Every remembrance must, of course, center around the human lives lost and persecuted during the Holocaust. I don’t keep track of the time I spend digging through archives of black-and-white photographs, but, I can tell you that I have the faces of many innocent victims of the Shoah seared into my brain, engraved in my soul. The collection of images speaks a language of sadness all its own.
Remembrance, afterall, doesn’t appear as if by magic. Remembrance is a matter of quite some work; sad work that is also full of images of life and beauty with no limit to the boundaries of grief, a work of something eternal and yet urgent in terms of time and space. It leaves a kind of callous on your soul, as if from working with a shovel all day on something you feel good about upon finishing.
This year I collected one hundred fifteen photos of Jewish victims of the Holocaust taken before the Third Reich took power—pictures of children and their families, elementary school classes, spouses, clubs, friends–taken in Germany, Poland, Hungary, The Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and France. I always read the biographical content connected to each; stories of full, happy lives gone up in smoke or buried in mass graves. Infants. Children. Mothers. Fathers. Grandmothers. Grandfathers. The hatred of the sick collective Nazi mind gave no quarter to anyone born Jewish. Aunts. Uncles. Friends. Nannies. Teachers. Workers. Rabbis. The force of evil knew no bounds as it worked through the Nazi influence, terrorizing the Christian majority of Europe into such a state of paralysis that it failed to love its neighbor or be a good Samaritan. Not that I am condemning them–there but for the grace of God go I. I can only hope that if I were in that same situation, God would give me the courage to do what was right.
Though the photos selected were mostly of happy events, of weddings and birthdays, births and bar mitzvahs, there was an eerie sense of still-born-ness, for lack of a better word, about each one. Sometimes I see the eyes of victims in my sleep; hear laughter where there now is none. I sometimes think I can hear the sound of darkness and see the emptiness of the surrounding silence, forever stunned that the non-Jewish world still largely ignores remembrance of those human beings who once laughed and sang, lived and breathed, right up until the time of being sent to horrible deaths in the heart of Christian Europe. And I am forever saddened that the Jewish people have been left to bear the burden of defending the memory of that catastrophe almost totally alone, while those who remained silent then, choose to largely remain silent still, even as: a) the voices of the remaining survivors slowly fade away, and b) as public schools increasingly back-burner the teaching of the Holocaust due to time and budget and emotional restraints, and as c) Holocaust denial gains increasing legitimacy on our college campuses, all in the name, ironically, of freedom of expression.
Eighty to a hundred people attended the remembrance event that I was fortunate enough to speak at on the 8th of April at SUNY-IT Utica-Rome, the audience largely made-up of history and psychology students, faculty members and the general public. The photos were projected onto two large screens in the auditorium, scrolling slowly as I spoke, even the tiniest of the precious children victims appearing fifteen feet tall behind me and to the right of the seated audience. I explained to the audience, or tried to explain, that while I had a few things to say, the night was dedicated to them, to the people behind those faces, appearing and dissolving from view on the giant screens just as they did in real life; a kind of visual metaphor of their expulsion from the realm of the living some seventy or so years ago.
After being interviewed by Lexie O’Connor of the local NBC affiliate, WKTV, her cameraman remarked how he could not take his eyes off the photographs as they appeared and dissolved every ten seconds, that the faces, the eyes of those pictured mesmerized him, sending chills down his spine. And he did an exceptional job of capturing that spirit in the visual aspect of the news report.
A Roman Catholic priest who attended said that every once in a while he attended a program that was spiritually meaningful and uplifting, this being one of them. Uplifting in what way? That some were still taking the time to remember those lost souls. He left the auditorium uplifted. What a blessing it was to meet that kind and sensitive soul.
Our Guest of Honor, Helen Spurling, ninety-three-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, could not attend as she wasn’t feeling well. True to her word, in the spirit of what she told me on the phone the week, prior, when I called her directly to invite her: “Mr. Hennessy, I just want you to know that all appointments I make are subject to sudden change… due to my excessive age.” Once finished chuckling–she was chuck-full of such quips, I found–I told her that all we wanted was for her to show up, light the first candle and carry home the biggest bouquet of flowers she ever got in gratitude for all she’s done to share her testimony with the world.
My good friend, John, who produced the event as Director of Student Activities, was going to see that the flowers made their way to Helen.
And somehow, that’s a big part of what it was all about in the first place.
It’s all a part of the many-faceted work of remembrance.
NBC affiliate WKTV Utica news report on the Yom HaShoah remembrance event at SUNY-IT, Utica, NewYork <scriptsrc=”http://player.bimvid.com/v2/vps/wktv/57e34e930567575ed09abe58a6b5e6af22d9fb70/ref=aHR0cDovL3d3dy53a3R2LmNvbS9uZXdzL2xvY2FsL0F1dGhvci1Ib2xvY2F1c3QtbmVlZHMtdG8tYmUtcmVtZW1iZXJlZC1hbmQtYWx3YXlzLXJlbWVtYmVyZWQtMjAyMDM4MDMxLmh0bWw”>