Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ask the Rabbi: is the Holocaust beyond condolence?

When I was an innocent child of 15, a public school teacher suggested I read the memoir, Night by Elie Wiesel. 

He did so because I was curious about his Judaism. Reading about 15 year old Elie's loss of innocence in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex tore the curtain off my own daydreaming girlhood.
Buckenwald concentration camp, 1945. Weisel lays in 2nd row, 7th from left. 
Photo taken (c) by Private H. Miller. (Army) - U.S. Defence Visual Information Center
Finishing the brutal narrative, I passed it on to my mother. She was glad to read it but expressed sorrow that I had. I went on to read many more survivor accounts.

Then last month, breakfasting with friends, I asked Meyer if he had any family still in Poland. "They are all gone," was his reply. It was not a happy tale of emigration; it was the Holocaust. I slumped and sighed. And later wondered:  what is the appropriate condolence response here? Should I write a note?

"It is a complicated situation."

The first words of advice offered by Rabbi Aaron L. Starr, Director of Education and Youth at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, did not surprise me. But with remarkable insight, Rabbi Starr unraveled the sensitive topic.

"Your response may depend on the intimacy of the relationship between your acquaintance and their relative(s) who perished in the Holocaust. If they never knew the decedent, they probably have an intellectual response--rather than emotional. This would be similar to a family with relatives who died in the Civil War, or had a relative who was murdered; the mindset would be 'this is a piece of family history.'"
"In life, tragedies and joys mark our souls."
Rabbi Starr counseled that it is always wise to approach the incidence of a death with sensitivity and awareness. "We cannot judge others."  How survivors feel about a death--whether it occurred decades or days ago, is their personal business.

The phrase, "NEVER FORGET" often accompanies Holocaust exhibits, memorials and memoirs. Should that impassion our sympathy with humanitarian zeal? Should I consider a time-honored memorial tradition like planting a tree in Israel?
Photo by Ted Percival

"They may not be in mourning, and such a gesture would be unnecessary," replied Rabbi Starr. "Unlike someone losing a family member on 911 who, even after fourteen years, may very well still be grieving. This is why sensitivity and awareness should be your guide."

The Rabbi continued,"'Never Forget' is part of our Jewish ethos," Stories and memories are certainly a powerful means to 'never forget.' "You could ask the person you are speaking with: 'would you be willing to tell me more?'  That type of question gives them an out. Respect the yes or the no.  

The Condolence Coach feels that a simple note will be a caring gesture. Simple but sincere elements will:

  • express respect
  • extend a 'quiet' sympathy at this piece of their family history
  • ask the question, 'would you tell me more about these family members, sometime?'
Thank you for caring!

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