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Survivors’ stories: The treasures that brought them to this promised land

Rabbi Neal Schuster

(Editor’s note: These are the opening remarks Rabbi Neal Schuster presented at the Yom HaShoah Community Holocaust Commemoration Sunday, May 1, at the White Theatre.)

What does the Passover seder have to do with this year’s theme of Survivors’ Journeys and their arrival in Kansas City?

Every year we come together and we tell the story of slavery and the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, we do it more than every year, in our liturgy we retell this story every week, every day even. We are constantly telling and retelling it.

It would be easy to think that this is the essence of who we are, that the slavery and suffering of Egypt, and our survival and redemption from that narrow darkness is what defines us, but that is not the case. We must never stop telling and retelling the story of Passover, but the story of the Jewish people does not end with the Exodus from Egypt any more than the modern story of the Jewish people ends with the story of the Shoah — the Holocaust — or even with the liberation of the camps.

At the beginning of Passover, there is so much focus on the seder, appropriately so, but there is so much focus on the seder that it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that it’s all about the seder; that the seder is what defines Pesach.

Four of the six who participated in the Candlelighting Ceremony at Sunday’s Yom HaShoah commemoration were Survivor Judy Jacobs; Jack Nagel, representing the second generation, Lucia Harding, representing the third generation, and Missy Rosenthal, youth representative.

In the same way, we focus, appropriately so, on survivors’ stories of survival, and the remembrance of those who died. Yet we must remember that for those who died, their stories did not begin with the Shoah, and for those who survived, their stories do not end with the Shoah any more than the story of Passover ends with the Exodus from Egypt. 

For survivors, they too had a sea to cross; a standing at Sinai; a wilderness of unimaginable loss, the building of new lives, new communities, and, for the truly blessed, they were fortunate enough to arrive in the “Promised Land” of Kansas City, a land flowing, not with milk and honey, but with corn and cattle; with industry and opportunity.

We should never stop telling the story of the Shoah any more than we should stop telling the story of Egypt, and — AND, our people and our treasured survivors are about so much more than that. They have more than stories of darkness and survival; they have stories of LIFE to tell. And we should ask to hear those stories, and we should tell and retell them alongside their stories of survival.

Like the Passover seder, we must tell and retell the story of darkness and suffering, and never forget what happened and those who were lost, and then, as surely as Pesach leads to Shavuot, we must remember that survivors have stories of life to tell. Those are the blessings that they brought and built upon in this community, their stories that continued; those are the treasures that they bought to this promised land.