This blog post was written by Alejandra Horwitz, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and working in Haifa.
It was ten o’clock when the world stood still. The air, thick with humidity and unseasonable warmth, seemed to have swallowed the typical chorus of car horns and pedestrian voices. For two minutes only the birds dared to speak, and in a silence so profound, it felt sacrilegious not to urge them, too, to quiet down. What little wind blew in Kiryat Haim that morning did so so gently that the flags seemed not to billow in the breeze but in the sound waves of the siren that echoed through the streets. The siren, long and quivering, warbled on over the bowed heads and heavy hearts of Israel.
The solemnity of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, is ubiquitous. It speaks to a pain that is at once intensely personal and markedly communal, a relic of the not-so-distant past and a reminder of the precariousness of the present. It reminds the Jewish people that in times of peril and persecution, remembrance is an act of activism.
Marty Hershkowitz is, in this way, a lifelong activist. He has spent decades creating and honoring the memories of the family he lost to the Holocaust. A poet by trade, Marty tells stories of life in Auschwitz and beyond through the eyes of family he never met, or else with whom he never spoke. He acknowledges that some may call his work disingenuous, inherently fictitious, a threat, even, to the legitimacy of the curated, fact-checked narratives that others share–but he doesn’t care.
Like so many others, Marty’s parents rarely spoke of what they had endured. When they did it was in broad strokes–names, dates, deaths. He was not raised on stories. Instead, he was raised on the unacknowledged and unresolved pain and anger with which they lived, died, and parented–pain and anger they imparted to him and he, in turn, to his children. Writing poetry has provided Marty a sense of catharsis, diluting the trauma that throbs in his chest. If his parents were acid, he says, he is lemon juice, and his children lemonade.
I met Marty under a patchwork of warm and fluorescent lights, fitted in the low-slung ceilings of a windowless basement room of the ANU Museum of the Jewish People. He does not project an air of gravitas, in fact, at first glance, he is hardly distinguishable from the two middle aged men next to whom he sits–save perhaps the years between them. When he begins to speak, he does so seated, staring off into the middle distance, or else furrowing his brow and squeezing his eyes shut as a slideshow lights up the board behind him. He rattles off his family history by rote, “This is my uncle who died in the Holocaust,” he says pointing to an underexposed photograph, yellowed long before it was digitized. “These pictures are all I have left,” he finishes flatly. It’s a line he seems to have spoken many times. The subtle vibrato of his voice does not betray emotion, but age. Like the liver spots that fleck his hands, the quiver in his voice reminds those present of the yawning gap between then and now.
Marty does not read his own poems. Perhaps he does not think his tone and cadence, both of which lay bare Chicago roots, would do them justice. Instead, a woman named Noga, herself a daughter of a survivor and Holocaust writer, reads them out. She does so slowly, intentionally, letting certain lines hang in the air, fighting back tears as others catch in her throat. Marty, like the rest of us, listens intently, rubbing the snow-white stubble on his chin. Now and then, he rocks gently back and forth, moved both figuratively and literally by the words he wrote. It is a heavy task, to write so prolifically about such horrors, but it is one Marty bears dutifully. Whether he admits to it or not–his patent humility pushes the needle strongly toward the latter–Marty sees himself as a sort of catcher in the rye, catching stories before they disappear. He feels that not to write and share these stories would be to allow those to whom they belonged to fade away, unremembered, unmourned, nothing more than ghosts.
To mourn those lost in the Holocaust is to make them real, to acknowledge that “Never Again,” is not about striving for a better future, but remembering a brutal past. There are times, he insists, to draw parallels, to look ahead, to give speeches, but this is not one of them. This is a time to mourn and to ache and to connect to a pain that exists beyond time and beyond truth.
When, after more than an hour of history and poetry, Marty opens the floor to questions, he responds with what I recognize must be a signature blend of mild discomfort, ambivalence, modesty, and brusqueness. When asked about himself, he speaks broadly, licking his lips when the words don’t come, the occasional “...or whatever,” punctuating the sentence fragments he lets peter out. When an Israeli soldier asks him about the purpose, in his view, of Yom HaShoah, he answers succinctly, before asking him the same–not a challenge, but a point of curiosity.
Most questions are asked softly, reverently, barely carrying over the gentle hum of the air conditioner. Some elicit quick responses, others clarifying questions, others still a rumbling, contemplative “Uhhh…” It is only at the provocation of an elderly woman whose elegance is evidenced not just in her clothes, but the clarity of her tone, that Marty stirs. She disagrees, she says–the clean lines of her silver bob swaying as she shakes her head–with Marty’s assertion that it is possible to grieve the Holocaust without having lost someone to it, or, in the absence of personal loss, without being moved solely by its magnitude or monstrosity. Marty disagrees with a fervor that his even temperament had lulled me into believing he was not capable of. Loss of any sort, he insists, unphased by the disapproval on her face, is the only lens we will ever need to do so. He does not seem to convince her, but he convinces me.
After all, there will come a time when, try as they may, men like Marty will no longer be able to breathe another life into names which have long since ceased to be familiar. But no such day will come when someone will live without knowing loss. And so long as that is true, no day will come when we are not capable of grieving on Yom HaShoah.