Many of us have grown up listening to Holocaust survivors tell their stories. We were taught by our educators and religious leaders that it is crucial to hear these first hand accounts and learn from them. Yet what do you do when your own grandparents are survivors, yet adamantly refuse to speak of the Shoah? How does one reconcile the respect for their grandparents’ choice to be silent with the notion that their stories must be told? Oftentimes we learn from the spoken lessons of others, but sometimes a person’s silence can be even more impactful. This is how I grew up. My reverence for Holocaust survivors does not come from detailed and grotesque stories of physical survival during the war. Rather, it comes from the powerful spiritual revival, rejuvenation, and success of my grandfather following the war.
My grandfather’s entire family was taken from their home in Hungary and sent to the camps. My grandpa walked out alive only to find one brother, several years later. Upon his liberation from Sachsenhausen in 1945, he was brought to a displaced persons camp in Yugoslavia, where he met my grandmother. The two immigrated to Haifa (via Cyprus) in 1947 and my grandpa became a soldier in the 1948 War of Independence. At the conclusion of the war, my grandparents finally wed on Israel’s very first Yom Ha’atzmaut. Saba created his contracting company, helping to develop houses and apartments for the new residents of the first ever, modern Jewish state. He worked until the age of 74.
Despite his experiences in Europe, my grandfather held no grudge against Europeans. Despite his service as a soldier and the Arab-Israeli conflict, he held no animosity toward Arabs. In fact, he visited Europe many times and helped his Arab workers obtain residence in Israel, closer to work. Saba was a virtuous, non-judgmental man who respectfully showed compassion to everyone despite, and even amidst his own struggles. B’H, he ultimately achieved a peaceful and joyous life for which he fought. As Elie Weisel once stated, “There are victories of the soul and spirit. Sometimes, even if you lose, you win.”
My love for Israel is intertwined with the love for my grandpa. The premise of political Zionism, as described by Pinsker and Hertzl, is to be strong and accomplished free Jews – no longer vulnerable minorities in other lands. My grandfather, to me, helped turn this ideology into reality. Emerging from the camps of Europe, he helped fight for, and then build the country in which Jews now live freely. Today, the Jews still living in Hungary, France, Ukraine and elsewhere have a safe haven. They will not share the same fate as my family had during the Shoah.
Many people revere Holocaust survivors for their experiences during the war. I revere my grandpa for what he did after. His life inspires my gratitude for Israel and the comeback of the human spirit. Afterall, trying to cope with, and understand a traumatic experience through which one lived can oftentimes be more psychologically haunting and emotionally challenging than the trauma itself. It can challenge one’s faith in humanity, his concept of justice, and belief in G-D. When one feels unconscionably wronged by the world, it may permanently mar the way he views it. As Brian Andreas wrote, “Anyone can slay a dragon…but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.”
Like most, it was not easy for Saba to learn to love an unjust world. Yet his selfless sense of responsibility to his family was greater than his sometimes heavy silence on the war. It is oftentimes explained on Passover that it was only the new generation of Jews born after the Exodus from Egypt, bearing no memory of its evils, who possessed the proper mentality to fight for, and cultivate Eretz Yisrael. An unsullied mentality had to be born, as it is difficult for those who were enslaved or in the camps to foster an unspoiled psychological innocence. To those who raised their children with an untainted love for the world despite their own trauma and suffering – thank you.
So on this Yom HaShoah, I not only honor my family, nation, and all the non-Jews who perished during the war, but all the survivors who heroically rejuvenated life after it. Since passing away just over one year ago, Saba’s story remains with him, and his record, name, and number remain on the current books in Sachsenhausen, Germany. And there they shall stay. For it is not his grueling horror story of labor, death, and evil on which he wanted us to dwell. Instead, the lesson he set is that of a resilient soul, forward-movement in life, and “loving the world all over again” despite its many evils. For this lesson, he is a real hero.