From the Survivors
Holocaust from holokaustus or holokautus (Gr.) meaning completely burned up,
as in an offering in Leviticus, as translated into Septuagint Greek
I had no intention to tell a Holocaust story. I used to think I didn’t feel up to it because I experienced it one generation removed. I don’t feel that way any more.
Trauma, I feel it and the older I get the more the trauma I feel. It was passed to me in a more oblique way.
I come from a generation in which our parents protected us from that story. There were many survivors in my neighborhood when I was growing up; we knew they were different, we knew they had a story but we didn’t know what it was. It would not clarify until later in life.
There was a seriousness and a sadness about the survivors that I knew in my neighborhood. I felt as if I knew them, but I didn’t know them. There were hidden parts to their lives, I knew this. There was a hiddenness in our world that was different from other people.
Not long ago I helped a family bury their mother who was a survivor of Auschwitz. I didn’t know her, didn’t know her daughter or any of the family, all had relocated out of my town in recent years. The mother was to be buried here so I volunteered to help them out.
In telling me about her mother, her daughter described a scene that her mother often talked about. As a young girl her mother had been in the selection line at Auschwitz and her daughter told me how her mother had described the dreaded Mengele standing at the head of the line making the selection. What was most chilling was non-verbal in the description: the daughter made gestures with her hands that were precise and I am sure just as her mother had communicated them.
They were simple gestures, obscene in simplicity and obdurate judgment. The picture of Mengele making gestures that signified this one lives this one dies was abhorrent. It sowed and planted a ghastly picture in my mind I have revisited many times since I saw it.
In this week’s Torah, the reading connected to the events that we schedule around the Nazi horror memorials, after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, Moses refers to the surviving sons Elazar and Itamar (Lev.10:12) as survivors. That word survivors, I never noticed it before this year, ha-no-ta-rim. It’s used twice in that verse, once to refer to the sons and once to refer to the remains of the offerings made by fire. This is the book of Leviticus.
There is much written about the clumsy application of fire language and offerings’ language associated with the Nazi horror, thus the controversy over the word Holocaust. This year when I heard the story of the woman I buried, how inadequate the word survivor felt to me. It felt too passive for what this woman lived through; sitting with these people these lives these strangers who existed because she went one way the girl next to her the other way and in spite of the burdens laid on her fragile life she endured.
She endured became a mother and these people — her daughter kids grandkids a great grand child — they are ha-no-ta-rim, alive they thrive out of the devastation of mother’s early life. It seemed to me that’s more than surviving.
More. I recall my beloved teacher who walked out of Berlin just before the War and his response always to the perfunctory: how are you? Sur-vi-ving, in three sing-song syllables that even if you knew nothing about him you recognized a depth of story and triumph and ascent in that three syllabled response. Arbitrary and victorious, sur-vi-ving as in if not for this if not for that, I would not have survived and with a bow to those who didn’t.
Now this Torah, this word applied both to the remnant of the offering burnt by fire, and the two brothers alive ha-no-ta-rim, as against the other two who were not (they brought strange fire in Lev.10:2). Fire and survival, what is that link and what the danger what the aftermath?
And who gets through? Ha-no-ta-rim — we the survivors, the remnant, the rest of us. From the root yud-tav-resh that also gives extra, something from without, something acquired from an unexpected place, something brought in from without so to speak, or something that remains, remnant as if remnant was something inviolable and ascendant.
Ha-no-ta-rim, this year it has a necessity that transcends surviving. It’s a persistence about existence: what continues. What remains. What endures. What thrives.