Juliana Gildener-Leapman

Our Resounding Cry for Freedom: Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2024

Grandma Berta (Basha), before the War, Age 12
Grandma Berta (Basha), before the War, Age 12
“Can they tell by looking at my hand that I am Jewish?” Words spoken by my grandmother’s six year-old sister circa 1939, a few years before she was taken with her family in a round-up and killed in the extermination camp in Belzec. That child was one of the aunts my mother never knew. My mother never knew the words grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle or cousin.
Shortly before my mother was born, the earth swallowed the heinous sins and the years of hatred that had feasted upon it, leaving in its wake only the tortured and aggrieved. Of them were my grandparents. Each the sole survivors of their families, with no parent or brother or sister left in the world, they packed their grief in their suitcases and turned toward life.
My mother was raised in America. While her home was a living, breathing testimony of her family’s loss and suffering, the world around them was silent about it. My mother describes the lack of discourse and acknowledgement that existed, as if humanity was too ashamed to look the beast in the face. I cannot imagine the dissonance of such a reality. “Hello world, can’t you see what happened to us? We’re right here!” My mom describes having had the feeling of existing in their own world, as if on a life raft, just the four of them – she, her sister, and her parents – living and surviving the aftermath together. For who else could, or even tried to, understand? Anyone else on the raft would be an interloper.
It was not until there were grandchildren that there began to be open societal discourse around the subject. I was not much older than Bronya, my grandmother’s youngest sister, now frozen in time as a life cut short 50 years earlier, when the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington, D.C. It was an unseasonably cold day in late April, 1993. The rampant anti-Semitism and crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Holocaust was at first something so shameful that there was deep societal repression for what had happened. Perhaps it was the guilt. Perhaps it was too disturbing to think about. To speak generously, there was an unknowing of how to process and represent such an unprecedented nightmare. And now I was going to bear witness to the reckoning of this dark past, so that it would never happen again.
Among the earliest and most formative ideas to shape my young mind was this entreaty to humanity – Never Again. We attended the museum’s inauguration ceremony, which was held outdoors. I remember the pride I felt as I watched President Clinton speak from the podium on that frigid day, empathically wearing a black satin kippah. Sleet turned to hail, and we sat on plastic chairs under umbrellas competing for heavenly real-estate. My mother wanted to button my coat as I sat shivering, but I petitioned: “Please, mom, imagine how cold they were in the camps, I don’t want to be warm now.” Finally, the harrowing details of our collective past was going to be recognized by the world in a way that could never be forgotten. We were fully engrossed in the moment of recognition of our past that served to safeguard our future.
As part of my moral inheritance, I always recognized the privilege I had of growing up at a time in America when equality and human rights were extolled and recognized under the law. I also knew it was something to fight to maintain every day. The fight, however, was always to improve upon the status quo. The fear was never of slipping back into a time where open hatred and discrimination of others would be normalized, let alone deemed virtuous.
At least this was the feeling I had in America, where my family planted all its hopes and dreams for a better future. A melting pot for all. Herein lies the dissonance of being an American growing up in the 90s saying “Never Again.” A regression to the dark past was impossible! Angry mobs publicly assaulting Jews, looting Jewish businesses, and screaming bold incantations for Jewish genocide, was now only meant for the echoing halls of Holocaust memorial museums, and not for the streets of New York City, San Francisco, or Washington D.C.
But there was something I had suppressed in myself. The chants I heard from the perimeter of the lawn at the Holocaust Memorial inauguration ceremony: “We don’t buy the Holocaust lie!” In writing this, I was impressed with how profoundly the inauguration ceremony stood out to me almost 30 years later as I sat recalling it in its all its details. But this specific memory was dampened, next-to-forgotten. Yet now it floods back to me, racing to the fore.
Where once the parlance was “Judenrein” and “Jew go back to Palestine,” we now hear “from the river to the sea!” and “Go back to where you came from!” Except this time, there is nowhere else to go back to.
Shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and not long after the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, my grandmother went with my mother to revisit her roots in what was once Poland, now Ukraine. My mother has described the moment to me when they went to the house my grandmother used to live. In her sixties and with a bad knee, my grandmother ran up the hill to the door of her house with the energy of a little girl. The occupants opened the door and spoke to her. While she did not enter the house, she later described seeing her mother’s stove that had remained after all these years, visible from the entryway.
We are a people who have lived in exile for thousands of years, praying daily for our return to Jerusalem, to Israel. We had grown accustomed to wandering the diaspora, seeking temporary safe havens, and sharing our tragically expanding story of loss and persecution so that we would never forget. With it, I carry the experience of my orphaned grandmother when her diasporic home was no longer available to her.
I share that of my grandfather and his family, too. In his life, my grandfather recalled running back to his sister’s house after the liquidation of the ghetto. They were also taken in a round-up and sent to Belzec. When he got to their house, all that remained of his little niece and nephew, Chanaleh and Yossele, was the snowman they had built outside. He never saw them again.
My family’s fate is not unique among the 2,000 year fate of Jews in the diaspora. But while there was always this deep and intimate knowledge of our history, there was also always hope. In my case, American hope, which I am now afraid is but the ember of a dwindling American dream.
The hateful images and rallying cries against Jews, coming from individuals, mobs, institutions, media, and even propped up by some governing officials, has been frightening to the core. They say it’s anti Zionism but Jews everywhere in the diaspora are being attacked. And the worst part is the ‘topsy turvy’ of it all. The people who say they hold the banner of progressive liberalism have turned against one specific group of people, and somehow, it’s okay. In fact, it’s good.
The blood libel has mutated forms over the generations. Among different versions of antisemitic rhetoric in our lifetime, there has been Holocaust denial. And, today, the beast has taken on a new shape yet again. After incurring the massacre of October 7th, the Jewish State was somehow taken to international court to be accused of genocide. The accusation was doubly grotesque in its false allegation as well as in the weaponization of this term against the very people for whose suffering it originated.
During this dog and pony show, political bodies and salivating news agencies have been farcically able to ignore Hamas’ transparent genocidal intentions and wholly omit the details of the massacre they committed in alignment with those intentions. Many of us who share my moral inheritance look on in horror, as we see truth slip under the scourge of propaganda spread by those with malicious intent and infecting the minds of tragically uninformed people everywhere. We see how stories can be turned and truth can be twisted even in the face of robust evidence to the contrary, such as the exhaustive efforts Israel takes to protect Palestinian civilians in a defensive battle instigated by the other side, even at the risk of its own soldiers. We hear deranged assertions questioning and denying events that were video- evidenced by Hamas and even later publicly espoused by its leaders as something to be repeated.
There is a feeling that if one blinks their eyes or unclogs their ears, it will make sense again. But there it is. “The October 7 massacre didn’t happen,” “women weren’t raped,” “babies weren’t beheaded,” “hundreds weren’t kidnapped.” And yet, somehow, we hear some of these same voices calling it an admirable act of “resistance.” Resistance against the Jew the Occupier, the Jew the infidel, the Jew who, once again, has no right to exist. The largest Jewish pogrom since the Holocaust was simultaneously being denied as well as celebrated in the streets all around me and in our top academic institutions. This is 2024’s blood libel. It was the Allied Commander, and later, American President, Dwight Eisenhower, who recognized that one day the horrors of the Holocaust could be denied. With this foresight, he urged soldiers, media, and local Germans to document the atrocities. And now we are staring down the barrel of Holocaust denial 2.0.
The irony of this rising frenzy of global Jew-hatred in the wake of the Jewish massacre of October 7th, even before Israel buried its dead or began its defensive war in Gaza, is that it only proves how crucial Israel’s existence is. And it becomes self-evident that Anti-Zionism is indeed the modern form of anti-Semitism. Israel is the only haven for Jews experiencing growing antisemitism around the world. There cannot be an “after Israel” because there is nowhere else to go. Jews have been kicked out of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and all corners of the Earth. The countries wishing for the end of Israel are wishing for the end of its over 7 million Jewish inhabitants because they offer no reasonable solution for the Jews “after Israel.” They say “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Free how, exactly? Free from Jews.
This Holocaust Remembrance day coincides with Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song. In this week’s parasha, the Egyptians chase after the enslaved Israelites, refusing them their physical and spiritual freedom. The Sea of Reeds miraculously parts allowing the Israelites to cross into the Land of Canaan, the Promised Land. The sea then closes, swallowing their enemies, and the Israelites become a free people in their Promised Land. Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s sister, then rejoices, leading her people in song with drums and dancing.
How fitting then that these two days, Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Sabbath of Song, should coincide, when we find ourselves in such dark days. The union of these two days tells a whole story. A story of subjugation and tyranny that repeats itself, but from which the Jewish people always emerge stronger and more united, whereby they live to realize the Promised Land. God liberated the Israelites from the river to the sea 3,000 years ago, and again, in 1948, after the Holocaust. Today the same battle for physical and spiritual freedom is being fought. Hearts are being hardened all around us, but we will never forget the injunction of Never Again married to Miriam’s reminder to emerge from our tribulations, in recognition of our past and in gratitude of our freedom, with song and dance – and we will!
About the Author
Juliana is a third generation descendent of holocaust survivors from Poland, and what is current-day Ukraine. She grew up listening to her grandmother recount firsthand stories of her experiences during the war. While never shielding her from the harrowing details of her past, she always managed to impart an overarching message of empathy toward others and the will to survive through hope for the future. Juliana grew up in America and made Aliyah to Israel 5 years ago, where she currently practices as an oculoplastic surgeon in Tel Aviv.
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