Every Jew you know is a descendant of persecution

At my grandfather's 80th birthday, I wish I was able to ask him more about our past. (courtesy)
At my grandfather's 80th birthday, I wish I was able to ask him more about our past. (courtesy)

I have a lot of pain right now. I mourn for the lives lost and my thoughts are with the innocent men, women, and children held hostage in Gaza right now.

As I write this, thousands of miles away from the conflict, I am acutely aware that Israelis are on the front lines fighting for my right to exist. I am thankful that I live in America and I have the privilege to go to work tomorrow morning without fear. I know that this would not be my reality if I lived in Tel Aviv. Yet, amid all these emotions, confusion sets in. I find myself questioning how some people in this world can both deny and, at the same time, celebrate the horrors of Jewish persecution. I fear that in our privilege, some of us may have lost sight of the circumstances that have brought us to this point.

I feel obligated to tell a story.

If you were one of the 3,000,000 Jews in Poland in 1939, there was a 1.7% chance you would survive the Holocaust and live past 1945. Ever since I can remember, I knew I came from one of these “survivor families.”

I didn’t ask many questions about it growing up. My friends knew about the Holocaust too, of course. But I could not understand why I was naturally drawn to rewatch films like The Pianist and Life Is Beautiful over and over. I didn’t realize until later in life that my friends “knew” about the Holocaust, while I felt it. My reality was still impacted even after the credits rolled in those films.

Growing up, I never had “Canadian” grandparents that played with me or showed me deep affection. I could never understand why my family was so different from that of my friends. My best friend Eric was always very close with his Canadian-born grandfather, Donald. Despite being only a few years younger than my own grandfather, Donald was quite affable and involved in Eric’s life. It was only later in life that I began to realize that the absence of doting grandparents like Donald in my life was not an oversight, but rather the result of a painful history I had yet to fully comprehend.

I do not have a “family history” other than the Holocaust. If you want to visit my family, you must go to Auschwitz or Treblinka. That’s all that remains of my family history.

We called my grandfather “Zaidy.” He was born Israel Wolf Rotman in a small village in Poland in 1923. By 22 years old, his father, mother, three brothers, countless uncles and aunts, and over one hundred of his cousins were murdered at a terrible place called Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I always knew about my father’s missing uncles: Zechariah, Gershon, and Moishe Pinchas. I knew that there was a story with Moishe Pinchas. I remember my great-uncle telling me that he was sent with a neighbor to build railroad infrastructure for the Nazis in 1943. “We never saw Moishe Pinchas again. He never wrote to us.” He disappeared off the face of the Earth. Even after the war, no one knew what came of him or the neighbor. But they were certainly dead.

In 1958, my great-uncle walked into a movie theater with his wife in Ramat Gan, Israel. He noticed a face. He began to shake rampantly. He looked like he had just seen a ghost. He followed the man and tapped him on the shoulder. He asked, “Were you the neighbor of Moishe Pinchas Rotman from Łódź?” The man nodded.

It had been over 15 years since Moishe Pinchas disappeared. The neighbor informed him that Moishe Pinchas was initially sent to Posen, a concentration camp in Poland, to work on railroads. When there was no more work, Moishe Pinchas was deported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered in 1943. He was 22 years old and the first brother to die. As I write this, I can hear my great-uncle whispering, “Moishe Pinchas. Poor boy, poor boy.”

Moishe Pinchas was not the last Rotman to perish at Auschwitz. I was told at a young age that my great-grandfather, Yitzhak, brought his Tallit and Tefillin with him into the gas chambers in 1944. But I learned later in life that Yitzhak was not alone; he was accompanied by his grandson, Heinich. Heinich Rotman was a one-year-old baby when he was murdered in a gas van.​ The image of my grandfather recounting this dreadful tale is forever etched in my memory, his words were abruptly cut short as he shrieked out in pain, “I am angry at the world for what they did to us. They killed us all. Murderers!”

I finally understood him. It was not that he was inherently different from other grandfathers; he was a survivor carrying the heavy burden of Jewish persecution that deeply impacted every aspect of his life. Both my Zaidy and his surviving brother, who wore the Auschwitz prisoner I.D. tattoo on his wrist his whole life, were considered the “lucky ones.” In truth, he lived in pain for his entire life.

The tragedy of my grandfather’s family met its match in that of my grandmother’s. She carried her pain until her death too. My Bubby, Sarah Lipowicz, was the sole survivor of a family of eight victims of cold-blooded Nazi murder.

My Hebrew name, יעקוב, was given in honor of my Bubby’s youngest brother, who was one of her five siblings murdered at another terrible place called Treblinka. Her mother, Hadassah, who was also murdered there, comes from a family of nine siblings. Eight shared the same fate. This was also collectively over one hundred dead uncles, aunts, and cousins.

On October 6, 1942, the sound of whistles, barking dogs, and gunshots filled the air as Nazis forced all Jewish villagers of my Bubby’s shtetl to gather at the market square. Families tried to stay together as they were marched in silence, surrounded by heavily armed soldiers ready to enforce the orders of the commanding SS officer. Upon arrival, they were ordered to relinquish their gold and silver valuables. Shortly thereafter, screaming erupted. Hundreds of children were separate from their mothers and moved to one end of the square. They were all hastily executed via machine gun. Amidst the chaos, some of my grandmother’s uncles and aunts were forced into a building in the main square. The building was then set on fire, leaving them all to burn to death in the flames as they tried to escape. The murder of Fiszel Berlin is remembered in Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names today.

My grandmother’s parents, siblings, and remaining uncles, aunts, and cousins were deported to Treblinka, a Nazi camp designed exclusively for the extermination of Jews at industrial scale. There is no other way to describe Treblinka other than a death factory. To this day, I believe it is the scariest place on Earth. 870,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka in one year and just 70 survived. Unlike other camps, there were very few survivors of Treblinka. This is because Treblinka was not a concentration camp. There was no prisoner selection. There was nothing to do at Treblinka but arrive and be murdered.

When the trains arrived at Treblinka, my family was forced to immediately disembark. They had no idea where they were. Nazi extermination camp protocol dictated that those going to their death should be deceived until the end. The camp guards ordered them to strip naked in front of each other. They were then herded into gas chambers. Within a few seconds, they suffocated to death from carbon monoxide poisoning and dropped lifeless to the floor. Their bodies were then burned in open-air pits, and any remaining bones were crushed and scattered. The next batch of Jews was then readied.

My grandmother fondly remembered her youngest sister, Bela, who had beautiful blond hair. She was seven when she was deported to Treblinka and murdered that same day. My grandmother frequently told my grandfather how smart her brothers were – Meir, Shimon, and Jacob. “They would have grown up to become doctors and businessmen for sure.” The Nazis had other plans.

By 1942, my grandmother was 19 years old and the only one left of her 100-person extended family. I have been told my grandmother was exceptionally sharp and responsible for a lot of my grandparents’ resilience. But like many survivors, there was so much pain. How I wish I knew you, Bubby.

The Holocaust was not mass death through warfare. The Holocaust was meticulously planned mass murder organized by educated people working desk jobs in offices like a corporation. Their business just happened to be starving, shooting, and gassing six million people to death because they were born to a particular ethnicity. This was not about religiosity; it did not matter what Jews identified as. Regardless of how much money they had, what their politics were, or which university they attended, to the enemy they were just… Jews.

Growing up, I hated when people asked me, “Where is your family originally from?” I never knew what to say. “I guess we’re from Poland, but we’re not really Polish, you see.” Much like my Egyptian and Persian Jewish friends, we are immigrants, but where we are from is not where we are welcome. Poland is a graveyard for my family. The shtetls of Poland were once the center of world Jewry. Today, there is not one Jew left in these villages, leaving behind only derelict and abandoned cemeteries and synagogues as testaments to the thriving communities that existed for centuries.

The narrative of Jewish history is primarily marked by two themes: an enduring connection to the ancestral homeland of Israel, and the widespread antisemitism faced outside of said homeland. After the Holocaust, the center of Jewish life shifted to Israel. The founding of the State of Israel in 1948 provided a homeland for the Jewish people and a place where they could rebuild their lives. And since then, we thought we were done being murdered en masse.

My grandparents had known nothing but a world where Jews were viewed as vulnerable and weak and where antisemitism was rampant. But with the establishment of Israel, they finally had a sense of hope and security. They knew that no matter what challenges lay ahead, as long as Israel existed, our people always had a place to call home. They viewed Israel as their insurance and the Israel Defense Forces as their protectors. They viewed Israel as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people, who had endured centuries of persecution, and yet had managed to finally fight back.

What I just shared is my father’s family’s story. My mother’s family was “fortunate” to have escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to the British Mandate of Palestine after Kristallnacht in 1939. My mother’s parents were accepted into the pre-statehood community of Zionist pioneers, while their parents and siblings that remained in Austria were shipped to their deaths.

My Safta’s mother bribed the SS guards at Dachau to release her husband. She was less lucky with her father-in-law, Eli, who was taken from his nursing home at 80 years old to Buchenwald and murdered. Her sister, Julia, remained in Poland and was shot to death in a forest. Her brother, Gustav, starved to death with his wife and son in a ghetto.

My Safta’s family waited in Israel for their relatives to join them. No one came.

My Saba, who turned 100 years old last week, escaped Vienna for Palestine when he was 16 and left behind his mother and grandmother. When he got there, he fought in the Palmach and in the 1948 War of Independence. During a recent interview, I asked him what he was fighting for. He answered, “firstly, for my life, and secondly, for the right of the Jewish people to live.”

What happened to his mother and grandmother? Like every Jewish woman that remained in Austria in 1942, they were shipped to Theresienstadt and murdered simply because they existed.

As you have read, it is not a political opinion, but a statement of fact, that I would not be alive but for Zionism — the belief that Israel has the right to exist as a sovereign state and homeland for the Jewish people. My Israeli passport is the physical embodiment of my right and insurance to live.

I am not aligned with Bibi Netanyahu. I would love nothing more than to see the Palestinians have their own democratic, self-sufficient, and terror-free state. However, I do not care what your opinion is on a two-state solution or what you think the Israeli government has done. Because they certainly haven’t broken into a house, indiscriminately murdered an innocent grandmother in her bed, and posted her corpse on her Facebook page. As Sam Harris said, there is zero moral equivalency in the Israeli-Hamas conflict and any social justice warrior that says otherwise would feel very differently if they attended that music festival. I don’t believe that 5,000 characters on why Israel is a genocidal, apartheid state would serve as distinguishable body armor to indiscriminate murder.

I hope in reading this you might understand why Jews cannot accept acts of hatred and terror perpetrated against us across the globe. I hope you might understand why we feel a connection to Israel, a country many of us were not born in. I hope you might understand why we feel a deep connection to one another, even if some of us, including myself, are not particularly religious. I hope you understand why we are not overreacting when, after a thousand Jews were murdered, the Ayatollah’s pawns have more Palestinian flags on display in Times Square than when the Assad regime tortured to death over 630 Palestinians.

As Josh Wolfe aptly said, “anyone using the word ‘genocide’ to describe Israeli military actions specifically targeting Hamas terrorists and their infrastructure to defend against Hamas explicit existential declaration for genocide of Jews and elimination of Israel as declared in their charter — is grotesquely disgracing 6,000,000 Jews systematically collected and slaughtered just as Hamas sought to do and did on October 7th.”

I think about this every day.

I feel like I am taking crazy pills. We are not allowed to defend ourselves against blatant mass murder by a death cult obsessed with Jewish blood and we must apologize for the provocation of our mere existence. I am appalled at what is happening on the campuses of this country’s most elite universities. My local pizza joint had a more intellectually honest response than the academic elite of Harvard did. But at least now we know who would have looked at my family being rounded up by the SS in the shtetl square and thought, “well, these Jews did have it coming.”

I am relieved that I do not have to see the expression on my grandparents faces after seeing what happened this week. The most Jews murdered in a single day since 1945. I don’t know if they would be less surprised by the massacre or the subsequent denial from the world in response. My grandparents understood that when someone tells you they want to murder you, you need to believe them. They read it as clear as day in Hamas’ 1988 charter. The world simply did and still does not care.

The Bible tells us that Haman, the antagonist of the story of Purim, was an Amalekite. In Jewish tradition, the Amalekites have come to represent an “eternally irreconcilable enemy” that wants to end the Jewish people. As my Zaidy once said, “the Nazis had a plan… to kill the Jews. And they did it”. As I say today, “Hamas has a plan… to kill the Jews. And they are doing it.” But this time, we will defend ourselves. We will defy the Amalekites’ wishes and do what they fear most… we will liveThis is what “Am Yisrael Chai” means to me.

I will not stay silent. I will make you proud Zaidy, Bubby, Saba, and Safta. I will never be ashamed to be a Jew. I will never be ashamed to support Israel. I am proud to be one of 16 million people on this Earth that have been carrying our beautiful traditions for over three thousand poignant years and I will be so forever.

I wrote this in honor of my family and those with similar stories whose lives were stolen from them by the Nazis. You are not forgotten. Now let’s get our people back home.

About the Author
Cole is a venture capital investor focused on technology startups. He is the grandson of Holocaust survivors and pioneers of the State of Israel.
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