When Dad and I went to Tereisenstadt, our guide was a Czech Holocaust survivor. I regret till this day not recording what he told us, but it somehow seemed disrespectful to try. I will never forget one thing he described for us, though. He was deported to Auschwitz at some point, and since he was a teacher, he was assigned to Czech children who were also interned at the death camp.
One day, Mengele came into the barracks where the children were housed. He took one of them on his lap, saying, “Come sit with uncle.” The next day, all of the children were sent to their deaths.
It is not about never again, alone. Humans are too cruel and ignorant to meet that very low bar. For Jews, it must be about never letting anyone decide that we are unworthy, that we have less intrinsic dignity and worth than any other human being(s). As I have told you in the past, the most important thing is never to let other people define you, never let them tell you who you are, what you stand for, what you care about, what you believe in. That is no one’s right but your own.
Our history is full of people telling us that we don’t belong, that we’re unworthy, that we are less than… My response has always been to be utterly deaf to that, since I know it comes from other people’s raging insecurities, anger, and projection. If I live my life according to the values with which I was raised, then that is the only thing that matters, the only standard by which I (and I hope you) are willing to be judged.
Yes, we must speak up and out and not let hate be the consuming voice, the noise that crowds out anything and everything good and decent. But the same way that blacks cannot change racists, I cannot change Jew haters. I am not the problem; they are.
I think of your Papa Jack, z’l, every single day. I sometimes feel like I miss him more now, but a tiny part of me is perhaps grateful that he didn’t live to see a world–and especially an America–suffused with the same hatred that snuffed out the lives of his brothers, his nephews, his sister-in-law, and his mother, among other family members. He remains my north star for how one should be in this world, for what a life of dignity, virtue, and Jewish pride looks and feels like. I hope his example–however distilled through me–is a meaningful guide for you as well.
I will end with another thing I’ll never forget. Papa Jack was liberated by the Russians. When a Russian army officer approached him, he asked Papa Jack and the other Jews with him, “Kakoe utomlonyi narod?” What kind of people are you? “We are Jews,” Papa Jack answered. “We have come 800 kilometers from the eastern front and you are the first Jews we have seen,” the officer replied. That is the scale of the devastation that ripped whole branches from our family tree, and from that of millions of other Jews.
You are lesser than no one, and better than most. The Mogilniks, the Katzes, and the Weissenbergs might only be a tiny remnant, but we are a treasured one.