BU Rabbi Emeritus: 'After The Holocaust The Bells Still Ring'

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In 1945, as World War II ended, the Allied forces moved across Europe, liberating Nazi concentration camps. Prisoners were starving, ill and surrounded by corpses. Still, victory was won — and they were free.

But according to a local rabbi and an infant survivor of the Holocaust, 1945 was a year of "extraordinary unimportance." Because, he says, "It marked the end of the war, but hardly the end of the Holocaust."

Those who survived the unimaginable conditions of the camps were finished with one traumatizing journey, but they were beginning another excruciating one — they had to learn to function in a world where their family and friends had been killed and their community and identity nearly erased.

Polak and his family were seized by Nazis before his first birthday and taken to Westerbork — a concentration camp in the northeastern Netherlands. They were sent to another concentration camp — Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany — 24 months later and were liberated before Polak's third birthday.

Rabbi Polak will be speaking about his memoir Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. at Facing History and Ourselves in Brookline.


Rabbi Joseph Polak, author of "After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring." Assistant professor of public health at the Boston University School of Public Health and rabbi emeritus of the Hillel House at Boston University, which tweets @BU_Hillel.


On his memories of the Holocaust:
Rabbi Joseph Polak:
"The early memories are impressionistic. The poplar trees stir something in my body...even now, that I know comes from there. So, do I have visual memory of it? No. But the first time I saw poplar trees, certainly in Europe, I knew that this was associated with the Holocaust. It took me years to figure out what it was...They were part of the topography of Westerbork. And Westerbork is at the youngest point of my childhood in the Holocaust."

On the way child survivors of the Holocaust were treated post-World War II:
"Remember that 1945, or even 1955, is not 2015. Kids were generally dismissed. Kids were not taken seriously. Now, we live in a culture where every child is listened to carefully, no child is left behind and so on. In those days, it was not fashionable, it wasn't part of the culture to take kids seriously. So, whatever anybody said, certainly somebody like me, said about the Holocaust, 'Come on. You don't remember. You don't know, you don't know.' And this, 'You don't know, you don't know,' turns out to have had a very bad effect on child survivors. It was just repetitive invalidation of their experiences."

On what child survivors should have been told:
"What I think they should have said was, 'Yes, you feel something. Yes, your body remembers something.' That would have been very helpful...And this did not come just from one person in my life. It was universal. Whenever you met an adult survivor and you started talking about the Holocaust, they said, 'Oh, you don't remember anything. Thank God you were a child. Thank God you were a child.' And I have these conversations with Eli Wiesel, thank God I was a child? Eli Wiesel was 14 when he was taken to the camps. I said, 'You had 14 fabulous years with your family. You had a wonderful family, you were at your grandparents' house, you're at your parents' house. It was a happy, warm family.' I had three months with my family, and then I was taken to Westerbork and to Bergen-Belsen. I had nothing. And my group of survivors really, really suffered, sometimes to the point of madness in adult life, because of this."

On the moment when the Holocaust became a part of public parlance:
"It's a very interesting question. There's an academic answer to that. Raul Hilberg told me the answer to it...His book was published on the Holocaust in 1961, think about it, 'Night' was also published in 1961...Eli Wiesel's book...they were not popular, they were not really read very widely. Something happened around '68, '69, '70 that changed all that, and what he told me was that when it became fashionable to criticize governments, people started talking about the Holocaust. And those were the Vietnam years...Because nobody criticized governments for doing anything. It wasn't fashionable. You had respect for the government, you had respect for the ruling authority and it was only with the almost universal response to the Vietnam war, that, 'There's something wrong here.' That it became permissible, if you like."

On forgiving the perpetrators of the Holocaust:
"I think that it is not up to the survivors to forgive the Germans. I don't think it's up to the Jewish people to forgive the perpetrators. I think it's something they have to take on themselves, and something they have to deal with themselves. We cannot speak for the dead, we cannot speak for the murdered. Who can?"

This article was originally published on January 12, 2015.

This segment aired on January 12, 2015.


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