The film projector came to a standstill with a soft whirr and click, and the lights came up slowly in the lecture hall. The images of horror that had filled the screen receded into the light; and my class remained uncharacteristically silent as we opened notebooks and prepared for our professor's lecture. It was the spring of1991, and I was a twenty-one-year-old college junior. The film we had just watched, unforgettably, was Alain Resnais' Holocaust documentary Night and Fog.
During my four years at the University of Delaware, I had taken several college courses about the history of the Holocaust, had heard the testimony of survivors, and had read numerous accounts of Jewish history between the years of 1938 and 1945. But nothing I had read, heard, or seen had prepared me for the shock of the color footage of Auschwitz in 1955, juxtaposed against the images of the camp in operation during the last days of the war.
My professor for most of these courses, Dr. Sara Horowitz, was someone I had admired since the first day I met her, when I had been a lost, homesick freshman and she was my Honors advisor. At first, I had taken her Holocaust studies courses because I liked her and the way she taught. But after only about half a semester, my own interest in the subject became overwhelming, and I took course after course, determined to learn what I could about what had happened, who had died, and about those who had managed to survive.
That night, after the lecture ended, my fellow students and I left the classroom, transformed by what we had seen, talking amongst ourselves about how, in some distant future, we hoped to bear witness in a world that had permitted Auschwitz to exist. A couple of us decided to go out to a local campus bar, to talk about the film and some upcoming class assignments. But it was obvious: after seeing that indelible horror on the screen, no one really felt like being alone.
I knew that I felt compelled to study the Holocaust because of my own Jewish heritage. Although my paternal grandfather had been born in America, his family had hailed from Cologne, Germany. No one knew what had become of the Rosenthals that had remained behind so many generations ago, but we assumed that they had not survived the war. And although my dad read every book and saw every movie about World War II, the Holocaust was not a subject our family ever discussed.
During college, however, the Holocaust became deeply personal for me. Even though I had been raised as a Christian, I knew that through my connection to Jewish ancestors, I had an obligation to bear witness. But what troubled me was whether, as someone with no Jewish memory, whose family had abandoned Judaism, I had a right to do so.
In this, I was different from the other students in my classes. For one thing, everyone else taking Holocaust studies classes was Jewish, and because of this, everyone seemed to have a much greater knowledge of Jewish history than I did.
That night, after the film, my classmates and I talked about the Holocaust, and as we did, I worked up to courage to ask some of them how they came by their knowledge of Jewish history. One answered, succinctly, "Hebrew school." Another told me, "My grandparents are survivors. I've been hearing these stories forever."
I looked down into my glass, waiting for the question that inevitably came. "What about you? Didn't you go to Hebrew school?"
"No," I admitted. "Parochial school, actually." There were mystified looks all around the table. Not wanting to leave any doubt in anyone's mind, I continued. "My dad was born Jewish, that's how my last name is Rosenthal. But I was raised Catholic."
A couple of people exchanged looks. Then my friend Dina tentatively asked, "Is it weird for you to be in these classes then?"
I hesitated before answering. "A little. Sometimes I wonder if I have a right to be here. I'm not even sure if my family lost anyone in the Holocaust."
There was a little silence, and then Dina spoke again. "No one has a right to tell you if you have a right to be here. The fact that you have been raised in a totally different religious tradition, and you think it's still important to bear witness--that's amazing." The others nodded as Dina continued. "But it's even more special because whether you realize it or not, you're acting on a sacred obligation that is part of who you are, not because you're part Jewish, but because you are human. But being part Jewish means two things. First, you lost family in the Holocaust, whether or not you know it. And second, this is your story, too."
I had Dina's words in my mind eight years later, on the day that I started working at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. What I loved the most about working at the museum was that it was the fulfillment of something very special that was set in motion on the night of Night and Fog. For me, the sacred act of bearing witness is something that enables me not only to connect with my Jewish heritage, but also to transcend the borders of religious doctrine for the purpose of a greater moral and ethical obligation.
On a sunny October day in 2000, my sister Laura proudly carried her first child--my godchild, Connor--through the museum on his first-ever trip to the city. Though he slept through most of the tour, curled in a Snugli with his baby cheek pressed to my sister's heart, I remember the feeling of pride and love I felt as my sister and I took our first step towards making sure--even though Connor is being raised Catholic--that we would create a Jewish memory for the next generation of our family. Because whether or not he knows it, Connor lost family during the Holocaust. And second, this is his story, too.