i never do this but it’s hitting harder this year for some reason so what the hell. here’s my grandfather M. (on the right) with his two brothers (I., J.) who also survived nazi genocide. they were 3 of 9 siblings, lost their parents, & M.’s wife and 5yo child killed too. look how delighted they were to be goofing around in a parking lot after some family simcha—
It’s typical to post photos like this in honor of Yom HaShoah. To say, these are the people who lived through Nazi genocide. To show them with their grandkids, as if to say, look what a span of experience once sat pressed side by side; see, their tattoos of enslavement and our soft, labor-free hands.
This is not a #YomHaShoah Instagram post, but I think about writing one every year.
here are my four grandparents, it’s supposed to begin. I’m supposed to box their faces into your timeline alongside so many other grandparents’ faces, so many grandchildren’s captions: No matter what life has thrown his way, he’s always maintained his good humor and hope. She endured six years of hell. She was an incredible cook. Today She Voted!! May his beautiful story inspire us all.
But I don’t want to see my grandparents next to those other posts hashtagged #YomHaShoah. Auschwitz, unpeopled as an architectural rendering, trees trimly manicured. A photo of two striped camp uniforms hung behind glass—unsullied, the buttons intact. The words never again in lowercase atop a white square, with all the pert minimalism of an expensive wellness brand. An old person with a candle, wedged between #WEREMEMBER and an assisted living facility logo. if we took a moment of silence for the Jewish people who died during the Holocaust we would be silent for 11.5 years. 32,458 likes, 😢😢😢😢😢.
i never do this because the subject feels so exhausted, I tap into my phone, & i’m not sure of its value in a moment when there are so many fires to hose down, & a limit to how much info we can take in. But then I stop, ashamed of how much attention the subject’s already received, and of how exploitative and deadening that attention has been. The Princeton freshman who touted his grandparents’ story of survival to argue he’d never benefited from being white and male in the US. The high school student I once tutored, who wrote her grandfather into a practice SAT essay on heroism, because he survived Auschwitz, asking, “They’ll like that, right?” The novelist at an artist residency who explained to me that her years of writer’s block were cured when she realized “the Holocaust made a great plot.” Secretary of State Blinken, invoking his step-grandfather’s liberation by an American GI at his own confirmation hearing: one desperate child’s “God bless America” the fulcrum of his case for the broad exercise of US power.
If I give you my grandparents’ stories, what will you do with them, dear “followers,” and friends, and “friends”? Will you thrill at the drama? Gawk in fascination? Spin them as evidence to support your politics, whatever your politics happen to be?
here is my grandmother H. (on the left) in 1937, age thirteen, reading with a cousin who would in a few years be gassed. I want to be able to tell you something that will jolt you out of the distancing grayscale of the #YomHaShoah images scrolling past. I want to be able to talk about this history without being so pious, without telling it to the tune of Schindler’s List. I want to correct those platitudes, to point out that my family came to the US to escape their racialization as other—for the invisibility and invincibility promised by whiteness. In exchange, we’ve told whiteness’s stories, performing our pain while obscuring the systems at its source: between them they lost twelve siblings, five parents, countless cousins and neighbors and friends, I type first, instead of the german state organized to murder them, and did. We’ve transmuted that pain into progress—he started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but an iron will, and now look—producing tidy affirmations of white American mythology.
To show you their faces is supposedly to invite you to bear witness. When I spot my cousins’ posts, I greet them with gratitude and strings of earnest heart emojis, relieved to see M., moved to feel a part of that pack of descendants. But I can’t bring myself to post or even repost the images. I don’t want my grandparents parading through your timeline as mascots of genocide. I can’t bear to shrink their experiences into little squares. I don’t want their grief generating revenue for the eco-underwear company whose model luxuriates beneath their images, and I don’t want their losses generating likes.
I can’t write a #YomHaShoah Instagram post because this history is already a commodity and already a symbol, reduced to something like cliché: at once without impact, and so powerful it threatens to consume all that comes near. I don’t want to participate in the flattening of genocide as another image of Anne Frank. That never again in the white square—it’s a tactful way of marking what can never be re-seen or imagined with any integrity. But it also exposes the terrible blankness, the tremendous unseeing, that happens when we repeat and reiterate familiar stories.
I wish there was a way I could puncture this necrophilic blankness. But in the context of #YomHaShoah, any detail about my grandparents shrivels and curdles, cheapened by the fast food of your sentiment. M. never forgot the german woman who, after watching enslaved jews sift through the same heap of garbage daily, one day left a whole cake there for them. The sweetness feels made-for-TV, like Holocaust, the 1978 series that spurred collection of video testimonies. Those testimonies were meant to give the people we call “survivors” a chance to speak for themselves, even as they told their stories in nonnative languages, even when they had to answer ill-informed questions. I can’t help resenting the stranger who interviewed M. But far greater than my resentment is my gratitude that the testimony exists.
Is posting on Instagram a means of testifying, too? Yes.
here is my grandmother N. and my grandfather P. in 1945, one year after transnistria was liberated and two years before P. would be imprisoned under stalin, standing together after a swim. they never testified to their experiences, hardly spoke of them, because they lived and died in a nation that refused to acknowledge the facts of their ghettoization, or the massacre of 10,000 jews over 3 days in kishinev, the city they’d fled, where after the war they’d return to live—
Is it even possible to rectify the Soviet regime’s silencing, given the monolithic memorialization of this history in the US? By the time Transnistrian survivors were encouraged to speak, at the turn of the 21st century, Hollywood’s global blockbusters had muddled their memories. Restitution claims, which encouraged focus on recognizable milestones, also impoverished their narratives.
in transnistria, a network of jewish organizing permitted my grandparents and thousands of other ghettoized jews to survive. Tools and medicine and money and food crossed borders, some of it covert, some authorized. Clothes for refugees who showed up naked from nearby camps. Funding for orphanages, canteens, a Passover pageant, books. But there were also labor camps and death camps and mass executions and deaths from typhus and starvation, heaps of unknown histories, buried under unmarked earth.
If there is value in sharing any of this, it’s supposed to be in what we do with the memory. Because my grandfathers lost years of their lives to forced labor, I should give my stimulus check to the formerly incarcerated and organize against US detention camps. Pay reparations to the Native Americans whose murder and displacement makes it possible for my family to live on this land. Pay reparations to the Palestinians whose murder and displacement facilitated my father’s emigration from the Soviet Union. Pay reparations to the Black Americans whose ongoing subjugation is the precondition of my whiteness. Recognize that my grandparents’ liberation was the result of years of organizing and protest by Jews and non-Jews alike—Italian partisans who fought the SS in forests, Ukrainian farmers who hid small children, women prisoners who stole explosives to blow up a crematorium—and take it as an impetus to organize toward collective liberation myself. Or recognize that, while some lives were saved in this way, for the vast majority of those eventually freed, their liberation was only the incidental side effect of a massive battle for power between nation-states. And then do what?
here are my four grandparents. How dare I mix them up in this. How dare I use them as paper dolls for my—or your—self-righteousness. To show you their faces is supposedly to tell you a moral tale. After tens of thousands of video testimonies had been collected, though, historians observed that, as a prophylactic against future genocides, the tapes had failed. Viewers approached them “to inoculate themselves against horror,” the way they now approach images of violence on social media: like, like, like. See Cuomo in April of 2020, posting a photo of himself squatting on the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau while incarcerated Americans bottled hand sanitizer according to his orders, as though their work were not forced labor, as though insufficient access to adequate hygiene or distance were not threatening to turn a New York City prison into a death camp. #NeverAgain, he typed.
that i knew them so little had nothing to do with the holocaust—N. died of a stroke, P. of a heart attack, H. of breast cancer, and M. of old age. that i knew them so little had everything to do with the holocaust—P.’s silence the result of state repression, H.’s death accelerated by the toll of being separated from her siblings and parents in her postwar life: Just after being diagnosed, she forewent treatment to visit them in Paris, as planned. All four grandparents talked some about those years, but mostly didn’t, because of where and when and among whom they lived; to tell the stories they told, they relied on the forms available to them.
So what do we do with this history—the parts we know, and all we can’t? One cousin composes a musical. One fills in the branches of the family tree as far back as she can. One scans the old photos. One goes with his mother to Auschwitz, where she refuses to pay the entrance fee, and is let in. One cousin protests for Palestinian liberation so industriously that when H.’s ninety-year-old brother travels to Israel he is pulled aside and asked what his connection to her is. One votes for Trump. One posts to Facebook that we should live in the present, that what’s past is past.
Not one of our grandparents’ experiences was the experience of the many more people who died. Who are they, the ones without grandchildren to post their pictures here?
here is M.’s first child, circa 1940, holding what i imagine is a bit of mandelbrot in her hand. I’d like to show you her face, but I can’t. It’s too cute, too soft, too likely to set off your alarms against the mawkish and the maudlin, an alarm system mandated by every keening soundtrack, tear-jerking montage, and treacly Instagram post. The industry of Holocaust remembrance, like the genocide itself, has effectively stolen her face.
& if i type #NeverAgain, it’s to ask that my grandparents #NeverAgain be instrumentalized, #NeverAgain put to work, not for nazi gain or your gain or mine, not for likes. Not such that each attempt to humanize them dehumanizes, not such that every effort to remember results only in the active forgetting of their lives.
Sometimes I imagine texting my ancestors, hey… u up? u up, out there?—and, sometimes, I sense their reply. They don’t want me to do anything with their lives. Here is N. interrupted at work, trust and irreverence in her gaze. Here is P. at a factory meeting, getting ready to make a toast. Here is H. with her mother, sunning on the French beach. Here is M. holding me after a game of cards, his hands soft and tanned. “Would you like to leave a message for the generations to come about the Holocaust?” the interviewer asks at the end of his testimony. He turns his big ear toward her, mouth agape, squinting, unsure if he’s heard: “For the generations to come, about the Holocaust?”
“Something to be learned from this.”
He’s been talking for two hours and twenty minutes—an absurd pittance, given the texture and the impact of those years, but still, 140 minutes of words, and now he says, “I don’t know what to tell you about it,” then says it again. “And what the kids could do . . . What could they do?” he asks.
Helen Betya Rubinstein is a writer, educator, and writing coach.