A pink jersey with grey and light blue flowers found in a pile of discarded clothes… This is how a Jewish child discovered that his baby sister and mother had been among the victims of a mass shooting in Ponary Forest.
Israel Gurwicz told his story for the first time, 65 years after it happened, to his granddaughter, Courtneigh Cloud Bernstein, who dramatised the horror in a gut-wrenching play, The Boys from the Ashes.
“I knew learning about the Holocaust, that it was always difficult to comprehend the scale, the numbers like six million. I wanted it to be human, for the audience to see this one little boy’s story,” Courtneigh explained to the more than 1400 mourners who attended this year’s Holocaust and Heroism memorial service on Sunday 23 April at Pinelands Cemetery.
Collective words like ‘holocaust’, ‘genocide’, ‘six million’ are too abstract, too vast for the mind and heart to bear. They become neutralised, they lose their power amidst the enormity of their implications. So we process the horror through individual narratives and potent symbolism.
This idea that individual narratives are the emotional heartbeat of memory — as dramatised by Courtneigh Cloud and her grandfather’s story — was also the 2017 central Yad Vashem theme as pointed out by Israeli Ambassador Lenk, Restoring Their Identities: The Fate of the Individual During the Holocaust. It was also latent in the memories of German refugee, Sonja Keschner and stated in the litany of children — their names, ages and the camps in which they died — called out by representatives of Bnei Akiva, Habonim Dror and Netzer youth camps.
As the last of the Holocaust survivors reach the end of their lives, the burden of responsibility and the weight of memory falls to second and third generation witnesses like Courtneigh, actively perpetuating the legacy of their grandparents.
Elie Wiesel said, “To forget the victims means to kill them a second time”. So, explained Courtneigh, “I couldn’t prevent the first death. I surely must be capable of saving them from a second.” Wiesel said, ‘To listen to a witness is to become a witness, and that consoles us.’ It consoled him, he said, to know that many have listened and there are many more generations of witnesses, ready to stand guard against tyranny and hate — long after he is gone. Mr Wiesel is talking to me, he is talking to us. It is today I stand before you as a witness. Israel Gurwicz’s witness. Little three-year old Deborah’s witness. His mother Bluma, and his father Moshe Hirsch’s witness.”
If the individual narrative is our route to remembrance, the symbol of this year’s memorial was the butterfly. Part one of the ceremony that included recitals by the Herzlia Vocal Ensemble and a haunting rendition of Meir lebn Eybik written and composed by Leyb Rosenthal, a Vilna poet as murdered in the Estonian concentration camp, Klooga, performed by Caely-Jo Levy — ended with a poem by Pavel Friedmann, The Butterfly written at Theresienstadt concentration camp in June, 1942. On September 29th, 1944 Pavel was deported to Auschwitz, where he died. There are other links between butterflies and the Holocaust. In the children’s barracks of Majdenek concentration camp liberators found walls covered with hundreds of butterflies, scratched and etched with fingernails and pebbles. These butterflies were a metaphor for the tenacity of hope, the indomitable freedom of spirit and the transformation of these children’s souls into dreams beyond the darkest of realities.
Between the first and second half of the ceremony, attendees, all of us witnesses, wrote messages on the wings of paper butterflies: names of victims, words of hope, notes of remembering that were pegged to strings flanking the cemetery.
Through the haunting words of Ani ma amin, The Partisan Song, a Ladino reading in memory of the immigrants of the doomed boat Pentcho; through the placing of wreaths and Magenei David, through a minute of silence, Mourners’ Kaddish and the singing of the national anthem and Hatikvah these paper butterflies flapped in the wind, bringing to life our sorrow, our fortitude and our promise: We Will Never Forget.