by Meredith Jacobs
Passover is particularly hard. Her mother's family was taken during their seder. Only her mother survived. At age 21, she had a blood type desired by the Nazis. She was taken to Auschwitz, but never given a number.
Mindy Weisel's father was also at Auschwitz. In the men's camp. He had a number.
When the camp was freed, Mindy's parents were sent to Bergen Belsen, where they met. Where they married. Where Mindy was born.
Years later, Mindy became a world renowned artist. Shown all over the world, her most famous piece incorporates her father's number. At first the number outlined swathes of color. Weisel then painted over vibrant paint with black. She calls it "the destruction of beauty."
She once lectured to a group of medical students about the painting. After the talk, a student came up to her and told her she was wrong. The work was not the "destruction of beauty" but rather, the "survival of beauty" for even though the paint attempts to black out the color, bits break through.
Weisel's quest for areas where beauty has survived led her to Japan to work with IsraAid doing art therapy with the victims of the tsunami. It was this project that led me to meet with her. I will write more about it next week. But for now, I need to talk about beauty and survival and stories.
Working at a Jewish weekly, I'm much more aware of the flow of the year than ever before. We've just finished writing about Passover and now we're turning to Yom Hashoah. I thought about the stories we tell at the seders - of our history of enslavement and persecution. Of our ultimate Exodus. We are taught to tell this story over and over, and, even more so, to feel like we were there, that we experienced the tears of slavery and the songs of freedom. We are told that every Jew, in every generation, must know this story. Why? Not for fear that we could once again be enslaved, but so that each and every one of us understands what we overcame to be here. So that we know we survived.
I thought about a book I read several years ago by philanthropist Edgar M. Bronfman titled Hope, Not Fear. In it, he argues that we should stop trying to motivate young Jews to connect Jewishly through fear - specifically, fear of another Holocaust. We don't want Jews to stay Jews, or even simply care about being Jewish, because we don't want the anti-Semites to "win."
Rather, we should inspire through hope - showcase all that is good and joyful about Judaism. Help people want to be Jewish because they are proud of their Judaism and all that it means. As examples, he cites programs like Hillel, Birthright Israel and Jewish camping.
When I read his book, I remember thinking "yes!" Yes! If only we show people what it really means to be Jewish. If only we aspire to be a light to the nations. If only we take up the mantle of social justice. This is how we get the next generation of Jews to connect - this is how our grandchildren will be Jewish.
Enough with the scary stories.
But then I met Weisel. And I realized the stories are not about the destruction of beauty but about the survival of beauty. The stories are not about fear. They are about hope.
"When you are raised as the survivor's daughter, you think you have no right to cry," she said. "What is there to cry about? You're not in Auschwitz."
And then she shared a sentiment I had heard from others touched by the Holocaust. She said, "I feel like a vehicle, like a vessel. I was born into blackness but my life was a gift. I am very aware of the beauty of life and the fragility of life." And then she explained that because she had been given this gift, this life, it was her duty to pay it back - to give back, and help wherever and whenever she could.
This was not about being a victim. Or crying poor me. Or wanting to hide in fear.
This was about life. And hope. And joy. And beauty.
It is about giving back and healing the world simply because we are here to do so.
So, like the stories of Passover, we must tell the stories of the Holocaust. Because they remind us that even in times when darkness threatened to erase our people, bits of color escaped and beauty survived.
Before I left her home, Mindy pressed a small piece of glass into my palm. Shot through with streaks of yellow and red and her mother's favorite cobalt, it was one of 18 pieces she had made to bring with her to Japan. She told me she would know who each piece should go to when she met them. I was honored by her gift.
I keep it on my desk and every so often, press it between my palms. It reminds me which stories are important to tell.