On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, we gather to remember the Shoah. Although it happened almost 75 years ago, it has left scars on us all and forever blemished humanity. But for me, it is very personal.
I was born in a refugee camp in Lansberg, Germany, near the ashes of my family and a vanished thousand-year-old Jewish community. My parents were teenage survivors of concentration camps. Between them, they had lost 182 family members. By miracle and chance, they survived, met each other after the war, fell in love, and made a heroic commitment to “choose life.” So it came that I was born in Lansberg, Germany, the same place where Hitler had written Mein Kampf, his plan for genocide, his plan to prevent my existence.
As most survivors, my parents attempted to shield their children from their experiences in the war. How could we fathom a world where “right” and “left” were not directions but life or death, where an entire industry was directed toward genocide, and where there were elaborate regulations for hunting Jews, especially Jewish children. I did hear some stories and listened most intently to the ones about children. Here is one. You can attempt to multiply it by six million.
My mother’s younger brother, David, the baby of the family, was a Norman Rockwell boy: bright, street savvy, red-headed, and blue-eyed boy; he loved American westerns. He often imitated his cowboy heroes, who always prevailed against villains in a world where the good guys win.
It was September, 1939. David was only eight when the Nazis marched into Sosnoweic, Poland and turned a clear autumn day into permanent night. A few days before, when the rumors of invasion were spreading, his older brother and oldest sister fled fled to Russia along with cousins their age. People expected danger for young people, but no one imagined that the greatest threat would be to the very young and the very old.
By the time David’s parents tried to flee with him and his two other sisters, it was too late. They couldn’t outrun the German panzers. They returned home, but it was never home again. The Jewish community leaders were hung in the town square. His father’s business was confiscated, his synagogue desecrated, and they were moved into a ghetto. He and other Jewish children were forbidden to go to school, and hunger became a constant companion.
It was dismal until it got worse. A year later, his sister, Gucia, was sent to slave labor camp, and it was the first time David saw his father cry. The family was then only David, the next youngest, Miriam (my mother), and his parents left in the ghetto to starve. Miriam went to work (at no wages) for a local German flashlight factory. Because of her blue work permit, she was able to get minimal rations, which his mother turned into imaginary feasts.
Then one day, David heard that Miriam and all the young women who worked at the flashlight factory had been taken to a transit camp to be deported to concentration camps. David, almost 11 years old, ran there, climbed to the roof of a white building across from the transit camp, waited to catch sight of his sister, then yelled out, “Don’t be afraid! I will rescue you.” The next day, she was sent away.
It was during the final liquidation of the Sosnoweic ghetto that David’s parents were sent to Auschwitz, first his mother and then his father. David was then an orphan, but no longer a child. He discovered that 50 Jews were hiding in a bunker, a hole behind an oven wall. He and his aunt joined them. But what were they to do for food? David stole the uniform of a Hitler Youth and passed for Aryan. He found, stole, and bartered food, keeping the group in the bunker alive for almost six months. David returned one day, provisions in hand, to find the oven moved, the bunker exposed and empty, and himself alone and hunted. He managed to get a letter to a family member in a slave labor camp, and he wrote, “I will not let them catch me. I will survive. I will get revenge for everyone.”
There were millions of David’s who had no place on this earth. They were in bunkers, forests, camps, and on the St. Louis, which was turned away from American shores and back to the death chambers of Europe. How can we comprehend a world in which there was not one square foot of space for an 11-year-old Jewish boy?
I had heard about David – my youngest brother was named after him – but the history was a haze. There was something unfinished for my mother, as well. For many years, she had spoken about returning to Poland. She wanted us to see her home and her school, to validate for herself that there had once been such a world. When she turned 80 in 2007, we knew we could procrastinate no longer, and with some trepidation, my brothers, their families, my husband, my mother, and I went to Poland.
We went to my mother’s home, from which they had been evicted, and to the remains of the Csiana ghetto, to which they had been condemned. Today, it is a haunted, dark, cramped, and lifeless place, where not even a blade of grass dares to grow. We found the building that had once been the transit camp and the white house, from whose roof David had shouted his promise to rescue her.
The last day of our trip was for that dreaded place: Auschwitz. I was worried how my mother would react. That morning, there was a heavy silence. I was not the only person with dark rings under my eyes. None of us had slept well the night before.
On the ride there, we passed tranquil farms, and I searched for the one that may have been a temporary home to my uncle David.
After the discovery of the bunker, he fled his home town, where he knew his former neighbors would surely turn him in, and went to work as a shepherd on a farm adjacent to Auschwitz. It was there, hiding his identity as a Jew, that he spent what should have been his bar mitzvah.
But loneliness overcame him. He yearned for a familiar face, perhaps someone who knew his real name. He went closer and closer to the electrified fence. The war would be over soon, but he didn’t know that.
Maybe he recognized his cousin, Genia, who recounted the story to us. She saw him approach the fence, his eyes searching. She wasn’t the only one. An SS guard also spotted him. In minutes, David was captured. Although Auschwitz was no longer operating the crematorium, and the Germans knew the Russians were fast approaching, the killing machine continued. It was in January, 1945, only days before the Russian army liberated Auschwitz, that the guards put him in front of a firing squad. He refused to succumb to victimhood, even then. David took off his shoe, threw it at his executioner, and shouted, “We’ll get revenge when our brothers come from Russia.” The Germans fired.
David’s dreams never came true. Shai, his older brother, never came back from Russia. He was killed by a Nazi attack on the hospital where he worked as a physician.
In 2007, when we toured Auschwitz, we passed the wall where the firing squad executions took place. The blood stains remain. Over one million Jews were slaughtered there, including David and most of my family, but there were no markers or graves to record their deaths. What were their final dreams, their last words? I found no answers in Auschwitz, but I knew that I had to stand witness to their lives and deaths.
One thing I knew for sure: the killers depended on the silence of the civilized world to do their dirty work.
Before the genocide were the false accusations. Jews were blamed for all the world’s ills, for capitalism and for communism, for poverty and for wealth, for the Depression and for Germany’s loss in WWI, and the historians were silent.
The reign of terror began with public executions of community leaders, such as my father’s three uncles. The response of democracies: silence.
Town after town became Judenrein, cleansed of Jews. A Jew found hiding in a bunker or attic was guilty of a criminal offense, and the neighbors were silent.
The silence encompassed the world, even the U.S. On August 1, 1942, absolutely reliable evidence was sent to American Undersecretary of State Welles, stating that two million Jews had already been murdered. In the seventeen months which elapsed before there was any response, millions more Jews were killed.
Why did both the U.S. and Britain refused to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz, despite the fact that Allied pilots were sent on bombing missions five miles away?
The U.S. refused to take in more Jewish refugees, even though the American immigration quotas were 90% unfilled. The British would not open Palestine to refugees for fear of angering the Arab world.
Why was the world silent to this blasphemy of G-d’s creation?
The world which was silent then wants to deny, delete, and destroy the memory of that ignoble past.
Despite the fact that tens of thousands of survivors witnessed the atrocities; despite the fact that they left behind thousands of depositions, accounts, and memoirs; despite the fact that the Germans kept massive quantities of records, documents, and photographs of the camps – despite all of this, there are people and organizations who deny or minimize the Holocaust.
We are supposed to forget the past so that we don’t recognize Hitler’s ideas and methods when they are resuscitated today. The shadow of collective amnesia is spreading. Forgetfulness allows the disease of anti-Semitism, which may have been dormant for a time, to re-emerge in the Middle East and metastasize in Europe and infect even American college campuses and the U.S. Congress.
There are four clear indicators of Nazi roots of modern anti-Semitism:
Demonization Jews/Israelis are demonized with very much the same imagery that worked in Nazi
Europe. It is not the individual Jew but the collective Jewish state (and its supporters) that are portrayed as vermin, demons, conspirators, controllers with dual loyalty, and the cause of the world’s problems. Jews were hated before because they were defenseless, and Israelis are hated today because they defend themselves. It seems irrational, and it is, but it works.
Double Standard Before the Holocaust, there was a double standard for individual Jews, and now there is a double standard for the Jewish state. The UN Human Rights Council is mandated to debate Israel’s human rights record at every session. Not Sudan, not Iran, not China. Just Israel. There are more UN resolutions against Israel than all other nations combined.
Delegitimization = Mandatory Genocide It is a short leap from demonizing a person, a people, or a nation to concluding that these demons be eradicated. Radical Islamists openly proclaim at every opportunity that the eradication of Israel is a “divine commandment.” Our students carry signs stating, “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free.” They don’t even realize they are calling for genocide.
Destroying Jewish Connection to the Land In Europe, Jews were victimized through being called “outsiders,” even if their families had lived in the land for a thousand years. After more than 3,000 years of continuous presence in Israel, Jews are again charged with being “outsiders” or “occupiers” in Israel, even in Jerusalem, even in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. To make that charge fit, history has to be altered. Thus, we see UNESCO taking Judaism’s holiest sites – Rachel’s Tomb, Cave of the Patriarchs, and even the Kotel – off the list of Jewish heritage sites and labeling some of them as mosques.
This is not the time to wring our hands. In remembering the Holocaust, we often hear the words “Never Again.” Never again is not merely words. It is action.
Here is our charge to action:
We will not let our history be deleted. Politicians can work out the borders, but we are an indigenous people in Israel. You cannot stick a shovel in the ground in Israel without coming up with Jewish history.
We remember to take the enemy’s words seriously and confront deception. When enemies call for our annihilation, we refuse to tolerate their words as mere rhetoric. We remember that the distance between words and actions is only a matter of opportunity. We won’t give it to them.
We must remember that David’s unfaltering spirit in the face of an overpowering enemy lives today in Israel.
Israel’s rebirth is nothing less than a miracle. The miracle not of vengeance but of choosing life over death, hope over despair, and self-determination over dependence on others.
It was the miracle Ezekiel described in his prophecy in the valley of dry bones (37). “I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.” The scene was one of absolute desolation. We have all seen the photos of those bones taken in Auschwitz and the other killing fields.
Ezekiel envisioned the miracle that began after the war in 1945 and culminated in 1948. “There was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone…they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army…And Hashem said, My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.
He did. In 1948, the historic dream was transformed into the modern reality of the State of Israel.
Where did those shattered souls get the strength to fight another enemy and rebuild a nation? Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel may have had the answer when he wrote about the day the armies of five mighty Arab nations attacked Israel. “On that day, Israel’s army numbered six million more.” On that day David was among those who held up the Israeli army so that never again would Jews have to be isolated, victimized, demonized, and hunted.
On behalf of those who were silenced, we will not be silent. We must tell our story. Fortunately, we have groups such as StandWithUs that inform and empower us to confront and defeat antisemitism and anti-Zionism (two sides of the same coin). Through print materials, billboards, speakers, programs, conferences, missions to Israel, campaigns, and internet resources, we ensure that we reclaim our narrative, present Israel’s challenges, and celebrate her achievements. Together we can light a candle in the darkness of ignorance and lies.
I entrust you with David’s story. David envisioned a world where the good guys win. When Christians, Jews, and others of good faith unite, unafraid, undeterred; when we reject revisionist history; when we speak up and defend our right to exist, safe and sovereign as any other people, we can make David’s dream a reality for our children theirs and for generations to come.
[Photo: JK Holland / Pexels]