My parents were born in Poland in the early 1920’s. They both survived World War II; my mother and her family were sent to a work camp in Siberia; most of her family survived. My father and his older brother escaped from a transport to Belzec and spent the next 26 months living in the forests of Poland. They were the only surviving members of their immediate family.
Many survivors chose not to speak about the atrocities they endured. My mother rarely discussed her story. My father was open and always discussed his experiences. For him, as with others like him, speaking was therapeutic and was an important part of the healing process – a process which at best, was minimally successful.
My mother passed away more than eight years ago, and I lost my father just over a year ago. Speaking about them, what they meant to me and to my family, and how their loss affects us, is not only a healthy practice, but a learning experience as well.
A strange thing happens during Shiva (the seven day period of mourning according to Jewish tradition). Maybe it’s just something you notice because you’re stuck in a room, watching visitors come and go all day long. Many of them are people whom you haven’t seen in years – sometimes decades – coming to pay their respects. And often, they bring with them stories about your family or loved ones that you’ve long forgotten, or had never heard before. Occasionally, people whom you’ve never even met show up and tell you their connection to your family, sometimes going back to before you were born. And in case you think that it’s just me who’s had some of these seemingly unusual encounters, I’ve heard the same from many other friends who’ve sat Shiva. What exactly is it that drives someone to do this, and why wait to come forward when that person is no longer with us?
I won’t pretend to have the definitive answers, but possibly, it has something to do with the importance that we, as Jews, assign to respecting the lives of those who have passed – not just while they are with us, but even more so when they are gone. Preserving the memory of a family member has, is, and always will be a top priority among Jews. It serves as a reminder of where we came from, how we arrived at where we are today, and what made us who we are.
My parents’ experiences with life and death were the root causes of their placing so much importance on our closeness as a family, along with their pride in being Jewish. The events they each underwent during the war played a very significant role in shaping their lives, and even more so in shaping mine too. It’s only as I matured and grew older, that I began to realize how much their past influenced who I have become; and has fashioned the values that I, in turn, have transmitted to my children. During Shiva, it is precisely these feelings that surface, and you realize the prominence of the values that have been instilled by your parents and other family members who are now gone.
In Jewish tradition, Shiva has much to do with death – but it has even more to do with life.