When members of a community pass on, the memories they have shared and left behind take on a life of their own. We remember the happy moments, their habits, their ways of being. We remember the good and the bad. They leave behind oral testemonies and physical objects that act as evidence of life in a difference world. And ultimately, elements of their past are assimilated into our collective wisdom; lessons to be learned and profound truths to be examined and re-examined. The Jewish community is no different in this regard, and I believe the experiences of our predecessors are invaluable cultural tools.
Last year, I was helping my dad clear out his parents’ house; a chore that he had left undone for nearly 20 years. Looking through the garage, I came across several boxes. Mainly containing a variety of books my grandparents, Fritz and Lilli, had brought over in 1930s, having made the journey as refugees from Berlin. By the luck of history (the garage was damp and unattended to) I discovered an extraordinary cache of letters sent from my grandpa to my grandma during the summer of 1938. My grandma never spoke about her experiences, but I believe she kept these mementoes in the hope they would speak for her.
According to the letters, sent every other day for a month, my grandpa had made the journey from Berlin to New York in late July 1938, in order to look for an opportunity to resettle, undoubtedly a luxury and rare opportunity at the time. They mostly outline his meetings with other German Jewish friends and contacts. But there is a more personal side. As the month goes on and his efforts begin to look increasingly fruitless, his sense of sadness and desperation becomes clear.
His unsuccessful fact-finding trip had reinforced in his mind that the family needed to leave immediately. I was then struck by his letter dated the 20th of August 1938. In a parenthesised side-note he asked my grandma: Hast Du diese Verordnung schon gelesen, nach der wir jetzt Israel und Sarah heissen? Or, “Have you read the regulation, after which we are now called Israel and Sarah? [referring to a law passed on the 17th of August 1938, requiring Jews to use identifiably Jewish names].” For me, this side-note was the most personally profound part of the letters. My grandparents were Germans, they had always considered themselves German, but this letter captures the moment, in the mind of Fritz, that the sentiment was called into question. According to the law of their homeland, the essence of their being was now Jüd. They eventually found a safe haven later that year in London, retaining their German identity out of pure defiance. Many did not.
So where does this lead us now? Well, as time goes on, the people with first-hand experiences of this period are becoming fewer and fewer. It is now up to us to finally consolidate their assorted memories into our communal culture. Of course, we should remember and document their stories, but culture is more than that. It informs the way we think, and the way we act. It informs how we interact between ourselves, and with others. 2016 has been a year of crisis, and we are now entering new year. Not only are there millions of people fleeing their homes across the world in much the same way our families did, but the discourse in our own nations is turning sour, in much the way our families experienced. Our politicians are starting to hint at an essence of identity, “You cannot be a citizen of the world,” and subtly questioning the loyalty of certain groups to their friends and neighbours.
In the UK, Prime Minister and Home Secretary have just unveiled new and more robust definition of anti-Semitism. Both, however have used rhetoric and formed policy intended to ‘essentialise’ communities, and not just in relation to immigration levels. In that case, which aspects of anti-Semitism do they actually oppose? The sentiments they have repeated are often seen in the unscrupulous and selective focuses generated by certain sections of the media; sections, by the way, that labelled Ralph Miliband an “enemy of the people”. Although the situation of our community is now is very different, if we are to take the lessons of our families seriously, we can’t just look at protecting our own communities, but must engage, share knowledge with and stand by all communities subject to echoes of our past.