Lessons From a Ten Year Old: Tales from Yad Vashem

I remember the day my little girl was born, just over ten years ago. I was the first one to hold her after the doctor pulled her from my wife’s womb. Tears streamed down my face as I gazed into this little person’s squinting eyes, wrapped up like a burrito, and saw her future in the reflection of tears. At that moment, I dreamt in my mind’s eye of all of the special milestones she would celebrate. Her first steps, first words, starting school, taking the training wheels off of her bicycle, skinned knees, her Bat Mitzvah, prom dates, college visits, walking down the aisle and many more special times. I imagine many people with kids have had similar experiences.

However, when in my arms, just a few minutes into her life and even as recent as last week, I never anticipated the rite of passage of my daughter reaching the appropriate age to visit Yad Vashem; Israel’s Memorial to the fallen of the Holocaust.

Our daughter is a precocious kid who is very dialed into her emotions. She might be ten and half years young but emotionally she is older and more sophisticated than I am the majority of the time, even to the less biased observer. My wife and I discussed this junction at length and we agreed that the choice would be hers to make as to whether she would visit. Just because she could did not mean she had to. We put no pressure on her verdict. Our daughter chose to go to Yad Vashem.

As she strolled through the halls of the museum, captivated with the photos, videos, testimonies and history, I saw a girl who is usually talkative and full of energy fidgeting with her lip and noticeably pensive. She, like most adults, had many more questions than answers. She was trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

When the tour ended with a personal story from the museum docent about his parents, adults wiped tears from their cheeks. My daughter was stoic and non-emotive. Was this one of those rare moments where she was a pure ten year old and not the mature, high-level person I was used to, I wondered?

Now my curiosity got the best of me. Did we make a mistake by allowing her to visit the museum? Was she not ready? Did she not “get it?” Was she more focused on iPads and music? All of that would be fine too, but I was second-guessing our decision to take the training wheels off and allow her to begin this important ride down history’s road concerning our past.

I delicately tried to pry some thoughts and emotions out of this usually talkative prepubescent girl for the hours and days that ensued. She was buttoned up – a strange phenomenon for ANY ten-year-old girl, especially mine. I made no progress. Finally, out of sheer frustration, I pulled the headphones from her ears and blurted out over Taylor Swift playing in the background, “Honey, did you understand anything that you saw at Yad Vashem yesterday? Do you have any questions? You haven’t said a word about it?!”

She replied as only she could.

“Dad, the Holocaust was horrible and really sad but, when we were here in Israel this summer lots of people died during the war and the sirens and hiding in shelters was really sad and scary too. And going to Har Herzl, the military cemetery where so many soldiers died for Israel is really sad too. And dad, you are always talking on the phone about Iran not getting a bomb and I know it is because they could hurt Israel with that bomb. So what is different between Iran and Hamas and the Nazis? Don’t they all want to hurt Jews and Israel? The Holocaust was bad and sad but so are all of these other things.”

She then put her headphones back on her head and picked up with Taylor Swift where she left off.

I, on the other hand, felt like I had the wind sucked from my gut. She summed up a reality that we all know but perhaps are afraid most times to admit.

Indeed, the magnitude of the Holocaust is unparalleled. The scope of the atrocities and systemized killing of communities and Jewish families is beyond comprehension. Yet, for this little girl, the holocaust is as removed from her history as the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. She doesn’t know Holocaust survivors. They are not her teachers in schools or sitting near her in shule. They are historical figures. They are in no way real-life, modern people in her neighborhood.

When I was ten, I grew up looking at every old person’s forearm for tattooed blue numbers. For my daughter she looks for a dangling Hamsa and red-stringed bracelets. She did not grow up in the wake of the survivor’s generation, like I and most of the readers of this column did. 1945, while yesterday for some, is a long, time ago to her and her peers.

So, what she is really saying is, why is the challenge of that generation so much harder than the challenge of this generation? Besides the magnitude and scope of the Holocaust, I had little retort. For this innocent and mature young girl, this is where her confusion was most acute. She survived sirens and lived with fear and knew of funerals for soldiers and civilians. Why isn’t there a museum to that pain and torture and death?

What my ten year old taught me through her visit to Yad Vashem is what we know but are afraid to say: Jews have always been the victims of anger and hate and are targeted for their mere existence. Whether by Zyklon B in a gas chamber or by suicide bomber on a public bus or by a terrorist sniper inside a tank in Gaza, the pain for each family member is immeasurable. The tears taste the same. We have been persecuted with different weapons throughout history. When will there be a memorial to recognize the end of that persecution against the Jews instead of the latest iteration of it?

Sadly, I have no answer for her.

Yad Vashem is a sacred place dedicated to the memory, resistance and survival of Eastern European Jewry during World War II. It is important to place wreaths in its halls and to make pilgrimages when in Israel. It is a critical piece of the modern Jewish narrative and an important building block of the Jewish state.

Through this unanticipated rite of passage for my daughter I gathered new fear and sadness in Yad Vashem. Not of the systematic killing of 6 million Jews, rather, for the fear that this memorial will lose its potency and relevance as Jews feel loss and pain today in place of remembering the suffering of yesterday.

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