For lack of a better title, that’s what I’m calling this blog.
Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is my first time spending this remembrance in Israel.
I knew in the back of my head it was coming tonight, but I was surprised with the speed. I was going shopping in the Shuk and as early as 4pm everything started to shut down. With no food at home, I scrambled and even convinced the mini-mart to sell me a milk carton as the tarp was being pulled down.
Living alone here, I wasn’t sure quite what to do. I’ve been to Holocaust remembrance ceremonies in synagogues and Jewish Community Centers in the States, but you don’t get the feeling that the whole country is coming to a stop. Quite the opposite, the average non-Jewish American wouldn’t even notice.
After deciding to cook some lentils I had lying around from the Eritrean corner store, I got to thinking.
This past year, I started doing genealogy of my family. It’s not easy- I come from a deeply toxic and abusive family across several generations so to “reconnect” with long-lost relatives is hard. I don’t know how they were as people and if they gifted me the torture I survived as a child. What I hope, on some level, is that someone up the family tree was brave and hopeful like me. Someone who aspired, who made it to America, who overcame obstacles. Whose courage runs through my blood and brought me to my homeland. Their very distance from me and my not knowing them allows me to imagine such a scenario. To enjoy that several of them were Yiddish teachers. That one was a rabbi. That they spoke Yiddish and English and Romanian and Hungarian and Russian. It gives me a little sense of rootedness when I sometimes experience loneliness and a sense of detachment.
It also helps me understand where I come from when Nazi Germans and their Polish, Hungarian, Russian, etc collaborators murdered my family. Because while some of my Palestinian neighbors want us to just “go home”, it’s not quite so simple. The truth is the homes we had before the Holocaust no longer exist. There were 17,000 synagogues in Europe on the eve of the Holocaust and now there are 850. European Jews numbered 9.5 million in 1933- and today barely 1.4 million- 85 years later. You cannot find an Ashkenazi Jew who didn’t lose relatives in the Holocaust- whether they know their names or not.
And in Israel, they know their names. Because about 90% of the State’s initial population was either Holocaust survivors or their relatives. While the vast majority were Ashkenazi, a number of Sephardic communities were annihilated by the Germans, including the beloved Salonika which is now basically empty of Jews.
Some people do not get the Holocaust. Many, many, many non-Jews I’ve met, including people I grew up with in the U.S., think the Holocaust is the only major act of anti-Semitism to befall the Jewish people. I even had a French teacher in the States who genuinely thought no anti-Semitic violence happened before the Holocaust. Wrong. The Holocaust is the climax. It’s the climax of 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, which later morphed into race-based anti-Semitism. The reason Yiddish has Hebrew, Aramaic, Italian, French, German, Polish, and Russian in it is because we’ve been expelled from all those lands (and others) over and over again.
Something few Americans I know want to acknowledge is their privilege as Christians. Or as descendants of Christians even if they don’t practice the religion. My point here, by the way, is not to suggest Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic nor to blame individuals today for the acts of other people. Rather, I want to suggest that people need to understand the way being not Jewish gives them privilege over Jews everywhere in the world except Israel.
There are the basic things like when public holidays take place to the likelihood that a Jew will be elected President (in America- I’m not holding my breath). Then there are the country clubs that wouldn’t admit Jews, the universities that had quotas, the lynchings, the job discrimination, the Hollywood surnames that lost their “skys” and “mans” and “bergs”.
I’ve personally been discriminated against- classmates calling me a rich Jew, people telling me Jews were loudmouths, having bomb threats called into the Jewish Community Center, even being thrown out of a taxi by an anti-Semitic driver yelling rants. Being called “similar to an Islamic extremist” for keeping kosher. A guy I was dating once even broke up with me after he found out that I didn’t eat pork. Read between the lines.
It should be said that American anti-Semitism, even with its recent scary rise in cemetery desecrations, is relatively mild compared to other countries like France and Russia, from where Jews continue to flee. It should be said, though, that there was a 57% increase in American anti-Semitic acts in 2017. Something I believe American Jews should keep in mind and at least consider taking a glance at the Nefesh B’Nefesh website as an option.
The fact that American Jews, as a whole, have achieved great success- much like our German counterparts prior to Adolf Hitler- is not primarily to your credit, America. It’s to ours for overcoming the obstacles you often put in our way. The fact that my family was excluded from institutions didn’t just give you an advantage- it gave us a disadvantage which we bravely overcame. And still overcome. Discrimination is never neutral.
As I continued to do genealogy, I mapped out where my ancestors lived in Europe before coming to America starting 130 years ago. I’m still working on it, but here’s my map so far:
As I found my relatives’ birthplaces, I came across other databases. The Nazis, to their credit, were diligent Germans. The kind who keep good notes. Who keep the trains running on time and the logs well-written. There are entire databases, I discovered, of the names of Jews who Germans murdered. And what I found, to my shock, was people with the same surnames as my relatives from the very same towns- killed by the Nazis. In some cases, they were the only people in the town with the same surname. My family.
While for many Israelis, Holocaust remembrance day is very direct- they remember their immediate relatives. In some cases, they remember themselves in concentration camps. American Jews, with the exception of post-war refugees, are another generation separated from the pogroms we escaped. And we don’t necessarily know the names of our lost relatives, even if we realize they must have died. With the help of the internet and Nazi record-keeping, I can now say I do. It makes it much more personal and makes me a whole lot angrier. And sad.
A while back, I met a young German man here studying for a semester. I took him under my wing, showed him Tel Aviv, talked about Jewish history, and even brought him to a Yiddish Klezmer performance.
I think he was well-intentioned but supremely ignorant. We talked about the Holocaust, which I welcomed. I’ve struggled to find non-Jewish Germans willing to dialogue (partially because I don’t know many) and I think we both need it. The young man asked me: “Why do Israelis keep talking about the Holocaust? It happened so long ago. It’s old history.”
My heart sunk.
If this is the kind of German that makes his way to Tel Aviv- which initially gave me hope- I started to wonder what the German back home thought of me. I know rationally that it’s not wise to judge an entire people based on a few interactions (I’ve had some other problematic ones with Germans here- including one who complained about our holidays and our “weird-looking language”). And emotionally I just get so angry.
In the end, Europeans, white people, Christians, whatever you want to call them. The people across the pond who aren’t Jews. They- not all of them- but they caused our trauma. And, to a certain extent in recent years, you could say the same of Muslim-majority countries, though historically they treated us better relatively speaking.
So when Europeans – because it was not just Nazis, it was also millions of their collaborators – caused us trauma, it has become a generational problem. Especially here, when combined with the wars and terrorism that followed.
So when French activists or Swiss protestors lament our aggressiveness or “disproportional force”, it’s hard for me to take them seriously. Not because they don’t have a point- sometimes the trauma heaped on us has gotten passed on to Palestinians and our Arab neighbors. But rather, because it’s the pot calling the kettle black. When Europe is ready to compensate us and restore the property – and, impossibly, the lives – of our people, I’ll be ready to talk. I just can’t really handle a German lecturing me about disproportionate force. Who doesn’t even know about the tortured Jewish history of his town. And if that’s hard for you to hear, good. Because at least we’re being honest now. And you have to take our feelings into consideration if we’re going to build something better here.
On our side, we haven’t gotten a moment to breathe. Israelis, in particular those who have lived here many years, haven’t gotten a respite since the Holocaust. Nearly non-stop warfare and violence. We deserve a rest.
We also need to remember that because of all the traumas our people has been through, we must be extra cautious not to harm others. As I’ve written about before, there have been times when Israelis, in particular in 1948, passed their trauma on to Palestinian civilians. For the first time in 2,000 years, we have the power to abuse others. Including refugees. Few things are black-and-white, we just must remember that with power comes great responsibility. The kind of responsibility and sensitivity that Europeans rarely showed us. Such as the Polish politician who called Jews “animals” on social media. Last week.
On many levels, I identify with Holocaust survivors. Of course as a Jew and as a human being, but also as a survivor of torture and abuse by my relatives. I’m an only child and I pulled my way out of that swamp with every last bit of my energy until I made it to the Holy Land. Where those survivors and this survivor now live together, building a new life of hope, health, and joy.
Israel is an imperfect place, like every other country. If you want to know why, despite all our very loud and vociferous differences, Jews here feel we need a homeland, all you need to do is count the number of Jews in Poland. Or to try to find the synagogue where my great-grandfather prayed in Latvia. Or to find the Jewish community of Pacsa, Hungary where my great-grandfather Adolf Adler lived.
Guess what? You’re going to be in for a lot of tears. Because our heritage there was erased. And it’s because we have a new homeland, a complicated and blessed place, that we are still alive. Israel struggles with many things- preserving Jewish culture, guarding human rights, and even sometimes pursuing peace.
One thing we’re good at is saving Jewish lives. Something Europeans never really could figure out.
Have a meaningful Yom Hashoah. May this remembrance find the existing survivors treated with more dignity. May it find all victims of genocide treated with respect. May it find us living in a world where while I remember my people being gassed, I don’t have to think about my neighbors across the border in Syria suffering the same fate.
One Holocaust, many genocides. Never, ever again.
p.s.- if you’re wondering what the cover photo is, it’s the flag of the German-American Bund. The American Nazi party. Because Nazism wasn’t just Hitler. We all must stand up for what’s right.
*Image by Paloeser