When Avi asked his grandmother why the Nazis didn’t stamp her arm, she answered, “because the Romanians were slackers.”
Sabras imbibe a lot of Holocaust education as children. Avi’s first memory of the Holocaust dates to the age of 5. The memorial siren, activated in Israel every Holocaust day, went off during dinner preparations and lasted for what seemed an eternity to Avi. The sound surrounded him, and he asked his parents “Ma Zeh?” Avi’s father said it was not important. The following year, it was explained that he too should pause for a minute. Then little demands came: Take your hands out of your pants. Look down. Stop smiling, this is not a laughing matter.
During his time as a student in the Israeli public school system, Avi sat through annual commemoration ceremonies. As a first grader, Avi barely understood what was happening on the outdoor, masonry school stage, where he and his friends played catch every recess. Avi’s Holocaust education evolved with each passing year. Gradually, Avi and his peers were exposed to testimonials and images from the Camps. In the fourth grade, a sudden realization came to young Avi: an angry man had some bad people killing a lot of others like him. What did ‘kill’ mean to a fourth grader? His mother’s passing two years prior helped provide a frame of reference. The numbers, though, remained well beyond Avi’s grasp.
Avi’s 6th grade reader was one of his favorite books. The stories in the 140 pages-thick white volume were aligned with the passing of the Jewish calendar. The story about the boy whose apologies left much to be desired was the Yom Kippur story. The story about the slave family from Egypt was read around Passover. The Holocaust Day story was a four-pages long piece. Photographs of Jews dressed in prison uniforms and huddling together in bunks, or holding their hands up in fear before Nazi guards, added emotion to the written word. The story included several terms in German, unfamiliar words of varying length. The German terms were clarified in a word key at the bottom of the page. Yet, Avi thought it would be a good idea to confirm the terms’ meanings with his paternal grandmother, a survivor herself from Transnistria, Romania.
Later that day, feeling academic, Avi sat with his grandmother in their cramped living room. She would come over on Holocaust Day to be with her family. Avi questioned his grandmother about her experience in the Holocaust. She cooperated reluctantly, and Avi felt that the conversation was ended prematurely. He opened the reader and began to read the holocaust story aloud. He asked: Did you live in a ghetto? What does Kapo mean? And I understand there were people called Einsatzgruppen? At that point his grandmother became unsettled and asked him to stop talking. Avi’s father castigated him for harassing his grandmother.
At that moment of conflict, the Holocaust was etched into Avi’s mind as a pillar of identity. But being still young, Avi had also misinterpreted the adults’ perturbed responses as a sign of dissuasion from further questions.
In middle and high school, the sirens were an awkward experience for Avi. Many of his peers giggled with awkwardness and irritated the teachers. As a soldier in the IDF, Avi’s giggles were threatened with base grounding or incarceration, and quickly died out. It was not until he left Israel to study for a bachelor’s degree in Perth, Australia, that he realised how much the siren was a profound and essential experience for Holocaust commemoration.
In 2003, Perth was a city of 1 million residents, 2,000 Jews, and 200 Israelis all spread over an area of 100 kilometers. Avi was the only Jewish-Israeli living among hundreds of international students in his dormitory. Not yet embargoed from the public eye, the Israeli flag waved among 20 others up on the mess hall ceiling. Avi’s first overseas Holocaust Day came, transparent to everyone else. Avi was left with no ceremonies and sirens for the first time. An urge burst in him to shout out: An unprecedented event occurred about 60 years ago, how could you not care?!
Avi cut out a Magen David from a sheet of copy paper and colored it black. Then, he found a ladder in one of the broom closets, climbed up to the Israeli flag, and pinned his artwork on the white background. Avi assumed that a black Magen David would be more conspicuous than a yellow one to the diners below. In the days to follow, no crowd response was registered. However, Avi felt that even in that remote bubble, his foreign student dorm in Perth, Australia, the Six Million had a voice.
Over the years, Avi grew sensitive to Holocaust-based comparisons often used by publicists in the Israeli mass media: Gush Katif evacuation? Just like the Holocaust! The Israeli-Palestinian dispute? Just like the Holocaust! Ultra Orthodox elementary school segregation? Just like the Holocaust! Avi rejected those claims, not only due to the absence of gas chambers and crematoriums.
Ten years later, Avi relocated to the USA and found temporary employment at a religious Sunday school. During his first year as a teacher, Avi, a non-observant Jew, led a class of Jewish 5th graders. Avi’s students possessed every trait one would expect from the children of a prominent, affluent west-coast community. One day, Avi’s young supervisor asked him to introduce the students to the topic of the Holocaust. The Sabra hibernating in Avi sprung as if snake-bitten, full of ideas that will shock the children into the harsh reality that is being a third-generation survivor. However, mellowed by recent experiences, and at his boss’s insistence, Avi decided to take the road most traveled: plain vanilla Holocaust studies in the morning that should help school administrators to avoid parental phone calls in the afternoon. After a short, benign discussion exposing the 5th graders to the uncertainties of Jewish life under Nazi rule, Avi screened a short YouTube clip. The video was taken in Israel a few years ago, over the ever-busy Ayalon Highway, near Tel Aviv. The video showed Israel’s busiest transportation route freezing over when the siren is activated. The students were baffled by the phenomena. Some students were unsure how to interpret the content on the screen. Some students decided to smirk at the people on the screen and make humorous remarks. Avi felt that to be a personal insult to the memory of millions. Some students stared at the screen for the duration of the clip, their body language obscuring their thoughts. A single student rose from her seat and stood in silence. Avi and the student exchanged glances, and he felt that he had accomplished his mission.
Ted Oded Avraham is the founder of JeSSI, The Jewish Student Satellite Initiative, where Jewish and Israeli youth collaborate in a space-tech challenge.