My father, z’l, passed away on February 9, 2006. It is beyond crushing to realize that he’s been gone physically from my life for so long. But there is a part of me that feels a slight twinge of almost-gratitude that he did not live to see America as it is today, and to see some members of the Jewish community as they are today.
You see, my father knew history. He lived it. He understood tyranny. He understood freedom. He understood cowardice, hypocrisy, and courage. Yes, courage. My father showed it in so many ways, including as a young survivor of the Holocaust, smuggling other survivors as well as Polish army officers to the West, knowing that the Iron Curtain would fall. He was arrested, put on trial in Berlin (of all places!) and acquitted. I remain ever thankful for that, for obvious reasons.
But before my father even had the chance to play the young hero in the lives of other desperate human beings, he himself had to run, just as he was made free. He and his few surviving family members were liberated by the Russians. The Red Army had made its way, as a Russian officer told my father, 800 kilometers from the front. When the Russians came upon my father and his family, the officer asked, “Kakoe utomlonyi narod?” “What kind of people are you?” “We are Jews,” my father explained. The officer then told him that he and his men had come 800 kilometers from the Eastern Front, and that these were the first Jews they had encountered. That alone speaks volumes about the destruction and horror that befell Jews across Europe, but especially in Eastern Europe.
As the officer and his men prepared to leave the farmhouse in which they and my father found themselves, he told my father that they would be back in the morning. My father had been asked to join the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. Why? Because in the course of being a hunted animal in his own country, on the run for years for his life, scrounging for bread, trying to protect his siblings, his parents, his nephews, my father also mastered Russian and German. That was in addition to his native Yiddish and Polish. He was clearly bright, a young, quick study. And the Russians wanted him. So naturally, he did what any bright young man who had an instinct for survival, for decency would do: he ran away from the farmhouse, never to see that Russian officer again.
I share this story because although my father was deeply grateful for the sacrifices of the Russian Army, for their having liberated him, he was a student of history. He knew who the Russians were, who Stalin was, what communism meant. And he rightly fled from all of that. I cannot even imagine what it would have meant for him to live to see an American President not only embrace Russia, but do the bidding of a former KGB operative who is pulling his strings like a master puppeteer. The pain of having survived the war, of having fled from the Russians, of having come to America to rebuild his life, only to see his children and grandchildren living in a country consumed not only with historic ignorance and rank stupidity, but with such abundant cowardice, might have destroyed him. To see Republicans genuflect before a pathetic, blustering bully, who himself genuflects before a blustering bully, would have been torturous. Then again, maybe not. Some years back, my father told me (apropos of what, specifically, I don’t recall) that America will destroy itself and will destroy the world. It is both extraordinary and horrifying to see that apparently happening in real time, with the aid and acquiescence of an entire political party and tens of millions of Americans who are either that ignorant, or who have even more nefarious motives–racial, ethnic, religious–for wanting to destroy what is best and most hopeful about America, viz., the very idea of it, the very ideals of it.
Finally, I was so appalled by the fact that a synagogue we had joined when we moved chose this fall to head out on a trip to Russia that I cancelled our membership and gave that money to a nonprofit fighting anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred. Either you stand for something in this world, or you don’t. And la-la-ing your way around Russia at the very time when its leader is actively working to destroy the country of your citizenship is so appalling as to be almost beyond words. And the irony of being in that part of the world on November 9th–the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall–is the icing on a truly shameful cake.