There's No other Tikkun

TWhen did the Holocaust begin and when did it end?
When Israeli youngsters come to Massuah - the Institute for Holocaust Studies, for a daylong Seminar, they are requested to plot points on a long piece of paper representing the axis of time. One says, the Holocaust began on Crystal Night. Another says, at Vansee, when the Nazis decided on the "Final Solution". Many marked Auschwitz as the horrific starting point.

The various answers are not the result of ignorance, but a profound manifestation of the complex linkage between time and memory. The most interesting answers, I found, mark the end of the Holocaust. Many of the young people pointed to the end of W.W.II. Many more marked 1948 - the establishment of the State of Israel, but there was one who wrote that the Holocaust only ended in 1967- the Six days War. And there was a young man who declined to mark a final date at all---

When I was 25, in the early 1980s, I began writing about the scar of the Holocaust. Sabras like myself dared at last to confront their parents' past, slowly departing from the fear of the "non Israeli" reflection they saw in the mirror.
A textbook for first graders, published in 1957, follows the cycle of ISRAELIANA in creation. On page 110 Pessach ends. Page 111 celebrates Israel's Independence Day.
Although at that time the law of "Yad Vashem" already existed, as was the official Holocaust Memorial day, which in years to come will follow Pessach, The Holocaust is mentioned in the book, only as an echo, implied by the opening lines of the chapter for Israel's Independence Day: "Israel is our land, the land of our forefathers, homeland to every Jew in the world."

Our break from the Jewish identity was traumatic. It was not a natural stage in the development of a people, one of many luxuries we could not afford. Normans and Saxons had become British through long years on one island, but our transformation from "Jews" to "Israelis" was harsh, painful, costly. It took my generation more than three decades to reconcile ourselves with our ancestors' identity. Not to see it as a negative image. The 1980s marked the time of grave change in the concept of Heroism - "Gvurah" - from the Hebrew word "Gever"- Man. (Please note that the official memorial day is called in Israel "Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day".) This change involves the Lebanon War, a controversial war, the only one that was inconsistent with the concept of "Israel Defense Forces". At last, we became mature enough to face another self-image, a more fragile, vulnerable one, and to ask ourselves, perhaps for the first time, what would we have done in our parents' shoes?

For me it was the transition from ceremonial Holocaust to a private Holocaust, like the title of a story from that particular 1980s collection "Hat of Glass" that focused on second generation Israelis. The survivor wasn't a character in a black and white film, in a history book, a slogan in school. The survivor was very close, right in the kitchen where I grew up, next to the pan with the meatballs and mashed potatoes. The Holocaust survivor was my own mother.

In its ancient meaning, the art of story telling is also the art of healing, when the story succeeds in pulling something from the deep hinterland. Through my story telling I embraced my mother's personal account of pain and loss, and the scar she would carry for the rest of her life. In the process I was conscious of the virtues of healing, yet I was also well aware of the fact that a complete repair - Tikkun isn't possible.

This is an on-going dialogue. With my mother, with other survivors, mainly with myself, knowing full well that time is running out. It is our last chance to hear about the private Holocaust as a first hand testimony. To name it.

I see writing as my quest along the axis of time, like those young Israelis who try to mark dates. I do not do it out of nostalgia, but from a deep need to seek the primeval components under our Israeli shield that are still in operation today. First, we had to trace them down, than admit they existed, not to run away from their consequences. Writing about the scar of the Holocaust is my rebellion against the rigid model of the "Neo Israeli", supposedly untainted by the past. Coming to terms with that inner drum which echoed in the Israeli psyche all those years, but we pushed it aside and refused to really listen.

There is indeed a cycle in the Israeli awareness regarding the Holocaust. From silence into varying degrees of openness. This curve goes up and down, as Israel continues to live under threat, unable to find real peace, and as long as our thirst to normalize ourselves dominates. In this era of hedonism, post Zionism, and the illusion that we can be as any other people in the world, the Holocaust is pushed once again into a ritual corner.

Israel is engulfed in its present, which grips her against her will. Israel mistrusts the future, and therefore she's scared of her own past, for it might pull her backwards. We meet here under the title "Writing the Jewish Future". I must confess my personal fear: "Writing the Israeli Future" is still a question mark.

Yet, I'm not afraid anymore to risk my Israeli identity. No longer threatened by some "Old Diasporic Jew" surfacing to undermine it. My Israeliness is solid enough. As a writer, my challenge is to accept the disturbing, less presentable components of my identity - the scared, the vulnerable, the stubborn and entrenched self.
As a child of survivors facing the Holocaust was chosen for me. I didn't choose the pain. The suffering and loss our parents experienced was an inescapable transparent presence in our homes. Finally, there came an inevitable moment where one could no longer avoid facing one's biography. Will our next generations choose to confront the Holocaust out of their own independent choice? I don't know the answer. I can only hope.

This sinister century is almost over. The millennium is near. The issue of remembrance transcends the survivors' own doorstep and the State of Israel. It is the quest of every Israeli, every Jew, every human being. How shall we lead memory into the future?

I went to the dead to seek for answers. People on the verge of their certain death, leaving a testament to the yet unborn. Henrik Goldschmidt, a doctor and teacher, known as author Janusz Korczak wrote: "A man should know how to preserve with a pencil the things he must keep. Whoever does not know it is an illiterate... here is a scene, face, a tree - in an instant they will all vanish from the eyes of the world."
The imperative form of the verb "remember" appears in the Bible 172 times. Remembrance in Judaism is a religious Mitzvah.

I asked my mother, how do you want memory to prevail? Should the model be that of the Hagadda, or that of the Jewish expulsion under the Spanish Inquisition? Will memory fade into a formula, either ceremonial, or liturgical, with canonized texts and defined customs?
My father once told me a story. When Napoleon Bonaparte went to conquer Russia he arrived one day at a small Jewish "Shtetel". It was the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. Napoleon saw all the Jews sitting on the ground and crying. He sent his famous Marshal Ney to inquire why. The Marshal returned, explaining: "Those people cry over an event that occurred 2000 years ago."
"What is this event?" asked Napoleon.
Marshal Ney came back with the answer: "They cry over the destruction of their Temple."
According to my father's story, Napoleon said: "People who cry over something that happened 2000 years ago, will never be erased from history."

"Hat of Glass" is about to be re-published next month. But I'm no longer satisfied with merely writing. I feel I must expend my activity, beyond the literary work, important as it may be. This is the reason why I joined the board of Massuah - An Institute for Holocaust Studies that educates young people through sessions of awareness and workshops. I saw there a 17 years old boy who painted a dark world surrounded by fences made of scotch-tape, emphasizing, "It's always possible to take them off". An Israeli boy indeed...

I was asked by my publisher to add a 1997 story to the new edition of "Hat of Glass".
Five minutes away from my house there's a park. I often take my seven years old twins to the playground that bears the name "Celine's Park". Last spring when my children began to read, they found out that their lovely playground was named after a girl, their age, who perished in the Holocaust. Her parents survived and they had built the garden.
To this childish haven I dedicated my new story. We found ourselves, both children and mother, sharing an effort, a joint enterprise to remember one Jewish girl who died more than fifty years ago.
Is writing a Tikkun? In English this word means mending or repair. In Hebrew it means much more. In the last paragraph of my story I wrote:

These are my last children. I will be buried beside her. Parents and children in a geometric progression. One day the children of my children's children will come, point to the graves and say: Here is grandmother, here is mother. That is the right order. A world made of the colored sticks, with which they learn arithmetic in school.
But one and one are not always two. Nineteen Thirty-Eight till Nineteen Forty-Four. Celine is my children's age. Her park, Nineteen Ninety Seven. It isn't fun when they kill you just like that when you're a kid, my children say. A park is not enough, they say. We would have done more things. A candy store in her name, for example.
My neighborhood. Tel Aviv. The Holocaust in a playground, on my corner. We shall be buried together, mother. That is the only way to heal. Our true Tikkun.

Public Presentation at the Convention "Writing the Jewish Future", San Francisco, February 1998


Nava Semel and her mother Mimi Artzi, Photo by Shirley Barenholz



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