When I was a child, I was called Maishe Avram, frequently using my middle as well as my first name. I was also instructed to always use my middle initial in writing my name on school work. So even at the tender age of 6 or 7, I had the formidable moniker of Moses A. Birnbaum. This was not your typical little boy's name. It seems to me today more suitable, say, for a rabbi.
Why the emphasis? My middle name is after my grandfather, Avraham Birnbaum, a victim of Nazism. May God avenge him, his wife, my grandmother, Sarah Toibeh; their daughter; my Aunt Rachel, and their large extended family.
I remember sitting at the table on a glorious sunny spring Sabbath day. We had had a delicious meal and wonderful familial singing of "zmirot", the ritual songs for the Sabbath table. Sitting with us was my maternal aunt who came to the United States in the early '2-s but lost many relatives in Lithuania during the war. She sighed and said, "Even on a day like today, they killed Jews." I have many more early memories of the Holocaust impinging on my life and the life of my family.
As I grew older, I began to study and read voraciously about this darkest period of Jewish history. During my years in rabbinical and graduate school, I would often "binge" on Holocaust reading even when not required for course work.
I particularly recall the genre of "yizkor bicher" books by survivors and emigrants memorializing the destroyed communities of Europe which they left. We had one such volume in our living room from my father's town of Rozwadow, Poland. I leafed through 200 of its counterparts in the stacks of the Brandeis University library. The late great Yiddish novelist, Chaim Grade, called these unique literary works "papirene matsayvos," paper monuments. That is what they continue to be to this day. These books contain the histories of these Jewish towns describing life there before the war and how the communities were destroyed. Typically, they list the names of all who were murdered and to the extent possible, contain stories and other information about them.
I have read numerous technical histories on how the Nazis and their collaborators accomplished their horrors. I have read theological and philosophical writings trying to find meaning in the catastrophe. I have read novels and poems. I have seen movies and plays and exhibitions. I have visited Holocaust sites in Europe. But nothing, in my opinion, memorializes our martyrs better than these memorial books. Perhaps the reason is this. As much as the Nazis tried to dehumanize the Jews; as much as they sought to make them into hateful objects and mere numbers on death lists and bills of lading; the memorial books come to remind us of the victims' humanity. They give them a "shem v'zaycher," a name and a remembrance.
An important opportunity exists for us all in the form of PJC's own Book of Remembrance of Holocaust martyrs. Please call the office for information. By including the names of people in our families who perished in the Holocaust, we win a small but significant victory against those who obliterated their existence but not our memory of them.
It is important to research the names of martyrs who may not be readily known by us. While on my recent trip to Israel, I learned from my father's cousin about an entire family related to me, of which I had no previous knowledge. Tragically, this was because no one survived from that line.
For many years, I was obsessed by my grandparents' deaths. I am now more interested in how they lived and am applying those lessons to my own life. As a community, I think we are all moving in that direction. The establishment of the New York City Holocaust Museum in Battery Park City as an institution devoted to the Jewish heritage, past, present and future, as well as being a Holocaust memorial, speaks to this approach. I urge you all to visit and plan to report to you in detail on my own experiences there in a forthcoming article.
Two upcoming events not to be missed!
1. Collective Belated Female Naming Service - at second day of Passover services, April 12, 9 a.m.
Information elsewhere in this issue.
2. PJC Grand Celebration of Israel's 50th - Wednesday, April 29, 7 - 10 p.m.
For the first time in our area, an Israeli style Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) celebration has been planned. Come join us for music, dance and Israeli food. A representative of the State of Israel will greet us. Featured entertainers are the Golden Land Klezmer Troupe. Their spectacular and energizing musicianship has dazzled diverse audiences throughout the world. Guaranteed to be one of the best places to celebrate the jubilee west of Tel Aviv.