My first awareness of the Holocaust was, probably like most children who grew up in the 50s, the story of Anne Frank. I didn’t even need to read her diary; the story was being told everywhere—in school, at home, on television. What I understood was that Anne, a girl like me, had had the misfortune to live in the wrong place at the wrong time and had died all too young as a result of the evil perpetrated by the Nazis.

The story touched me on a very deep level. I had lived while she had died. She had deserved to live as much as I had, but I was alive and she was not. And therefore, in some way, I had to make it up to her. I had to fulfill the wishes and hopes she might have had. I had to do all of the good that Anne and other girls like her had not been able to do themselves. I owed it to them. I owed it to their memories.

It was a burden, however, it was necessary. And it didn’t feel like a burden that could be shared with other Jewish girls my age. It felt like a personal obligation that I myself had to fulfill.

As time went on, I took on more obligations. I felt obligated to make my parents and grandparents proud of me. My maternal grandmother became so close to me that her suggesting that Hebrew school was important was enough to make me continue on through Hebrew college long after she passed away. It was to honor her and to pay her back for the warmth and love she showed me. I adopted the obligation toward my maternal great-grandmother, a woman for whom I was named and about whom I know very little. I learned that she was hospitable and it was to her that all of the new immigrant relatives would come when they reached the US. They would stay with her until they found themselves employment and homes. And so being hospitable was a way of paying back my obligation to this woman I had never met, but who gave birth to my grandmother who bore my mother to whom I owe loyalty as well.

So it comes with such pain to me when I see young people throwing aside their ties with their past. It pains me not only in a cosmic sense in which kindnesses of the past deserve loyalty in the present, but it pains me because what they throw away is precisely what helps to make life significant.

Many years ago, I took a course called “General Semantics.” Our professor spoke of the major difference between humans and animals being that people are “effective time-binders”—that we are able to transmit experience from one person and from one generation to another. When people reject the good that has come before them, are they not diminishing themselves as humans? Isn’t preserving what was best in those who came before us not only the just and right and good thing to do, but exactly what makes life significant and helps us find meaning in a seemingly random world?

I wonder.

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  1. frank spigel says

    My Mom is one person who I have certain teachings from.

    One of her great lessons was supportiveness toward your family. I remember when my youngest brother got divorced, telling my mom that I wanted to remain on good terms with my brother’s ex-wife. My mother said she had no problem as I long as I was supportive of my brother. I did remain on good terms with her, and she was there for me when I had surgery for Thyroid Cancer in 1993. Unfortunately she died at age 40 of appendix cancer. Also I remember when the mother of one of my classmates from a course I took at synagogue passed away, I went to her funeral and that classmate was very appreciative.