On the 2nd May, I lit a virtual candle to remember Sara Rozenberg. Sara was born in 1924 in Krasny Luch, Ukraine, and died in the Holocaust at the age of just 18. As I scrolled past the link to the virtual memorial campaign, my Facebook timeline began filling with posts shared by my friends commemorating the individual victims of the Holocaust they had lit candles for. The 2nd of May also happened to be the 27th of Nissan, the Jewish date on which victims of the Holocaust are remembered.
“Chaya Samsonowicz of Dzestochowa, perished at Auschwitz, aged just 6 years old.”
“Jacob Perla of Haifa, perished at Treblinka, 1943, aged just 5.”
Clicking the link led me to the website Illuminate the Past. With the simple double-tap of the screen, I had lit a virtual candle to commemorate just one of the six million Jewish victims. The option to “share this to your timeline” was then presented to me on the screen. I couldn’t help but think, was this virtual touch and share truly an act of remembrance? A name, a date, and a place of death was all I was told of Sara. By posting her name and place of death on my own page, was I truly honouring her life? I wondered how similar Sara would have been to me, what she was would have been like. Would we have thought about the same things?
The movement towards the memorialisation of individual victims of the Holocaust is the growing initiative taken by many contemporary memorial campaigns. Masorti Judaism has recently brought the Yellow Candle Project to the UK, in which individual candles are disseminated in an attempt to remember by name individuals who died in the Holocaust. The candle is modelled on the traditional Jewish memorial yahrzeit candle but is coloured yellow to resemble the stars that Jewish people were forced to wear as a mark of their religious identity.
Mati Kovachi, an Israel hi-tech billionaire from a family of Holocaust victims and survivors, last week pioneered a controversial Instagram project, in which an account was set up recounting the real-life story of Jewish girl, Eva Heyman, using the social media channels of a 21st century-teenager. In an attempt to bring Eva’s story onto a familiar platform, the project echoes the Yellow Candle’s campaign attempt to scale down Holocaust memorial from the collective to the individual level. In order to humanise the victims, the campaign attempts present their lives in reality as ordinary individuals with their own lives and experiences.
While we cannot claim to relate to these experiences of systematic persecution, the initiative proves successful in framing the victims as people, defined not only by their status as a victim of the Holocaust. Each of these people had their own friends, families, jobs and experiences. It is only when we consider this fact that we can begin to imagine the extent of all-encompassing, pervasive impact of the Holocaust not just on those who died, or those who survived, but on society as a whole.
Chaya, Jacob, and Sara were just three of the lives affected by the Holocaust. While we know that six-million Jews perished, the number of those impacted by the tragedy remains greater. Not only did the victims and survivors each have their own families, friends and colleagues who were subsequently affected, but there were those who sheltered and cared for Jewish people at the risk of their own lives or simply knew them from around town. We often hear the stories about the camps, the shootings, of Jewish fate being laid out in two options – death or survival.
But sticking to this binary of victim and survivor remains problematic. All those who survived continued to be victims of the Holocaust, spending their entire lives attempting to come to terms with profound loss and trauma, often proving unable to lead fully functioning lives as a result.
This traumatic inheritance is precisely why Bart van Es’ memoir, The Cut Out Girl, represents such an important turn in the field of individual Holocaust remembrance. Van Es’ memoir of the Jewish girl, Lien, who was sheltered by his grandparents in Holland during the Holocaust, is a moving tale of the difficulties and long-lasting impact on those, Jewish and non-Jewish, who survived yet remained victims to the effects of the Holocaust. These included not only Lien herself, but Van Es’ family who sheltered her.
Van Es presents their relationship, despite steeped in obvious love and compassion, as being fractured and turbulent, lasting long after the end of the war. Lien’s own struggle forging a relationship with Van Es’ grandmother, her confusion towards his grandfather, and her inability to wrestle with her own position within the framework of their family culminates in the tragedy and break-down of family ties common amongst survivors of the Holocaust. Indeed, Lien is eventually cut-off entirely from her foster family and uninvited from the funeral of her foster mother.
Van Es’ memoir is a poignant reminder that not all stories of survival emerging from the damage of the Holocaust are of triumph and reconciliation. The physical and psychological effects of the Holocaust lasted well beyond the liberation of Auschwitz, or the Allied occupation of Germany. Lien could not just return to normal life with the Van Esses once the Germans had been defeated. We must avoid attempting to romanticise the experiences of the survivors of tragedy, for liberation did not mean the end of suffering.
To remember those who suffered includes acknowledging that survival did not necessarily mean freedom. For the surviving victims of the Holocaust, the lack of freedom from trauma, mental and physical distress mean the longer lasting effects of physical and cultural loss did not release survivors from their victimhood. Van Es himself, not Jewish and writing seven decades after Lien returned to his grandparents throughout the memoir still attempts to reconcile with the effects the Holocaust had on his own family.
Despite this, the plea for memorialisation on an individual level is not always honoured. Just days ago, a German doll with hair from a Holocaust victim was found to have been displayed in a Turkish toy museum. The curator alleged that the victim whose hair was being used was killed at Auschwitz in 1941, with the doll having been on display since the museums opening in 2017. The dignity of the individual had been entirely eroded in the process, reducing them to just one of the thousands whose hair was sheared and stored in camps controlled by the Nazis.
As a result, the individual whose hair is now on the museum doll remains imprisoned in the form intended to them by their persecutors, effectively frozen in their oppression. We must remember the liberation of the victims of the Holocaust only began with the liberation of the camps. Lien’s powerful individual story remains helpful in the quest to humanise the experiences of the 6 million, as ultimately her story reminds us that to remember the individuals is to remember the collective.