There is a passage in this week’s parsha that is often invoked in the context of the Holocaust. After the tragic death of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, two young men who were slated to be the next leaders of the Jewish People who were killed during the inauguration of the Mishkan, on what was to be a most joyous day, Moshe attempts to comfort his brother. He fails. Instead, we are told vayidom Aharon, Aharon was silent. There were no words. No rationalizations, no words of comfort. There was simply nothing to say.

This silence is often invoked when facing personal tragedy that defies logic. And most certainly when facing the senseless death of six million of our brothers and sisters. What flimsy rationalizations can be offered? What shallow comfort can be found? Vayidom. We are silent.

The silence of Aharon finds new meaning in this day and age. Today, at a time when there are fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust to share their story, a new and eerie silence reigns. You and I can scoff at the ludicrous deniers of the Holocaust because we heard from survivors with our own ears. But what stories will our children hear? Vayidom, we are silent, not because we want to but because almost no one is left to speak.

On Seder night, we engaged in the peculiar act of Jewish remembrance, what Professor Yosef Yerushalmi described as “making the past present.” We spoke of the experience of leaving Egypt in the first-person. “In every generation, one must see themselves as they left Mitzrayim.” I believe we are at a juncture in history where we, those of us who are not survivors, but knew survivors, who heard their terrifying stories, need to share their stories for them. We need to see ourselves as if we left Auschwitz. We need to see ourselves as if we left Bergen-Belsen.  

That’s what I’d like to do this morning, share a few stories that I heard growing up from my grandparents. And I encourage you, if you’ve heard first-hand accounts from family, or from those who were not family, to share those with others, k’ilu, as if those stories are yours. Because on some level they are.

I’ll start with my grandmother. Unfortunately, I don’t have any stories to share about her. With rare exception, she never wanted to share what happened to her. And that silence, to me, is one of the most powerful and painful stories; the trauma that was never communicated verbally, but was communicated in every sigh, in every cigarette that she smoked, in every forced smile.

My grandfather, Yosef Shlomo, did share his story, not to his children, he wanted to protect them, but to us, his grandchildren, and I’d like to share with you just a little but about him.

He arrived in Auschwitz just a little before Shavuos. He found a Jew who had a pair of tefillin. Every day, after a difficult day of labor, he would wrap the tefillin and would daven by heart.

Right before Rosh Hashana, he got his hands on a shofar. He and his uncle decided, despite the incredible risk, they would blow the shofar in Auschwitz. They calculated the most distant place from Nazi guards, two people stood on watch, and they blew thirty blasts, blasts of deep and unbreakable faith, in the darkest place on earth.

On that same Rosh Hashana, he was walking across the grounds and heard the screams of children. There were about 100 children locked in a holding room who were going to be brought to the crematorium as soon it was emptied. Without thinking twice, he broke the door down and allowed the children to escape. Later in life, he bumped into a few of them in Israel.  

For all the spiritual heroism of the day, it was also a day that broke him.  He witnessed 1000 children go to the crematorium. He related to us how later that day when he went to pray, he seemed to forget the words. It took him years until he was able to talk to G-d again.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know much more. He never went into too much detail about the conditions in Auschwitz or the emotions he experienced. I don’t think he had the capacity, after all that he went through, to even speak in those terms.

What I did know my whole life was that he and my grandmother were survivors. Though they didn’t speak about it much, it drove them.

Despite better financial prospects in the US, they made Aliyah, and for the first few years, my grandfather worked as a janitor and lived in poverty. Years later, they lost their youngest son who was fighting as an Israeli soldier in the war of ‘82. But they never complained.

On the contrary, their sense of gratitude and purpose shined through everything they did or said. My grandfather, after retiring spent his waking hours studying Torah. My grandmother volunteered at a local hospital until she was no longer mobile. The image of my grandfather which will stay with me forever is the incredible emotion he had when he said the bracha of shehechiyanu at Kiddush. “She’hechiyanu v’kiy’manu v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh, that you gave me life, kept me alive, and brought me to this day.” He was so overwhelmed with emotions he could barely make it through the words.

Some may describe what they had as survivors’ guilt, but all I witnessed was survivors drive and survivors gratitude.


A few pessukim after the death of Nadav and Avihu, the Torah describes Aharon’s other two sons, Elazar and Isamar. They are referred to as bonov hanosorim, his surviving sons. 

Rashi comments that even though they weren’t with their brothers, even though they were nowhere near the heavenly fire that killed their brothers, clearly, they were also supposed to die, and they are therefore described as survivors. If something happened to their brothers, clearly, it could have happened to them.

What a profound and poignant idea – We are all survivors, whether our grandparents or parents lived through the Holocaust, or not. World history could have looked very different. Hitler was not only intending to destroy the Jews in Europe alone. All of us survived the Holocaust.

By referring to Elazar and Isamar as survivors, G-d was teaching us that we all need to live as survivors. To live with the knowledge that there is a Mengele at every corner, that we can so easily be sent to our death and to therefore live with gratitude for every breath we take. To live with the knowledge that no matter what difficulties we face there is the possibility of rebirth, of starting over again. To live with the knowledge that the heroism, the choices we make today, will be spoken about by our grandchildren years later, and make an impact on who they are.

Those who have lived through the hell of the Holocaust are mostly no longer with us, but we are all survivors, and we can and we must live accordingly.