This Shabbat we remember Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day.
When I was a child we used to go up to London to lay a wreath at the Holocaust Memorial in Hyde Park. The synagogue put on a special bus on a Sunday morning and all the Cheder kids were invited to attend and travelled up to town together.
I was 11 or 12 before my mother let me attend. It wasn’t that she hid the facts of the Shoah from me and my sister, I think we knew from quite a young age that the Holocaust had happened, even if the enormity of the six million victims was something we could not comprehend. Actually, now I realise as an adult that it’s still something very hard for any of us to understand.
My synagogue is in an affluent suburb of London, and still seems to me like a very normal British environment. There was a mix of rich and poor but on the whole people seemed quite comfortable, mostly owning their own homes. The Jewish community all the more so. And yet I knew very young that some of them spoke English with an accent, that some of the nice old ladies who used to give me a sweet or rub my head affectionately, had come from other places, a long time ago. But it was all very normal. Only one night there was a special evening for Kindertransport, and I was allowed to stay up late to attend it. I must have been 8 or 9. And I remember to this day that it was the first time I saw adults crying in public. Maybe it was Muli or Margot, Gretel or Gertrude, I remember the ladies but forget whose story it was – women from Vienna, from Germany, from Hungary, who had left behind their earlier lives and escaped the Nazis. They had been the lucky ones, coming to England and settling in comfortable suburbia.
Here in Singapore seems one more step removed from the Holocaust. For my generation, we lived with Holocaust survivors – they were our elders, perhaps sometimes our grandparents, but rarely our parents. As a third generation we listened to their stories with interest, our curiosity piqued, but not in the same way as our parents or the second generation, who inherited the traumas and the shadows directly from survivors themselves.
But what about our children – the fourth generation. Passover just passed – and in the story of the four sons, a generational interpretation can be used to examine this very question. The wise son as the first generation – present, knowing how things were. The wicked son as the second generation – rejecting and rebelling, but in direct combat with those present, engaged in filial tussle. The simple son as the third generation – still able to engage and ask “what was that?”, still present. But as for the fourth generation…the link starts to disappear…the questions are unable to be asked…and there is no fifth child.
In Singapore too we seem far geographically from the shadow of the Shoah. Or at least we think we are. Jews were rounded up and incarcerated under the Japanese occupation here too, even if they were not slaughtered and taken to the camps. Similarly we know the story of the Shanghai ghetto and the remarkable fortune that more than 20000 Jews enjoyed to escape Europe for Asia and obtain their laissez passer – the documents that would gain them their freedom.
Politically too we seem far from the Holocaust here. The Government enshrines the importance of religious harmony and clamps down on any intolerance and persecution. Singapore enjoys close ties with Israel, and many citizens here speak warmly of the support the latter gave to this country in the early days of its independence, and ever since. Certainly we are not living in France – rocked again by yet another anti-Semitic murder in the past month – or Hungary – who on Sunday again re-elected a Prime Minister who has not been slow to play on anti-Semitic tropes as he lays out his populist vision for the country.
And yet – while the Holocaust seems a world away from us – in time, in geography, in politics – we are not so foolish or so comfortable that we can forget what happened. Those who forget history are damned to repeat it. And as Jews we have a long history to look back on, a long history to come to terms with, as we seek to understand where we are in the current day.
For sure, today we have a State of Israel, a homeland for Jews worldwide. Whenever a Jew needs to leave their country – and they do need to, we see this in Venezuela and Turkey today, just as we have seen it in many other countries in the world in the past – at last they have somewhere to go. This helps us believe that there will not be another Jewish holocaust, and for some people, they support Israel as a kind of insurance policy against future calamity.