This is a difficult day for me each year. Yom HaShoah – the day commemorating the Six Million who perished in WWII. For too many of us, it is no more than a history legend, far removed by geography and years from those horrible events that were but 70 years ago! For others, there is incredulity – fostered by those who deny it ever happened, call it the Jewish Hoax! Pretty soon, those who can tell first-hand what happened, who have their branded numbers on their arms, who have the nightmares that punctuated the stillness of their children’s sleep, they will all be gone!
My story is partially first-hand, but mostly secondary through what I learned from my mother – while I have photographs that she preserved – my father never talked about it, had no photographs, had not a single known relative with whom he could shed tears. While he moved on, so-to-speak, his anger and frustration emerging in ways that were indirect, my mother lived in the past – her pre-war relatives were her true family. It was the life that she had before the storm troopers broke down their door on the Second Night of Passover in the midst of their Seder that was her “reality”. Her last visions of her parents taken off to the trains at the Sommelplatz, her last sight of her brother before his throat was cut, her last sight of her other brother whose innocent Talmudic head was shaved in the public square and then shot, blot out all the joy that she might have had watching me and my sister grow up in America.
Unlike my sister, who was born here after we came to America, I was born at the tail-end of the war in Krakow. My father was still fighting in Berlin and was unaware of my birth on a kitchen table in the apartment he left my mother in, who was too afraid for my life to go to the hospital when she went into labor. As an officer in the Polish division of the Russian Army, and the son of the Rabbi of Wieliczka, he had been sent to Siberia after he and his sister went East to escape from the Nazi Blitzkrieg in September 1939. He had been in Berlin on Krisstalnacht, when his uncle and brother were killed outside their broken into men’s store, where my father worked during the Depression and sent money home to Poland. He fought at Stalingrad and liberated my mother, whom he met, as his army swept across Poland on the way to Germany. He was married under a chuppah – an army blanket held up by bayoneted rifles in a ceremony by the only rabbi he could find from the ashes of Auschwitz.
After the war, as a Krakower, he wanted to stay in Poland, even though his family had been slaughtered. His best friend, Mottel, who he had met in Siberia, served in the army from 1941-1945, was killed AFTER the war in the pogroms instigated by angry Poles, who resented that the 3.5 million Jews had “only” been reduced to a few hundred thousand! How dare they survive and come back
And so – we left Poland – as did all of the tired and sick remnants of Eastern Europe and headed West. But, at the German border, the victors had not yet decided what to do with the Jews, so we lived in a railroad car for several months – I was but a few months old – until they opened up the DP camps. We were placed behind the barbed wires of Bergen-Belsen, the first of my three camps from 1945-1949. There, my brother died – little is spoken of the horrendous conditions in which we Jews lived in the early days of the DP camps – if you want to read about it, google the Harriman Report, delivered to President Truman, and see what he saw, what Eisenhower saw when the camps were visited – sickness, starvation, little food, and death – treated like vermin, left to die, thousands died in the first year or two under the care of the victors.
My own memories are vivid, even though I was so young, especially when my brother succumbed to his illness and was buried in the cemetery where Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch was laid to rest in Frankfurt. I could not understand the logic, the madness, that we were kept in these camps, while the Germans walked the streets freely. In order to get food, my mother actually taught me to recite at age 4, the poem “Lorelei”, so that I could stand on a table in a brauhaus and be given by the carousing Germans enough money to buy steins of beer, which came with food. I rode around a makeshift bicycle my father had made for me, looking for God, so that he could explain it to me!
When I began lecturing on the Holocaust as an adult – first as Chairman of Men’s Organizations for Federation, then as a reporter for the Jewish Times, then as the founder and first president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Children of Holocaust Survivors, the stories I told were surreal. When I spoke to survivors, they shook their heads and often cried. When I spoke to American audiences, they marveled, but it was clear that they saw them only as stories. It could not happen HERE. It could not happen NOW.
For decades, as I spoke of my and may family’s experiences, it was in the framework of Yom HaShoah, Tisha B’Av, the High Holidays or in my kiruv work for AISH HaTorah and Etz Chaim. I toned it down . . . I even avoided talking about it . . . it was a downer! It did not resonate with the newer generations, and the older ones born and raised in America, would not accept the immediacy of any of this ancient history.
But, as I spoke these past few months before organizations like the Zionist Organization of America, at Orthodox day schools and at the Institute for Jewish Ethics, ears perked up. It was no longer as remote as it had been in years past.
We are in a present day déjà vu, of the period between 1933-1939. Jewish flags and Jewish shops and places of worship are being burned and defaced. Cemetery markers are being toppled. Universities are the bedrock of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israel slogans, marches and campaigns. Bombs and missiles dropping daily in Sderot, targeted against civilian populations everywhere, suicide bombers, stabbing fanatics, and random killings and maiming of Jews in Israel, in Europe and even in the United States are now commonplace. A Jew cannot walk the streets of Europe with a kippah without being attacked! And, when Islamic terrorists attack a secular newspaper in France in the name of Allah, they do not hesitate to find a Jewish supermarket on the Eve of Shabbos, and kill and take hostages.
What of Israel’s perennial ally, the United States? The current President has abandoned Israel, refused to attend or send anyone to France when most other world leaders marched arm-in-arm, has made alliances with not only Saudi Arabia – who funds terrorism – but Iran, his new friend! Do we forget that Iran is Persia? Do we forget that Saladin (and later, Arafat, declared that treaties are to be entered into with armies and nations stronger than they were, and as a tactic of war, would “keep” the treaty only until it was stronger than its contractual partner, and then destroy it? Do we forget that Iran held American hostages during Carter/Reagen era? Do we forget that Iran publicly cries out, at the highest level of government: “Death to America! Death to Israel.”
PM Netanyahu is vilified because he asks that a condition be met with the enemy claiming to want peace — it is a simple request — admit publicly that the State of Israel has a right to exist! This demand came just two days after Iran said that “the destruction of Israel is non-negotiable.” The Administration has rejected such a linkage. Increasingly polarizing American Jewry, whom the Democratic Party seeks to maintain in its quest for the White House in 2016, President Obama, the consummate politician, has in the last few days reiterated that the security of Israel is a priority for the United States. While this pledge is being mouthed, billions of dollars in aid, the sale of rockets, the funds to rebuild tunnels and re-arm Hamas, are being extended to Israel’s sworn enemies.
On this Yom HaShoah, as a living survivor whose age of 70 mirrors the passage of time that is but a blink of any eye, the danger to World Jewry is palpable. Anti-Semitic attacks have been reported as rising some 40% just in the last year! Hamas-PLO are infiltrating the agencies of the UN and the ICC, and calling on Israel to be convicted of war crimes, of being forced to recognize its bid for independent statehood, and all the while, refusing to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and dedicated to its destruction, and the extinction of Jews worldwide.
70 – 70. The age of yayin – which has the gematria of 70. Wine, like so many things, has a dark side and a spiritual component. It can be used as a sacrament, or it can be abused, and spawn violence and erratic behavior. It is the 70 nations, and it is the 70 souls that went down to Egypt, and it is the Elders who were the leaders of the Tribes of Israel under Moshe.
We are at a crossroads on this the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust! The Shoah is not just a distant memory, or some tale or legend. It is not a thing of the past. It is, as so much of history before it, a moment in history that is as the proverbial words instruct: “He who does not learn from history, is condemned to repeat it!” Let us recognize the signs before it is too late. Let the negotiators with Iran not forget the tragic mistake of Chamberlain. Let not we be blind and passive to the scourge of violence sweeping across the Middle East, across the landscape of Europe and seeping into the “safe harbor” of the United States. Germany was not an aberration. It was a warning! Just as that cultured society could descend into barbarism and acts of horror, so can it happen anywhere. Annihilation of peoples, the breakdown of civilizations are not merely the result of hordes of barbarians, without breeding, education or culture, overrunning empires of the West. History has proven that it can, and has, and God forbid, will happen even in those civilized societies where democratic ideals are found on paper and behind glass for all to see.
Let us stop the Shoah that looms on the horizon, by naming our enemies, confronting and destroying their designs before they are hopelessly malignant. Let us stop negotiating with those who use such methods as tactics of war. Let us redouble our efforts to keep the Lights of freedom, justice and human liberty ever burning, before they are snuffed out forever!