This past week I attended a funeral. The woman who passed away was the grandmother of a close friend of mine; she was a Holocaust survivor. The attendees numbered 75 people at most.
The Rabbi got up and spoke of how special it was for a Holocaust survivor to be so connected to G-d during her lifetime, and how her commitment to her religious observance, in spite of what she went through, inspired all those who knew her. Upon hearing this I looked around the room — and that is when I noticed how few people were actually there. At first I was upset about the low attendance, even though most people close to the family were present. Then I realized that while I only saw maybe 75 people physically, many were there whom I couldn’t see.
I realized that this special woman, a Holocaust survivor, had many individuals at her funeral, in numbers that went way beyond the physical space of that room. Her family from Europe, her parents to whom she had bid farewell at a young age, her community that never made it past the trenches of Auschwitz, the friends and family she had known and loved and lost — they were all there. Perhaps they came in hundreds, or even millions, to pay tribute to one more survivor who had left our world. I couldn’t help but think how happy they must be that because of her strength, conviction and devotion to her family over the years, and her dedicated, unwavering belief in G-d, she was accorded a proper funeral where family and friends gathered to speak of her as a celebration of her days on earth, rather than mourning a life being cut short as their own had been.
Harav Moshe Tuvia Lieff once said at a levayah that “one should walk out of a funeral a different person than when they came in.” Walking out of that funeral, I was different because I had just felt the presence of millions of neshamos who came to pay tribute to a woman who got to live the life they didn’t have the chance to. All those attending learned what she did with the privilege of that life. It left me wondering, “Am I doing the most with mine? Whom do I represent?”
Many times we go through life climbing — in spirituality, in relationships, and even in common accomplishments — but do we ever wonder who could have led a similar life but didn’t get the chance to? Maybe if we did, we would appreciate our opportunities more.
In the Museum of Tolerance, in Los Angeles, California, there is an interactive activity, a passport printout area, where you learn about a young child from the Holocaust. You hold onto the passport throughout the tour as you learn about what happened. At the very end you go to a computer kiosk where you find out if that child survived or not.
No matter how many times I visit the Museum, I am always stunned by how many children were taken from us. Each child represents many future generations that were lost. My own children understood that the computer information they were getting during their visit was telling them that the lives of many children were cut short. Children cannot truly understand the levels of gratitude they should have for a life full of accomplishments. They can only learn that by us bringing that concept to life for them — by showing, by telling, and by modeling what they can be.
I felt the presence of the missing at that funeral, more than I could ever feel at a museum. Knowing that so many adults, children and elderly left this world on short notice made me realize one clear thing: Today wasn’t just Marta Bobby’s levayah, today she beseeched us to say goodbye to those who never got a proper farewell. She asked us to remember that her caring for her family all these years was not only for us to see but for them as well, for those who didn’t merit to establish a family and future generations. Today Bobby asked us one thing: “What will you do with your life and how will you make your family proud?”
This, I truly believe, is a question only a Holocaust survivor can make you ask yourself. I know I walked out a different person.