My husband and I just got back from a well-deserved mini vacation in Vienna where we spent five lovely days touring and reconnecting. We have been to many European cities and I am always enchanted by their mix of modernism and old-world charm; the ornate architecture and mouth-watering cafes that line the cobblestone boulevards always beckon us to meander and explore. The joys of getting lost in these quaint towns is always something we look forward to.
But I can’t help the instinctive thoughts that pop into my head uninvited. While I try and focus on the beauty that surrounds me, the first thing I think about is what it must have been like to be a Jew living in Vienna seventy five years ago.
On the most beautiful and scenic drive to Salzburg, we passed through majestic mountains and dense lush forests and while I did notice their beauty, the first thoughts I had were not of the wonders of nature, but of survival. How many Jews hid in these forests? How many partisans died among the trees trying to fight for their freedom? How many successfully made it over the mountains into Switzerland or Italy? And how many did not….
I saw an old old man, walking with a walker, hunched over, his face lined with wrinkles, his hair a shock of white and all I could think about is where was he during the war? What part did he play? And even when I did the math and figured he was a young boy when the war ended, I wondered how he was raised… Were his parents Nazi sympathizers or did they raise him to love and respect all people regardless of religion or race?
But I can’t help but be skeptical and think the worst. My daughter reminded me that maybe – just maybe – his parents were one of the few that helped Jews, or even hid some, thus saving a whole new future generation. She’s the kind of girl who thinks the best of everyone. She is, as we say in Hebrew, “dan lekaf zchut”; her instincts are to automatically give people the benefit of the doubt. But when it comes to my instinctive thoughts regarding octonogerian Europeans, I admit I am not like her. It makes me sad that my thoughts turn towards the dark side of things rather than the light but it made me wonder if it’s the norm for third generation survivors. My grandparents suffered horribly in the Shoah, and despite the fact that my daughter knew my grandparents before they passed away, she’s still one more generation removed.
I, on the other hand, still visit every Jewish museum and Holocaust memorial in every European city I have visited and automatically substitute the faces of my grandparents for the faces of those captured in the black and white photographs that told the story of an awful time in our history.
It’s a part of me that I don’t think will ever change. Despite how sad it is, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. I don’t want to be desensitized and I know that every new generation puts distance between the here and now and the era of the Holocaust. And we need, more than ever in these scary changing times, to keep remembering.