My alarm woke me up at 2:45 a.m. Groggy, and frankly not in a good mood, I dragged myself to Lehman Lawn. In my leggings and hoodie—something my very strict European grandparents would frown upon—I did something that would make them extremely proud.
With the few lights left on in Barnard Library, we stood in front of a small table, in the cold, and deciphered the names on a horrid list of the victims of the Shoah. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we continued the tradition of the 24-hour reading of names.
Whether it’s coming home from 1020 or Butler, it’s not rare to be up this late on campus. Yet, no one else was there at this late hour. Only three of us stood in the cold, reading names—names no one came to hear. Even when it became light and people began walking by, no one bothered to stop. We were there as grandchildren of survivors. For us, sleep did not matter. What did matter was the sound of those names, resonating on campus. It was silent, and the names echoed in our ears and reverberated through our minds.
I personally never thought I would do this—I used to be too young, and even now, consider myself too emotional about the Shoah. The Holocaust took three-fourths of my family and left us broken. But with the reality of my grandfather’s sickness, I felt it was my duty to participate in the name reading, not only as a Jew but also as a deeply grateful granddaughter.
My upbringing was tainted by the fear of it all happening again: the plates of food my grandmother forced me to finish—in case it was our last meal; the nightmares that prevent my grandfather from sleeping for the past 60 years; and, of course, my elders’ animosity toward anything Polish, Austrian, or German. I felt the Holocaust every day, not only on Yom Hashoah.
When the subject of remembrance comes up, friends always ask me about my family’s story. They question me about why I haven’t had the courage to ask my ailing grandfather about his life in Auschwitz. They tell me that if I don’t ask him about it, his story will be forgotten. In order to not forget, they want me to dig out my grandfather’s worst nightmares: “Grandpapa Felix, how was it to be in the ghetto and see both your parents die in front of you at the age of six? How did it feel to realize at the end of the war that you were one of the only survivors of your 12 siblings?”
And yet they ask me why I don’t want to go party in Berlin with them this summer—despite the history that I feel still lingers. Or they ask me, “Why,” despite my last name, “don’t you speak Polish?”
Barnard and Columbia have a large Jewish community. Yet, that morning, I never felt more alone. Most people on campus didn’t know it was Yom Hashoah because they have begun to forget.
My generation is asked to forgive the countries that participated in the Holocaust. Forgiving the older generation of Germans, Poles, and Austrians creates acceptance. Acceptance also dissociates these events from younger generations of Germans, Poles, and Austrians. While I am all for accepting the younger generations and not associating the Holocaust with them, it is more difficult to do so with the older generations that were present—and especially their countries as a whole.
Many distance themselves from the Shoah in order to not live in the past and the sadness. After all, we can’t constantly live thinking about what has already happened. We can’t move forward until we resolve how we feel about the question of forgiveness.
So there must be a way to forgive without forgetting—which seems to be sometimes a popular route—but I haven’t quite figured out what that is.
But maybe we can do both on Yom Hashoah. Through the reading of each individual name—the names of my family, so quickly erased from the world—we commemorated and honored them. Jewish or not, directly tied to the Shoah or not, don’t just lounge in your room watching Game of Thrones. This day of remembrance should not only be for those who are Jewish and who lost loved ones, but instead an occasion for all Columbians to come together as a community to remember and not forget.
Knowing that others are still affected by this, and that I am not alone, living in the past, reading those names, can only help forgiveness.
Although the event has passed, I ask that next year, you come read, come listen, and come remember. The worst thing we can do is forget.
The author is a Barnard College first-year.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.