My trip to Benelux, as I like to call it, has been interesting. The series of low-lying small countries- Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg- has long been a destination I wanted to visit.
I like small countries. They have unique character and frankly they’re cute! Not so overwhelming and often overlooked- just the way I like things sometimes. People tend to be more appreciative too when you visit places a bit off the beaten path. Brussels isn’t a village in Latvia, but it’s certainly not Rome or Paris either. It’s cute- not too big, not too showy, interesting. And for me, a French-speaker and a lover of languages, this is a fascinating part of the world. With languages bumping up side-by-side- Belgium a truly multilingual country. With all the good and challenges that poses for its society.
While unfortunately I didn’t make it to the Netherlands, I did visit Belgium and Luxembourg.
The good thing about small countries is you can see a lot in a short amount of time. And things do tend to change a bit from place to place.
After flying into Charleroi Airport and staying over in Jumet, I visited Namur and the Ardennes. The Ardennes is the site of tons of World War history- from both wars. With tremendous casualties, including many Americans who died to liberate this part of the world from fascism.
The Ardennes are green and peaceful. Some pockets of poverty. And some gorgeous medieval villages like Dinant and Bouvignes. Take a look:
While I didn’t plan on coming to the Ardennes for its military history, it kind of found me.
When you go to the cute village of Bastogne, you can see the war everywhere. There are graveyards for soldiers, American tanks, a museum. And mostly Western tourists coming to see it- sometimes to meet their departed relatives.
I knew my great uncle Barney Marcus was killed here in the war- he was an American soldier. But I didn’t know where- it could’ve been Asia or Europe. And I didn’t know exactly when.
It’s incredibly hard for me to think about these things. For those of you who know my blog, you know I grew up in a deeply abusive family. So the genealogy I’ve done over the past year has been brave. It’s not easy to think about connecting with relatives, even those who have departed who I’ve never met.
Without wanting to go into the war traumas or history (I think seeing the destroyed Jewish communities of Eastern Europe was enough), I didn’t visit much. But I did take a picture with an American tank. And I noticed that one older woman, initially standoffish, was quite warm to me in French when I said I was American. I could feel her gratitude. For something I didn’t even think of when planning this trip. But nonetheless, it felt good. After experiencing so much stigma in Eastern Europe, it was nice to see some people who liked me for who I was. And to think about good things my country has done. Like liberating this part of the world from fascism- twice.
I also made time to visit Luxembourg. While so many Debbie Downers asked me over and over why I would go there, my answer is simple: it’s there. It’s a tiny country, with something different, right at my doorstep. It’s cute, quadrilingual (Luxembourgish is a language!), and I find it interesting.
From Bastogne, I hopped on a bus. Now I’m going to sound pretty hipster when I say I didn’t even go to Luxembourg City. I passed through towns and villages on the way to Ettelbruck, an even smaller city in a teeny tiny country.
My image of Luxembourg was wealth. It is one of the richest places on the planet.
And I saw some of it- the native Luxembourgers (is that a word?) were readily recognizable, driving Mercedes and BMW’s. Not all of them, but a lot.
What was shocking was that Ettelbruck is anything but wealthy. The rest of the town is a melting pot of Portuguese, Chinese, Africans, Cape Verdeans- name a culture. There to work, to somehow survive in the face of eye popping prices, to make a better life. Ettelbruck isn’t scenic, but I did learn a lot.
What I learned is there’s a lot of racism here. Europe, in general, feels really racist. Not everyone, but it’s a deep feeling.
As someone with caramel, olive skin and Semitic features- I stand out. To the people (usually on the far left) who claim all Jews are white- tell that to the Luxembourgers who looked at me like I was there to clean their houses.
Because of my appearance (and sometimes because I go to decidedly non-touristic spots), I often am approached with fear and suspicion.
I should say, by all those who aren’t themselves outsiders.
On multiple occasions, Arabs have approached me in Arabic here. Confirming my thought that the white people around me also thought I was Arab.
In fact, one night, after a particularly miserable AirBnB I had to escape (like the wolf in the forest I had to run away from- that’s another story), I ended up at an expensive hotel in Bastogne. The Arab employee comes up and starts speaking to me in Arabic. I said I was American…needless to say that despite my bravery and pride, this was not the moment to say I was Israeli. Just this week, a Jew was attacked in Germany. Sometimes it’s neo-Nazis, and a lot of the times it’s Muslim extremists. Europe isn’t as safe as I thought it would be.
The Arab man, from Tunisia (a cool accent I hadn’t heard much before outside of Jewish Tunisian music), immediately directed me to a Halal restaurant. Assuming I was Muslim. Not about to say “I respect everyone but actually I’m a secular Godless Jew”, I simply went to the shwarma restaurant.
There I met a Kurdish man, a Syrian refugee, and a Libyan guy. We had a nice chat- again, they all pretty much assumed I was Muslim (whatever, I don’t really care, and the food was great). At the end of the meal, they gave me a free dessert, namoura. It was delightful. Also, the Kurdish man gave me PKK literature. That was a first. Despite having lived in the Middle East, I have never been so generously offered terrorist literature after dinner. I smiled, accepted the brochure, took a few pictures, and threw it in the trash in my hotel. The last thing I need is more airport scrutiny. I’ll take the flight over the flier.
To return a moment to Luxembourg, something really stunned me. I found a synagogue! Obviously, like most of Europe, an empty abandoned one.
It was an unexpected, somewhat invasive surprise. I was hoping to get a break from seeing the ruins of my people (see my blogs about Eastern Europe), but here we were again. The 47 families of Ettelbruck turned into ash. According to the sign, by “villains”. As if this were a murder mystery and we didn’t know that Nazis and their Luxembourger collaborators killed them.
It’s a reminder that our blood lies spilled over this entire continent, over centuries. It’s depressing, although I’m glad something of our civilization here remains, in spite of so much continuing hatred.
While I tried to engage with some Luxembourgers (interestingly, Yiddish proves quite useful in talking to them), they mostly shied away or even laughed at me when I said I was Jewish.
Meanwhile, the Cape Verdean women loved talking to me. We shared the Portuguese language- a reminder that my tribes include the languages I speak. The foreign workers in Luxembourg, almost to a fault, were welcoming and kind to me. Perhaps seeing me, on some level, as one of their own. Or at a minimum, to not look down on others in need of directions or a laugh. Poor people, at the risk of sounding tokenizing, tend to be a lot warmer than rich people. In almost every place I visit. I suppose it doesn’t cost anything to be nice. And when you don’t have much, hopefully you have a bit more empathy for others in need.
One of the reasons I came to Belgium was that there are living Jews. Unlike the communities in Eastern Europe where the headstones outnumber the heads, Belgium still manages to keep Jewish life alive. Though not with ease, in particular because of rising anti-Semitism from many directions, including (though not exclusively) its Arab immigrants.
I had the pleasure of visiting Moishe House Brussels. For those who don’t know this international institution, it’s a pluralistic, secular-minded communal house that Jews live in around the world. I used to go in Washington and it’s great to have a place to meet other young Jews. Which is exactly what I needed after a long dry spell the past few weeks.
It was so nice to talk to people who understood me. Not because I love every Jew any more than you could say you love everyone in any group. But because in the deepest sense, all Jews share something. Especially those who take the time to cultivate it. We share 4,000+ years of history, of food, of persecution, of cohesiveness. Of survival. Of humor. Things you can’t just understand by taking a course or going to a Bar Mitzvah. It’s in our shared experience.
And what was also awesome was that a few non-Jews joined us. An Italian-Belgian guy, even an Azerbaijani woman studying Israel for her PhD! Even the Jews were diverse- Spanish, Argentinian, Croatian, Algerian, Belgian, and me- Israeli.
It was so nice to make some new friends and to do Shabbat. Not to pray, but to eat together. That’s what nourished me. The conversation, the togetherness. The warmth.
One person who I particularly connected with was named Forster. I don’t have his whole story yet- we’re hopefully hanging out again tomorrow. Besides a shared sense of humor, a love of animals, and a strong passion for secular Jewish culture, I was moved to hear that he grew up on his family’s Holocaust survival stories. I know my family was murdered in the Holocaust, but since I never knew them and they were across an ocean, it’s more of a puzzle I’m piecing together. And one thing I notice about European Jews is that, with the exception of some Sephardic Jews who made their way here after the war, almost all are descendants of Holocaust survivors. Or are survivors themselves.
After Brussels, I visited Antwerp. While the Brussels Jewish community is quite secular (which is cool, and somewhat hard to find outside Israel these days), the Antwerp community is hard core Hasidic.
For those of you who’ve followed my blog, you know that the last time I stepped foot in Israel, I was pretty pissed off at this community. A community, while diverse, whose leaders use religion to prevent me from building a family. From adopting, from using surrogacy, from getting married. Because I’m gay and the Torah blah blah. Utter bullshit. Even though I spent a lot of time in Bnei Brak, Mea Shearim, Modi’in Illit, and other Haredi areas, I stopped going once I saw how hated I really was.
Something about this trip changed that. Not because I think Haredi parties are any different now than a month ago. But perhaps because living in the Diaspora makes it a little warmer between us.
When the government isn’t tied to religion, we don’t have to fight about it as much. And when our non-Jewish neighbors are so fixated on persecuting us for no apparent reason, it acts as a glue to bring us together. I can’t say I enjoy persecution, but it feels kind of nice.
As I imagined the ruined Hasidic communities of Romania and Hungary, it felt nice to see living Hasidic Jews. Speaking Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Flemish- name a language. It’s a Diaspora chulent. And it tastes good. Almost as good as *the* best cinnamon rugelach I have ever eaten in my life from Heimishe Bakery. Go!
I had a nice chat with the owners and a Hasidic man. I wished them a gut yontif- it was Simchat Torah that night. The day of celebrating our book. I’m not always a fan of this book, but it’s definitely ours. And it felt a bit like home to be among my people. Alive. It put a smile on my face when the baker told me she was from Israel. With a broad smile of her own. In this little shop, I didn’t have to lie.
As I pondered what to do tomorrow, I thought about how I will meet with Forster. I want to know his family’s story- if he feels up to sharing it. And it got me thinking about my own.
I’ve often told people on this trip that I’m the first member of my family back in this part of the world since the 1880s. When we were kicked out.
But it’s not true.
As I discovered tonight, Barney Marcus, my great uncle, died liberating Europe.
Barney Marcus was drafted at age 22 from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With World War II raging, he enlisted in the 314th Regiment of the 79th Infantry Division.
Barney was a proud Jew. He served as the secretary of the Phi Lambda Nu fraternity- an all-Jewish fraternity started in Pennsylvania when non-Jews didn’t accept us in their ranks.
His frat brothers held a going away party for him before he was drafted.
Barney’s regiment wasn’t any old regiment. It freed Europe from fascism in the Battle of Normandy. You can read the incredible story here and see a rough map of his experience:
His brothers in arms pushed the Germans out to clear the way for Allied Troops to free France, to free Belgium, to ultimately conquer Germany and put its demons to rest.
Unfortunately, Barney never made it to Germany. He was gunned down by Germans and their sycophants in La Haye-du-Puits, France. Not only that, he was awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star posthumously for dying while trying to save a wounded friend. His particular regiment was cited for “outstanding performance of duty” on July 7, 1944. The very day he died. Fighting his way through “artillery and mortar fire and across dense mine fields”. I’m not bashful at all to say that his regiment took German soldiers prisoner- he came to Europe a soldier and died a victor. An American, a Jew, a freedom fighter, and a Nazi crusher.
Barney’s regiment went on to liberate eastern France, close to the border with Luxembourg, then conquered Germany near Cologne, and ultimately ended up managing post-war chaos in Sudetenland, where German Nazi aggression started this war. Including some displaced persons camps, perhaps with Jews in them.
I’ve noticed in my travels here that a lot of Western Europeans have forgotten. A cab driver, when I asked him about the local history in the Ardennes, said the young people don’t want to learn it anymore. Maybe some do, but when I hear anti-American sentiment or prejudices in this part of the world, it rubs me raw when I know that my family shed blood to keep here free.
As hard as all this genealogy has been, I think it’s been worth it. I wish I had known my great uncle, Barney Marcus. Because of all the relatives I’ve heard of, he sounds like someone pretty cool. Someone proud of his Jewishness, a brave American, someone who sacrificed his very future to save another life. Someone I am proud to call my own.
Europe- Jewish and non-Jewish- you’re welcome. Barney and I have sacrificed for you to exist. Like the library I visited today in Leuven, rebuilt twice by the Americans for the people of Belgium.
Jews here have a longer historical memory- though I can’t pretend I haven’t experienced some anti-Americanism from them too (or perhaps playful jealousy fed by delusional interpretations of Hollywood as reality). But the non-Jews here, although there are some truly admirable ones like Alexis who actually lives in a Moishe House and worked for Jewish radio, they have forgotten.
They have forgotten that Belgium (not to mention France) exists because of the United States- twice. That Jewish soldiers liberated their countries even as not a small number of their citizens helped deport our Jewish relatives.
Every city on this continent has a “Jew Street”, abandoned synagogue, or largely empty Jewish quarter. And I’m tired of hearing people say they know nothing about it.
Or in the case of Germans I met, that I should visit Chemnitz, the site of recent neo-Nazi rallies, to realize that the people really are great and they’re just protest voters.
Enough. Europe- anti-Semitism is your problem, not the Jewish people’s. Just like racism is not black people’s responsibility to resolve.
I’m willing to pitch in and help educate- and even to learn from you. Which is why I’m starting a new project, Nuance Israel, to bring together Jews and non-Jews, in Israel and abroad, to learn together. To build connections between kind, open-minded people. To help European non-Jews understand their Jewish neighbors- and Israelis. For Israelis to understand their roots- and the importance of diversity. For people across cultures to build a new tribe- a mindset of openness, tolerance, and moderation. Join me.
In the end, I’m done hiding who I am. Yes, I’m from Washington, D.C., but that’s not where I live now. I’m Israeli. And American. And Jewish. And gay. And empathetic. And a lot of things. And I’m not a liar.
If you- whether you’re Moroccan or Belgian or whatever- can’t handle that, then too bad. My family is part of the reason this continent isn’t called Germany. And I’m tired of your worn-out excuses for why America or Israel are so terrible.
Your social safety net was set up by the Marshall Plan and your economies thrive in part because American tax dollars provide most of your defense.
I’m not suggesting America (or Israel) is perfect- it’s not. We’re not a shining beacon of light for the rest of the world to emulate- we’re just another country. But one that does some good. And has things to learn from you too.
I thought about making a spontaneous trip to La Haye-du-Puits tomorrow to see where my uncle sacrificed himself for freedom. For Europe, for its Jews, for tomorrow. On some level, for me. Thank you, Barney. I can’t say I’m always proud of my family, but today you gave me a little ray of hope- a connection to a person I’m proud to call my own.
Maybe one day I’ll visit- I’ve long been searching for specific places in Europe my family stepped foot on. I have some I might visit one day, but I don’t know that I’ve reached them yet.
What I do know is tomorrow I’m hanging with Forster. A living Jew. A new friend. Someone whose own destiny is tied up with my own.
Because even though we’ve barely met, I know we’re both survivors. That when his family, wherever they were, were resisting Nazi fascism and anti-Semitism, holding on for dear life in the face of deep inhumanity. My great uncle was working to set them free. Because wherever we are, we don’t give up.
Which is why in the face of the deep inhumanity I’ve faced, especially from within my family, I choose life. Am yisrael chai, the people Israel lives.
And if you don’t like it, I’m afraid you’ll never succeed in extinguishing our flame. It burns as bright as the bombs my great uncle dashed between to set your country free.