who was lost and how. I am incredibly grateful that our damage is so relatively small compared to so many that endured unimaginable pain, loss, torture, and ultimately death. Remember that figure of 6 million killed? It’s truly a ‘best guess’.
As a result of the huge numbers of Jewish immigrants to America, and particularly Hollywood, it seems as though the story of the 20th Century genocide of the Jewish people has been told in a multitude of ways, both overtly and covertly, via the machinations of the western world’s greatest entertainment producer. It has a double-effect. One is that the story is well known and given its dues as the great violation of human rights that it was. The other, more insidious effect is that people can become blasé about that story. I wonder, can this story be told too many times?
In short, I believe the answer is no.
I believe the story is a parable of great importance and must be remembered at all costs. Not because the genocide of the Jewish people is any more important, not because it is the only genocide involving millions of people. It surely is not. Nor is it important because it is the culmination of a thousand or more years of persecution and racism in Europe against the Jews.
It is important because it shows us the shadow of humanness. It is important because it speaks of how everyday people became murderers and torturers to so quickly and easily.
“It’s shocking and kind of sad to think that a film like this would have even more relevance than ever, but it’s also a reminder of just how important these stories are. They’re more than films, they’re dialogues around the way we treat each other and raise our children. They’re a way of educating ourselves, and more importantly the younger generations, about the dangerous habits of humans and the importance of fighting against intolerance and hate.”
He goes on to say:
“I guess that’s the aim of the film as a whole, is to allow the good and kindness within us to grow. We seem to need it a lot right now.”
And Taika, I’m right there with you buddy.
Days like today on which we reflect on that experience which has been handed to us via history lessons and mapped in our epigenetic inheritance are ultimately a reminder to us to place our focus firmly on human evolution. It is ‘kindness or die’ for us now.
In our day to day life, in our big moves in the world, my prayer is that we remember to go even beyond tolerance, to kindness and to love. Let’s focus on the ties that bind us, the things we have in common with each other — our children, our families, our basic humanness — and use these stories and tragedies to inform us on our path forward.
I spend each day reminding myself to stay out of criticism for others, to seek to understand difference, to avoid judgement and consciously choose compassion. I’m no saint. It’s not easy or even entirely natural. It’s a practice. One that I strive to perfect, in the knowledge that I am fallible and never will get it entirely right.
Yet intermingled with this striving is an intense determination that our togetherness will ensure our survival.
Today we remember the enormous human costs of the opposite path. Today we remember why we take the hard road and make different choices, why we lean towards love and acceptance each and every day.
May this be your path too.