January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day — it occurs on the day the largest complex of Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated in 1945 — and it’s a date that has new meaning for me as I learn about my family’s cultural background.
Like many in this country, I am first generation Canadian. My mother is Swedish and my father was a British-born Jew of Belorussian-Polish decent who grew up in England during the Second World War. While there was never any hiding my dad’s heritage, there was no embracing it either.
Reconnecting with a cultural community
My dad was a mensch —a man of integrity, honour and respect. Yiddish words like these weaved their way into our lexicon but I hardly knew anything about Jewish customs. After my dad died and, a few years later, I had a child of my own, I began to examine our family history and felt a void — the loss of a cultural community that I’d never had, nor been exposed to. I also felt a need to connect my son to his heritage. The intersection of being Jewish during Hitler’s genocide of the Jews shaped my father, and while he survived the war, the cultural “wiping out” had been done. As Holocaust survivors die, so does their witness of history, making it even more important than ever to preserve their testimony.
…I began to examine our family history and felt a void — the loss of a cultural community that I’d never had, nor been exposed to.
The stories my father told about his youth were peppered with experiences that were undeniably linked with being Jewish, like the time he snuck out of synagogue with his brother to have a forbidden ham sandwich at the deli, only to see their father and uncle walk in shortly after with the very same intention. There were sombre stories too, like when at 21 years old his own father died, and a relative entered their home, approached my father with a knife and cut off his necktie — Kriah, or cutting cloth, symbolizes the tear in your heart after losing a loved one — a shocking experience that stayed with my father his whole life.
Embracing Jewish holidays
So, as I began to learn more about my family’s cultural background, I started learning about some of the Jewish holidays — Hanukkah seemed a good place to start. I bought a menorah and dreidels; I made potato latkes, and I loaded up on chocolate gelt (gold wrapped chocolate coins).
…that felt important enough to face my imposter syndrome.
When my son was five, we started celebrating Hanukkah and, admittedly, I felt like a bit of an imposter. Was I allowed to suddenly claim Judaism as my own? For me, this exploration wasn’t about religion or God, but about teaching my son about his heritage, that if his grandpa was born in a different part of Europe, it’s likely neither of us would be here today — and that felt important enough to face my imposter syndrome.
Connection for new generations
Around the same time that I began exploring my Jewish heritage, my older brother (who lives overseas) also began connecting with Judaism. He joined a reformist shul and had his youngest son bar mitzvahed. He found his community, and he and I found a connection we hadn’t shared before. Now, every Hanukkah we send each other photos of our boys in front of the menorah and wish each other a sweet New Year during Rosh Hashanah. It gives us more reason to be in touch, and that is something I cherish. And, during the anniversary of our dad’s death, or Yahrzeit, my brother recites the Mourner’s Kaddish at shul — a beautiful prayer that pays respect to a deceased loved one. At the same time, I light a memorial candle for my dad and take comfort in the fact that we are both honouring our father on different sides of the globe.
A new community
I have met other Jewish people in my neighbourhood. Young, cool Jews who have accepted my quest for knowledge and have helped me navigate this journey in a most accepting and non-judgmental way. When we were housebound with COVID on the second night of Hanukkah, they dropped off a plate of latkes, gelt and sufganiyot — jam-filled doughnuts eaten during Hanukkah. They include us in local Jewish events and even ask their Rabbi to include my father in their Mourner’s Kaddish, showing a deep respect for my loss. In addition to new Jewish friends, one of my oldest friends, who is a non-practicing Jew, has recently started celebrating Jewish holidays too — an effort made by his Catholic-raised wife to help their children learn more about their family history.
…it is vital we remember the people who were killed because of an evil regime, to teach our children to be accepting, kind and open, and to do everything we can to make sure brutality like this never happens again.
Through this exploration of Jewish culture, I have found community in both the old and new relationships in my life.
Why we need to remember — for today, and for the future
A disturbing study found that 63 per cent of young people surveyed across the United States have little or no knowledge of the Holocaust or don’t know that six million Jews were murdered. This is a staggering number of millennials and Gen Zs who don’t know about one of the worst genocides the world has ever seen. My aunt’s husband, Michael, lost both of his parents at the hands of the Nazis, and while I grew up knowing this awful truth, the gravity of his trauma becomes more painful the older I get. The fact that one in five youths in Canada either don’t know what the Holocaust was or have never heard of it is distressing and compels me to teach my son where he comes from and, most importantly, to understand what families like ours endured.
The last Holocaust survivors are dying of old age and as they do, their experiences and suffering become a story in a book, something remote that we (hopefully) learn at school. As International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches, it is vital we remember the people who were killed because of an evil regime, to teach our children to be accepting, kind and open, and to do everything we can to make sure brutality like this never happens again.
Connecting with my Jewish side is long overdue, and while it probably means something different to me than to someone who grew up surrounded by the customs and rituals of Judaism, it has provided a sense of belonging and grown a community for me and my son. When we light the menorah, we pay homage to my dad and his family, to the brave Jews who survived the worst atrocities possible and of course, to those who didn’t. It’s a small but meaningful way of keeping the memory of my dad and our ancestors alive. And, with any luck my son will grow up to be a mensch, just like his grandpa.