My father, of blessed memory, was enslaved. He was hunted down when he was thirteen because of his race, effectively branded, starved and nearly worked to death. He miraculously escaped when he was eighteen.
I was born to him, when he was a free man. He was a wise individual of few words. Among the many lessons he taught us by his personal example was never to be a slave to any man; but rather to be a servant only to G-d. He didn’t let the inhuman treatment he was subjected to define him. He focused his energy on what could be done in the present, in order to assure a better future. Victimhood had no place in his life and there were no excuses for doing anything less than our best. His legacy was one of accomplishment; not maudlin self-pity. He inspired us to work hard to achieve and imbued us with the strength to overcome challenges. His guiding principle was never give up.
As I grew up, I experienced some of the hate and discrimination he sometimes spoke of in hushed tones. There was the time, when I was five in Milwaukee, when someone shouted at me that I was a dirty so and so. It happened again in Brownsville, Brooklyn, when I had to fight my way to school. Even when we moved to Queens, it happened on the streets of Laurelton, on the bus in Jamaica and at gunpoint near Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills; it was a specter that dogged us. There was even the time on the subway, when my wife and I were attacked at knifepoint, as the assailant menacingly referred to our race.
Discrimination was a fact of life in those years. I experienced it when I was at college and when I was looking for a job. It was challenging, but as my father taught me, I never gave up. It was try and try again and, when that didn’t work, try something different; but don’t give up trying. Over the years, though, the brazen variety of racial animus and overt discrimination appeared more tamed. The peaceful civil rights movement was a resounding success. The system no longer tolerates discrimination by reason of race, creed, color, religion, sex, orientation, disability or age. Government and private sector employers are required to offer equal opportunity in accordance with the requirements of law. This does not mean that there are no individual cases of discrimination, but there is legal redress. While there are still some haters, they are no longer the acceptable norm. It is, therefore, distressing to witness the invidious and anarchistic forces at work determined to set us back by trying to separate us into warring tribes and not respecting the majesty of each individual. It is chilling to hear slogans that tout the worth of some lives and not all lives and the almost inevitable resort to anti-Jewish chants. Martin Luther King taught, the prescription for healing hate is “understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men.” It is a cogent lesson that should not be forgotten.
My father Z”L was a Holocaust survivor. He was a slave laborer in Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, where he was indelibly marked with a tattooed number on his arm. He was one of the few who weren’t immediately killed in the gas chambers and reduced to ashes in the crematoriums.
The concentration camp regime was intended to cause a slow agonizing death, as he and his fellow slave laborers were worked beyond all endurance. He was also subjected to regular torture and the cruel games the Nazi guards played, designed to purge those who defied all odds and somehow managed to live a few more days. He told us of a particularly sadistic Ukrainian guard, with a limp, who viciously and mercilessly beat him and the other young boys in his charge. Those who survived each day were subjected to the notorious selections, where anyone sick or unable to work was sent to the gas chambers and death. Any visible weakness or infraction of the rules meant death. There was no medical care for the plagues of typhus or other illnesses that ravaged the malnourished slave laborers; a visit to the infirmary meant death. As a result, like many concentration camp survivors, my dad had an understandable reticence when it came to seeing a doctor.
My dad never gave up. He had an iron will and unshakeable belief in G-d. Somehow, he miraculously survived. When he emerged from the camps, he weighed barely fifty pounds. Somehow he recovered and went on to marry and build a family. He sacrificed mightily, in order to bring us up as a classical Jewish family, devoted to the observance of our traditions. This was his living testament to the survival of the Jewish people.
Each and every life is precious. As the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5) records, causing a single life to perish is effectively destroying the entire world and saving one life is tantamount to preserving the entire world. It goes on to say that no two people are alike so that everyone can rightly claim the world was created for his or her sake.
We each have our own unique mission in life and it’s not to offer excuses based on pretensions of victimhood. Let’s embrace our individual humanity and do good deeds. Respect each and every soul; life is precious.