I am Hashem, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I shall take you to Me for a people and I shall be a G-d to you; and you shall know that I am Hashem your G-d, Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt. I shall bring you to the land about which I raised My hand to give it to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Exodus 6:6-8)
Each Passover, Jews all over the world recite a particular phrase that I mentally update to more current relevance: I shall rescue you (from galut); I shall redeem you (as Zionists); I shall be a G-d to you; and you shall know that I am your G-d … and I shall bring you to the land about which I raised My hand to give it to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and future generations of My treasured people). G-d remembered his covenant. But too many American Jews, myself included, have not always acted on it.
I grew up in Skokie in the late 1950s and graduated high school in 1963. Everyone in Skokie knew of Wesley’s Restaurant and Big Herm’s Hot Dogs (both non-kosher). And we knew the Evanston Golf Club was restricted—no Jews allowed, although they did allow some Jews to caddy there. The club professional was Johnny Rivolta. I would often caddy for his wife, Mrs. Johnny Rivolta, ladies club champion. She was a terrific golfer. I don’t know if she knew I was Jewish. I don’t know if she would have cared. She won three club championships when I caddied for her. I brought her luck, so she always asked for me to caddy for her.
In my junior year of high school, I was the No. 2 golfer at Niles East High School. The No. 1 golfer was a guy named Bob Zender, Evanston Golf Club champion as a teenager and Illinois State Champion during his junior and senior years of high school. He would take me to play at Evanston Golf Club so we could compete. I once actually beat him, but I had to shoot my best game ever, a 67. I don’t know if he knew I was Jewish; I don’t think he would have cared. That’s how it was back then.
My parents were members of Skokie Valley Traditional Synagogue, but if the picture of a huge bowl of shrimp at my Bar Mitzvah party was any indication, we weren’t so traditional. I grew up knowing nothing about the Holocaust and nothing about the State of Israel. It just never was part of the conversation.
What did come up in conversation on one occasion, was a friend of my parents, Freddie Friedler, and his wife, Selma. They would come to our house on weekends and my dad would barbecue skirt steaks (also not kosher). During the summer, there were some pretty hot weekends, yet I remember Freddie always wore a long-sleeved shirt, buttoned at the wrist, while everyone else was wearing short sleeves. But one afternoon, while sitting in the heat, with everyone sweating, Freddie unbuttoned his shirt and rolled up his sleeves, and I saw a strange tattoo of numbers on his forearm. Back then, tattoos were an oddity. I had seen a few artistic ones, mostly on the guys we called “greasers,” but it was never just a series of numbers. I kept my mouth shut until everyone left and then asked my parents if they had seen the tattoo on Freddie’s arm. Glancing at one another uncomfortably, they said it was nothing and quickly changed the subject. So it was no big deal, I thought back then. But I never forgot the blue numbers on Freddie Friedler’s forearm.
After my ten years in college, getting a master’s degree in architecture and half-heartedly beginning to pursue a doctorate in architectural history, on occasion I would hear about an annual event at Skokie Valley commemorating something called the Shoah. I had been the first Bar Mitzvah at Skokie Valley’s “new building” in 1958. Rabbi Milton Kanter was the rabbi who had to put up with me trying to learn my Haftarah, and I remember Dr. Feder and Samuel Berger (no relation) as the officers of the synagogue. Entering the building as an older adult brought back memories of friends I had lost touch with. It would still be years before I would learn what those blue numbers meant.
No one ever talked about the Shoah. Both sides of my family had come to America around the turn of the century. Both my parents had been born in America. I was second generation. But I do remember the first time I was told of what had happened to Jews in Europe, and my first emotion was anger. Anger at the German people. Anger at the Nazis. And anger at the European Jews themselves. Later, my anger would turn to American Jews.
As I reflected on the presentations during previous commemorations, it was very humbling. I would notice the many people in the audience now wearing short sleeves that revealed blue numbers on their arms. Men and women – blue numbers tattooed into their skin. I would sit quietly – almost hiding – aware that my comprehension of what these people had experienced years ago was only superficial.
So this past year, when I was again asked to sit on the stage with some dignitaries and members of Sheerit Hapleitah, sponsor of the program to remember Holocaust survivors, I was conflicted. These people of the blue-numbered tattoos—they were the honored. They had been to hell and back. And to see an elderly woman hugging her granddaughter as they lit a candle—they were the heroes. I was just a Jew who returned from oblivion to the religion of my grandfathers. Who was I to sit with these Jews who had endured so much – who had looked at death and not only said no, but resolved to cling to their Jewishness. Its traditions. Its hopes and its future. Each had a story to tell, having been given a second gift of life – as a survivor. In the end, I accepted the invitation. I didn’t know why I was given this honor, but I’m sure the person who invited me had his reasons.
It was Emil Fackenheim who wrote, in his most important book, God’s Presence in History:
One would dearly like to believe that the shock of the holocaust has made impossible a second holocaust anywhere. Is the grim truth not rather that a second holocaust has been made more likely, not less likely, by the fact of the first? For there are few signs anywhere of that radical repentance which alone could rid the world of Hitler’s shadow. If this is indeed the grim truth, is not, after Auschwitz, any Jewish willingness to suffer martyrdom, instead of an inspiration to potential saints, much rather an encouragement to potential criminals? After Auschwitz, is not even the saintliest Jew driven to the inexorable conclusion that he owes the moral obligation to the antisemites of the world not to encourage them by his own powerlessness? Such, at any rate, is the view of a novelist [Manès Sperber], himself a survivor, who asserts that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the Eichmann trial have brought to an end “the millennial epoch of the Jews’ sanctifying God and themselves by their submitting to a violent death.”
As I sat on the stage, looking out at the crowd, I thought back several years to when a niece of ours named Lauren was teaching world history to the juniors and seniors of Oswego High School. A blue-collar suburb southwest of Chicago, its demographics according to Wikipedia are 83 percent white and 12 percent Hispanic, with an annual income of about $30,000 per person. So when Lauren told me her class was studying the Holocaust, I was a bit surprised. Needless to say, everyone in my family knows my commitment to Israel and Judaism in general, and so she casually asked if I knew any survivors of the Holocaust who could speak to her class. I told her I knew of several survivors, but one in particular might be willing. I had heard him speak at synagogue, and he had quite a story to tell. Caught by the Nazis in 1942, he had been in 12 death camps. Because he was tall for his age (and had put sand in his shoes in order to appear even taller), he was able to pass for 16 and thus stay alive by working in the camps. He had a dark complexion and everyone called him “Gypsy.” His name is Dr. Arnold Clevs—a strong, tough 82 year-old survivor with a wonderful wife, Batya, and two beautiful children, his son having made aliyah and now living with Dr. Clevs’ four grandchildren in Jerusalem.
I told Lauren I would talk to Dr. Clevs and get back to her. He agreed, and so one Wednesday morning Dr. Clevs, Batya and I drove out to a place that could have been a foreign country compared to Chicago’s Lakeview, not knowing what to expect. After we parked the car, we were met by the school principal, together with Lauren and several other teachers who then led us to where he would give his presentation.
I thought it curious that the principal and three teachers were escorting us, but maybe they were just being respectful. As we approached the room where Arnold was to speak, the doors opened and we were led into the main assembly hall. We had expected a class of 20 or 30 students. Instead, over 600 restless teenagers were sitting in their seats, talking, laughing, and waiting for the presentation to begin. Arnold and I looked at one another in shock, speechless. He had given his presentation to groups of 30 or 40 people, but this seemed overwhelming. Lauren walked to the podium, quieted the room, and introduced Dr. Clevs. The two of us shrugged our shoulders, and all I could do was smile and wish him luck. And with that, the students who had been restless when we entered the assembly hall suddenly got very quiet as Arnold began to tell his story. For the next 30 minutes, you could have heard a pin drop.
When he finished his presentation there was a strange silence, and then, totally without prompting, 600 non-Jewish teenagers from a world certainly much different than what I could have imagined, all stood up in unison and began clapping. Unexpectedly, I felt a lump in my throat and a glaze form over my eyes. The applause went on for what seemed like a very long time, until one of the teachers took the microphone and asked everyone to sit down “so Mr. Clevs might be kind enough to answer a few questions.” The kids quickly dashed to several microphones that were set up in the audience.
How did you deal with it? Did you ever see your parents again? What was it like to see people being shot to death in front of your eyes? How? What? When? The questions came quickly. And then a girl with long dark hair and glasses took the microphone and in a most respectful tone, asked quietly, “Mr. Clevs, would you show us your numbers?” Arnold slowly unbuttoned his shirt cuff, pulled back his sleeve, and almost as a sign of defiance against his Nazi oppressors, raised his arm for all to see, and another thunderous roar of applause and cheering arose from the audience. And the little girl with the long dark hair and glasses, almost weeping, said into the microphone, “You are my hero. I will never forget this day as long as I live.”
As the teachers apologetically called the presentation to an end, every student, without any directive, lined up to shake Arnold’s hand. Some hugged him. Some, with tears in their eyes, uttered some endearing thoughts, while the teachers, knowing that their next classes had already started, stood to the side and allowed the procession to continue. With tears rolling down their cheeks as they watched the line move forward, the teachers told us later that they had never experienced anything like this before.
I thought of Arnold and that afternoon in Oswego when I decided to accept the invitation to sit on the stage for the commemoration for our six million. There are things we do for ourselves and there are things we do to honor memory. Dr. Arnold Clevs and Freddie Friedler sat next to me that afternoon at Skokie Valley Synagogue, and I thank Charles Lipshitz for inviting me onto that most sacred place.
Never again … Never again … Never again …
Jack “Yehoshua” Berger *
* Back issues are archived at The Times of Israel.com