Last night I sat down at the JCC of the North Shore with Judy Rakowsky, to talk about her brand new book, ‘Jews in the Garden.’ This is the story of Judy’s relationship with her cousin Sam, a Holocaust survivor, and their numerous journeys back to Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
When Judy reached out a few months ago and asked me to do this event, I said yes because she’s a local author, a longtime crime reporter at the Boston Globe, and, also, because her husband, Sam Mendales, is a friend and a dear colleague from his longtime leadership of Hillel Council of New England. And, I was blown away by the book itself.
This memoir is also a ‘true crime story’ about the mystery of who betrayed the hidden Jews of one village in Poland. It becomes a missing person detective tale as they go searching for a lost cousin. It makes for a real page turner, and I became as invested in knowing the answers as Sam and Judy were.
It is also a particularly timely volume, on two levels.
First, the debate about Polish responsibility for their nation’s role in the Shoah is playing out on the front pages of major papers and in laws passed in recent years that verge on outright denial of the role of some Poles in aiding and abetting the perpetration of the Holocaust. Judy’s book approaches this important conversation from a different direction, giving us insight into the lived reality of villagers who are grappling with their families’ roles in the Holocaust and the fears some have in helping Judy and Sam find the answers they seek.
Second, we are now 78 years after the Holocaust. There will be very few new firsthand survivor testimonies added to the literature of memory (Sam told his own survival story to documentarians years ago). This book, the voice of the next generation, is a fresh entry point into an important discussion. Already well reviewed, it sets the bar high for what new Holocaust literature can achieve in the coming decades.
We at JCRC take our responsibility as stewards of memory of the Holocaust very seriously.
We’re proud to run the educational programming for the New England Holocaust Memorial, including civic gatherings, school visits with our trained docents, and the annual Israel Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest, which works with schools around Greater Boston to bring Holocaust education into the classroom. And we’re proud to have been a leader in the coalition that created the Massachusetts genocide education mandate. We continue to lead the effort to fund the trust for that mandate and to work with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to implement it.
Over the years doing this work, I’ve been privileged to have numerous opportunities to read new literature and experience new methodologies for teaching the Holocaust. I’ve visited memorials and museums across the United States, Europe, Israel, and even the Caribbean. I’ve had fascinating and informative conversations with survivors and educators, which inspire and motivate me and my colleagues here who’ve also been privileged with similar experiences.
My conversation with Judy last night reminded me, again, of the important work that we and others will continue to do, holding and transmitting the memory and lessons of the Shoah to future generations. It is inspiring, and I look forward to more high-quality literature to come. I’m honored that Judy invited me to have a small part in introducing this valuable new work to audiences here in New England.