Out of the Ashes

In the aftermath of horrible destruction, HaShem is setting the foundation for the future, just like a seed that rots before it germinates and grows into a mighty tree…

6 min

Natalie Kovan

Posted on 05.04.21

 I am a third generation Holocaust survivor.
I never understood exactly what this was supposed to mean. Was that like first cousin once removed? Second survivor twice removed? How does one 'become' a survivor without having survived the actual event?
It wasn't until about junior high school that the reality of what this really means hit me with full force. I remember sitting on the school bus, waiting for our ride home to begin. I don't remember if the bus was running late, or what the exact circumstances were. This was, of course in the pre-cellphone era, (or as my children say—the Olden Days) and I couldn't reach my mother to tell her. I pressed my nose to the grimy window and suddenly realized that my safety—and well being mattered—really mattered—to my parents, and ultimately, my grandfather. That the unspoken vibes I had been receiving since my appearance as a physical being on this earth were born on the double edged sword of hope and fear. Hope, for I was the next chain in the link of our family—and the ever pervading fear that accompanies all survivors of not knowing what may be around the bend.
As survivors go, my grandfather has been and continues to be (may HaShem grant him long life) the epitome of optimism in a world gone mad. From his example, I have learned to overcome adversity. To pick myself up and move on. To laugh at life—and embrace it. He's always been involved and takes an interest in the minutia of our daily lives. Whatever scars he carries, he carries them well, and they never allowed him to distance himself from his family. On the contrary, his family became the center of his existence, his greatest testament to a Jew's power to rebuild through emuna.
Even so, one can't live through one of the worst disasters of the Jewish people without some degree of apprehension. When I was born, my grandfather cried incredulous tears of joy. I, as the first grandchild, represented the ultimate miracle of his survival, one that at times he never thought he'd see. And When I took my first steps, he would walk behind me, lest I should fall and hurt myself. Caution was of utmost importance. There was an unspoken, underlying disquietude below the surface of our lives to always tread carefully. Cautiously. To always have passports in order, for one never knows what's coming. Even in my most reckless teenaged moments I was aware of this awesome responsibility to take care of myself, and thus, I was always the designated driver. This was Hitler's (may his name be erased) inheritance to us, to our family. The word carefree is rare in a family of 'survivors', for that is what we are—we continue to survive the ill effects of one of Judaism’s darkest hours to this very day.
My grandfather survived in the forests of Europe with his brother until the end of the war. They lived like animals, living in caves, in trees, surviving on the kindness of the forest keeper who had mercy on them and who provided them with much needed provisions. At times, they were running for their lives from the Germans, sprinkling their trail with paprika to confuse the scent of the German dogs. To this day, when I see a German Shepherd I think  of the Nazis. And that is the bottom line—because my grandfather survived, my entire world is seen through the lens of the Holocaust. And that is why, even now, I am a third generation Holocaust survivor, and my children are the fourth. Because those fears are carried from one generation to the other—even without us wanting them to.
The Holocaust is the Achilles heel in a lot of peoples emuna. How, people ask, can HaShem, Who is so Kind and Merciful, allow the rampant destruction of His nation?How could He hide Himself, and turn away from the cry of His children?
I have recently been reading a number of Holocaust stories in Jewish periodicals and e-mails I received, and I was struck with a sudden realization. The common thread that ran through these narratives was of families reuniting after decades of separation. Families who had lost hope of ever seeing their loved ones were brought together through the most incredible twists and turns. HaShem's Loving Hand was evident throughout. And that's when the fallacy that HaShem was hidden during the Holocaust was completely shattered for me. HaShem was busy orchestrating the survival and salvation of all those slated to live. For all those neshamas that perished, there were thousands upon thousands of survivors who miraculously lived, who continued on to rebuild from the ashes of Europe. Even in the aftermath of horrible destruction, HaShem was setting the foundation for the future.
I remember a few years back, as we were packing for our trans-Atlantic move to Eretz Yisrael. My grandfather sat in my box strewn house, contemplating his granddaughter's move to the other side of the world. My grandfather, who had come to Eretz Yisrael after the war, left after only a few years, my Israeli grandmother accompanying him to begin a family outside of the Holy Land. And here was his granddaughter, returning to that very place, with a yearning to live where millions of Jews throughout the millennium have yearned to live; the very Land, where her great grandparents who died in Auschwitz had dreamed of.
My grandfather, who has lived in several countries, including South America, where I was born, epitomizes the wandering Jew. Wandering and wondering about the Jew's place in this world. And here comes his granddaughter who wants to not merely survive, but to LIVE in The Land of Israel, throwing her usual caution to the wind, in order to build a stronger foundation, with HaShem's help, for the next generation.
Before we took leave of one another, my grandfather kissed me and whispered the same refrain that he has been whispering in my ear since my earliest recollections. “May HaShem watch over and protect you…” Here is a man who saw gehinnom on this earth—who saw with his own eyes the decimation of his family—and his people. A man who lived through a tragedy whose scope we should never know. And yet, my entire life, he drilled into my subconscious that HaShem is still the one in charge, and thus we should always beseech Him to watch over us.
Yes, the Holocaust is difficult to comprehend on all levels. Millions of Jews were wiped out in a matter of a few years, entire communities disappeared as if they never existed. And maybe—isn't it time to try and focus on the miraculous salvation of so many? Maybe it's time to give HaShem some credit when it comes to this sad chapter in our collective history? For there is no doubt about it—the Holocaust changed the entire Jewish landscape. But how about those who survived, and whose families continue to survive to this very day, because of HaShem's loving kindness?How about all the scenarios HaShem orchestrated to ensure the survival of so many?
The Holocaust is a test of emuna. Either one sees it as a punishment on an entire nation, or one can view it as the catalyst for rebirth of that very same nation. As the grandchild of a survivor, I have grown up with the shadows of the Holocaust on the periphery of my life. If it's cold, I think of all those in the camps who stood outside in below freezing conditions in threadbare clothing. If I see a train track, I think of the picture of my grandfather working on a similar setting in the labor camp. Barbed wire—forget about it. When I cook with paprika, I remind myself that this was one of the tools HaShem used to save my grandfather's life—and time and again I have to remind myself to have emuna, and to just let my kids be—and try not to pass on the silent fears that continuously plague us– a family of survivors. These are the tests wrought by the Holocaust. But HaShem gave us an antidote called emuna—and we should use it generously in order to make peace with this period  of Jewish history.
We see with our own eyes how HaShem's plan is taking shape. We are constantly seeing prophecies fulfilled. Post Holocaust, we were gifted with our Land once more, an unprecedented move in all of our years in exile, beseeching us to return, to make it ours once again. We have seen a disproportionate number of baal teshuvas suddenly waking up—and picking up where their ancestors who perished in the infernos of Europe left off. HaShem is continuously building on the ruins of our past, brick by brick, steering us to an even greater future, which will beezrat HaShem culminate with our redemption. We can't allow ourselves to stay stuck in our past, when it is obvious that we should be moving towards our future.
Watching my grandfather from the sidelines all these years, I am the last one to say that 'we should forget'. On the contrary, we should never forget the crimes against humanity, as Eli Wiesel so aptly put it, that were perpetrated on our people. But in remembering, we should also focus on the miracles HaShem wrought for so many—like my grandfather. Like myself. Because he survived, I survive. Some questions, like the Holocaust, will not be fully answered until the coming of Moshiach. And the world should always hold the Holocaust as an example of the degenerative acts one man—and one nation—can inflict on another. But for a Jew like myself, I am going to try to focus on the miracles HaShem wrought for the Jewish people. For my grandfather. And for me.
I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank my grandfather for being a beacon of emuna in my life—and for always having faith in me. As his grandaughter, I can't possibly repay him for all he has done for me throughout my life. But with Breslev Israel's permission, I would like to request if possible, to say a kappittel of Tehillim, or a small prayer in your own words, for my grandfather, Dov ben Tzipporah Hindel, that he should regain his full eyesight—in the zechus of always seeing the world through the eyes of emuna. Thank you.

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