I have heard and read this hateful and dismissive phrase over and over again during the past week. The ubiquitous call to Jews to shut up already about the Holocaust pervades social media hate talk throughout the year and particularly as Jews around the world gear up in May for Holocaust Remembrance Day and the March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Those who fear that the Holocaust might justify Israel’s right to exist accuse Jews and particularly Israelis of “playing the Holocaust card” to achieve nefarious ends.
Here’s the thing about playing the Holocaust card: For me and many like me, children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, the Holocaust is not a card. It is the hand we were dealt. And Holocaust Remembrance is not a day. It is a lifetime.
Let me say up front that I would not — Heaven forbid — compare our suffering to that of our parents and grandparents, whose numbers are dwindling, and who openly express yearning for an end. I am, however, begging those who demand that we get over ourselves to reconsider.
Like most 2Gs, what we children of survivors call ourselves, I woke up as a toddler and throughout my childhood to the screaming nightmares of my parents. I rifled through the lingerie drawer of my mother’s best friend, who promised herself as a teen that if she survived Auschwitz, she would buy only the best. And I watched her roll up a piece of wedding cake in the hem of her dress, when Alzheimer’s forced her to relive the Holocaust until her death.
I was raised by parents who feared authority, sickness, starvation, cold, heat, crowding, isolation, and the Other — that is to say, anyone who did not hail from a decimated family like my own. The enemy could be anyone in a uniform, a policeman, a ticketing agent at the airport, a server in a restaurant, or a ranger in a park. A cold could turn into typhus. A crowd could become murderous. A person speaking German on the bus could be a cue to get off at the next stop, regardless of where we were going.
I was raised with no evidence of my history. No heirlooms, no photographs, no grandparents, no ancestral home. Our parents told us nothing, protecting us and themselves from their memories of a world destroyed and the unthinkable horrors that they endured. We tried to piece together stories from the bits and pieces that they dropped over the years.
I heard a former member of the Mossad compare his own childhood attempts to gather information to a raven’s pecking for scraps of meat. He credited his legendary detective skills to this search. That and the abiding patience of a child whose terrified parents forbade him from playing outside, when there was nothing else for Israeli children to do.
We protected our parents, too. We didn’t ask. We didn’t tell. We didn’t even let on that we discovered through our mothers’ milk that they had been subjected to unspeakable, unnameable horror.
I was raised by parents — very smart parents — who were plucked from elementary school and sent to ghettos. Deprived of even a high school education, deprived of what education could afford them and us, they somehow managed to learn to speak seven languages and read and write in four. My father of blessed memory managed to complete a college degree at night while working in a factory during the day. And my mother, a fifth-grade graduate, learned to use a computer and Facebook in her 80s. Yet, she still bemoans her lacking grammar and spelling in English, the fifth language that she learned, and feels the accompanying sting of unwarranted shame in her inability to help me with much of my homework or permit me the luxury of going to college without working.
This is not about self-pity. Most days, I have none. Thanks to this legacy, I learned to rely on myself and my parents’ superbly honed street smarts (Always be in the middle — not the front or the back. If it sounds too good to be true…Above all, laugh). And I live a wonderful life. I am blessed with more than anyone could ask.
But please permit me a modicum of (somewhat) dignified self-pity tomorrow. I will watch the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem on television in the evening, and tears will roll down my stony face. But no ugly cry for me. I am not allowed.
I will binge watch rom coms until dawn. I have been collecting them all week for this day, as I do every year, lest I catch a glimpse of a living skeleton or a corpse that was my own. And I will eat. Anything and everything I can get my hands on, all day. Small frequent meals and in-between snacks.
I will not write. I will not call. I will not SMS. I will not Like.
I will stand again in silence with the nation during the siren. But I will not think, “Why us?” I will think, “Why my mother and father? Why the grandparents I never knew? Why my grandmother’s nine siblings, my mother’s brother, my father’s brother and sister, all their unborn offspring, all the missing cousins, aunts, and uncles at my family’s Seder? And yes, why me?”
I will not forget that each and every person on the planet holds cards, backstories, reasons to shed tears prompted by injustice and war. Nor will I forget that each and every one of us is entitled to play those cards and the hand that he or she was dealt — to ask for sympathy, compassion, understanding, and help.
I am merely asking for the same. I am begging those who would deny me to let me play the Holocaust card. Because the Holocaust card is mine.