Lessons My Father Taught Me About the Holocaust

It is hard to speak about the Holocaust, without trivializing the experience. My father, of blessed memory, was a Holocaust survivor and he rarely spoke about it. I can now better understand his reticence. It is impossible to communicate, effectively, the enormity of the crime committed by the Nazis and the many who helped them. There were so many countries, which were complicit. Some even took active measures to inhibit Jews escaping from the Nazi killing machine. Others stood by and allowed it to happen. None tried to intervene and few even protested what was occurring.

I often get angry when I read the history of the Holocaust. However, my father didn’t and neither did he wear it on his sleeve. It was, however, tattooed on his arm, in the form of his Auschwitz identity number. Yet, he didn’t let it, or the inhuman treatment he was subjected to in the camps, 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. It was try and try again and, when that didn’t work, try something different; but don’t give up trying.

Dad put little store in sentimental attachments to places or things. People were important; not things. 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. He was not interested in memorials or sterile monuments to the past.

My father viewed Europe as a failed experiment and urged us never to travel to his birthplace in Poland. It was a place where he faced death many times. Having survived concentration camps, death marches and the war, he tried to return to his home in Poland. He stopped at a farm outside of his town and stayed with a family, who had survived the war in an underground bunker there. In the middle of the night, he had a dream in which his father, of blessed memory, warned him about impending danger. He woke up everyone in the bunker and told them they were in jeopardy and had to run. Thinking these were just the ravings of a concentration camp kid having a nightmare, they didn’t heed his warning. He left and when he returned in the morning, he learned that everyone who remained in the bunker had been killed by Polish partisans. They didn’t want the Jews to return. He advised us that nothing could be learned from visiting a place where so much evil had been perpetrated. Six million Jews had been killed in the Holocaust and they had no choice in the matter. While some were able to fight, for most, the only option was to face death, bravely. They had no weapons, allies or means of communication.

It’s not like today, when, thank G-d, there is a State of Israel and IDF able to save Jews threatened with harm, like the miraculous rescue at Entebbe and of the Jews of Ethiopia. These resources didn’t exist in the calamitous days of the Holocaust and we shouldn’t take them for granted. As Rabbi Haskell Lookstein reported, in his landmark study, “Were We Our Brother’ Keepers?”, the American Jewish response to the Holocaust was woefully deficient. When, in October of 1943, over 400 hundred Rabbis finally did travel to Washington, in order to urge America and the Allies to do more to save the Jews from destruction, they failed to deliver their message. President Roosevelt refused even to meet with them. How could this have happened? Rabbi Lookstein explained and the answer was not pretty. When he spoke about the American Jewish response to the Holocaust in Teaneck, he asked what had changed since then. Many responded we now have Israel. Rabbi Lookstein agreed; but added we now also have AIPAC. It’s a brilliant insight into life then and how we function today.

The Jewish people have faced many challenges since the Holocaust. I was old enough to experience the trepidation and helplessness we all felt prior to the miraculous victory of Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967. Then there was the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which yet again shook our complacently. I also remember a time, not so long ago, when Soviet Jewry was imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain. Many Jewish organizations and leaders perpetuated the charade of quiet diplomacy being the only effective means of dealing with the problem. However, young and unconventional leaders, like Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Meir Kahane (of blessed memory), challenged the prevailing wisdom. They led very public protests and would not back down. They inspired so many with the message of ‘let my people go’, which echoed Moses’ demand to the Pharaoh, in this week’s Torah reading. How was it that a group of Jewish slaves, in ancient times, challenged the mighty empire of Egypt and G-d miraculously freed them? It began with a simple unifying cry. The Bible reports they had one day off, when Pharaoh’s predecessor died. On that day, they all gave out a collective sigh, which G-d accepted as public prayer. It precipitated the process of redemption and exodus from Egypt. I remember well, how Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik (of blessed memory) advised, when Jews are in peril, we must cry out, publicly.

Much has changed since then. The Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed and Soviet Jewry were freed. Nevertheless, we still face renewed antisemitism and its new and insidious forms, such as BDS and fatuous calls for justice. The pretext of attacking the State of Israel not Jews, per se, is a canard. Let’s not be confused, it’s about the very existence of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. These malicious campaigns of disinformation are just another expression of virulent antisemitism. Yet, sometimes even well-meaning individuals are overwhelmed by the volume and intensity of the falsehoods. We live in times when lies are so prevalent that, as the Talmud predicted, the truth is rare and precious.

How do we defend and help assure that Israel and the Jewish people are not actually harmed by these nefarious forces? It begins with taking the first step of becoming involved in an organization, like AIPAC. It unites Democrats, Republicans, Progressives and Conservatives, by focusing on its primary mission of strengthening, protecting and promoting the US-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel, on a non-partisan basis. AIPAC, through its expert staff and citizen activists, like us, is devoted to educating decision-makers about the bonds that unite the United States and Israel and how it is in America’s best interest to help ensure that the Jewish State of Israel is safe, strong and secure. It is the pre-eminent, non-partisan pro-Israel lobby, which urges all 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 Senators and their extensive staffs to support Israel. This involves critical matters of security assistance, such as maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME), the $38 Billion Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and the funding of vital and cutting-edge missile defense technology, such as the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow missile systems. We all contribute to so many charities and other good works; but, think of the leverage. Congress recently authorized $705 Million for US-Israel missile defense cooperation for fiscal year 2018. It’s extraordinary and AIPAC played a key role in achieving this result. AIPAC is also involved in advancing US-Israel homeland security cooperation and joint anti-terrorism efforts. We have all witnessed how this security cooperation has helped keep the US safe.

Israel is the sole country in the Middle East, which shares our values, in practice, including, as to democracy, pluralism, diversity, humanitarian aid and the rule of law. It is a place where an American is not only welcomed, but has genuine friends and either has family or is treated like family. It is the one ally and friend in the Middle East that the United States can count on, day in and day out. We may know this is so because we have visited and seen and experienced it with our own eyes. Many, though, have not. It is AIPAC that brings Members of Congress and their staffs, other thought leaders and the next generation of leadership to Israel on missions, so that they can personally see and experience the true situation on the ground.

It takes genuine experts to analyze the myriad of details and concerns, which are an integral part of this complex world and the decision-making process. AIPAC has those experts and they act as a force multiplier, by educating and empowering us to spread the message of truth.

In addition, we have NORPAC, which performs another important function. It is a political action committee, which makes contributions to the election campaigns of the many Members of Congress who champion the US-Israel relationship.

All these vital activities require us to devote some time and money; but isn’t that the case with anything worthwhile? The effect, though, of participating in something so much bigger than any one of us, is awesome and transformative.

Join and become involved. Register and come to the AIPAC Policy Conference, starting on Sunday, March 4th. It is a unique and invaluable opportunity to learn so much, in a very short period of time, meet people from all over these wonderful United States and feel empowered. It also provides an opportunity to visit with Members of Congress. The presentations are amazing and the energy and good spirit are inspirational. Hey, come for the Shabbaton weekend too; it’s a blast.

As a child of Holocaust survivors, it is my solemn duty to be a part of AIPAC. As a Jew and citizen of the United States, it is an honor and privilege to join with my fellow Americans in support of strengthening the US-Israel relationship. Be a part of this extraordinary mission. Never again should there be another Holocaust. As survivors pass on there are many who want to build monuments in their honor and it’s a noble sentiment. The lesson I learned from survivors, like my father, was our continuing commitment to living a Jewish life is proof that their sacrifices were not in vain. Let’s join together and honor their legacy by doing our best to support Israel and strengthen the US- Israel relationship. Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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