My parents were not born in Europe. Neither my grandparents. I come from a typical Sephardic family. From my mother’s side my ancestors come from Syria. And from my father’s side, from Morocco. None of my relatives was sent to a concentration camp. None of them died in a gas chamber. My parents, my sisters and I, we were all born in a peaceful Argentina. No one of my relatives lived the experience of the Shoah.
I learned about the Holocaust in the Jewish day school I attended in my hometown, Buenos Aires, Talpiot. Each year they made us watch horrible black and white documentaries. This is how my classmates and I learned about the trains of death, the massive graves, the gas chambers. And I’ll never forget that terrible documentary which showed a group of schoolchildren, accompanied by a teacher, entering innocently into a German army truck, from which they never came out alive. I cried. Well, we all cried …. for the horror that our brothers and sisters suffered. For the elders and the poor children. All brutally murdered by the Nazis, yemach shemam.
But what I remember the most, and what transformed my experience of the Shoah into something “personal” happened the year that our principal, Mr. Eliezer Shlomowitz, invited a Holocaust survivor to speak to us (it was probably 1977) . Keep in mind that it was unusual at that time, in Buenos Aires, that an Holocaust survivor would speak in schools.
While I vividly remember what he said, I am ashamed to confess that I do not remember his name. Or perhaps he did not think it was necessary to mention it. After telling us his painful personal history, how he lost his parents, his siblings, and practically all his loved ones, and how he escaped from Auschwitz, this old man told us more or less this:
“You have not lived the Shoah, thanks God. But I’m afraid that perhaps for you the Shoah might become just another subject in Modern Jewish history. Documented, but history nonetheless. History that could be refuted, questioned or denied. I want you to know that the efforts of our enemies to deny history is the first step to try to repeat it. And you can never let that happen. It is not enough to “learn” about the Holocaust. You have to be witnesses of the Holocaust. All of you . History is deniable, open to different narratives, and documents can be questioned. The only ones who can protect the memory of the Shoah are the witnesses of the Shoah. Today, you have heard my story. And you have also seen me. And you have seen my eyes… . Now, you are carrying on young shoulders a new and tremendous responsibility. Today, you have become witnesses of the Holocaust. How did this happen? Let me explain. My eyes saw the Shoah. My eyes did not see the Shoah in white and black. My eyes saw the dark green uniforms, the metallic gray of the rifles, and the intense red of blood. My eyes saw death in all its hideous colors. My eyes saw what my words can not describe. And now I want you to look at my eyes. So you can tell others, and some day you might tell your children: “I have not seen the Shoah. But my eyes have seen the eyes that saw the Shoah. And now, my son, look at my eyes, and you too become a witness. “
When he finished speaking, I approached him. And I forced myself to look into his eyes. They were small, gray, sad and tired. There was something empty, absent in that look. His eyes lacked life. And that’s when I realized that in those sparkless eyes I had seen a reflection, or a shadow, of the horror of the Shoah. Since then I became a witness. And the Shoah became part of my personal experience.
Do not forget. Do not let anyone forget