As Jews, when we hear the word survivor we immediately think of those who managed to live through the Shoah where millions of others were systematically butchered by the Nazis. Really, the word survivor is too benign for such a horror. But, it is a word that seems to me to be used more and more. Sometimes casually. Like in a TV show which I have yet to watch since reality TV is anything but. Maybe we need a new word. But victim is minus the sense of victory. So what are we left with? Survivor!
But is everyone really a survivor? For instance, this morning, my 16 year old grandson and I were discussing our new baby’s bout with jaundice. He said, “Don’t worry Ro. I’m a jaundice survivor too.” Which is true but probably less dramatic than it sounds.
I myself am often referred to as a cancer survivor but it’s a moniker I refuse to accept. Cancer is so insidious that doctors have special ways of phrasing their words. So they might say, “I see no signs of cancer.” That means there are no visible signs of disease on the scans or whatever tests they are referring to. It means they don’t know if there’s actually cancer there but, if there is, they can’t see it. But what the patient often hears is, “I’m cured.” Maybe one day the medical profession will be able to honestly make that statement: “You’re cured.” But today they’re telling you what they know, which may or may not be everything. We often tend to hear what we want to hear. So are all these survivors really survivors? The short answer is no.
I think that, in order to be called a survivor the event in which you survived needs to be behind you. You could, for example, survive a plane crash (how likely is that?) and call yourself a survivor. Or an auto accident where others perished. Or a house fire. If others did not survive and you did, you’re a survivor.
But how far does the word go? Our family was living in Jerusalem during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Honestly, we experienced no harm at all. The post war analyses that we now hear indicate we, and all of the State of Israel, were in a precarious position. And many many died.Tragically. Some we knew. But not us. Our lives were surely not normal but we did not feel overwhelming fear as the Holocaust survivors and the cancer patients did…….and do. Does that make us survivors? I think not. It cheapens the word to claim that we did something heroic and were lucky to survive. People are always lucky to survive but that does not make them survivors.
The word is so loaded. In reality, ultimately none of us is a survivor. That brings me to the Jewish cemeteries which are so in the news these days. Apparently many of them are also not survivors.
Some Jewish cemeteries in the US are being desecrated by unknowns. Stones are being covered with swastikas and turned over. These shameful and disgusting acts are truly defining beneath contempt. I suppose ignorantly I don’t yet feel the fear that others have roused about anti-Semitism being virulent in our midst. I still see Jews superbly well integrated into American society. Of course, history teaches us that this can change. I carry my Israeli passport in my purse!
But there are other Jewish cemeteries that are also not surviving very well. I wrote a while ago about the cemetery in North Arlington NJ where my zayda Kalman Litwak should be resting in peace, near the graves of some of my aunts and uncles. No cemetery desecrator could do a better job than the neglect that has taken over Zayda’s cemetery. Graves are sinking into the ground. In one case we could see the actual casket. There is no maintenance at all and overturned stones are de rigeur. Zayda’s still stands but who knows for how long. It’s like we are saying to our long dead family members, “We have forgotten you and we feel at liberty to ignore the indignity which now surrounds you.” And this is not in some Judenfrei Polish shtetl. This is in Central New Jersey with its huge Jewish population. Our community, and I am certainly as guilty as any, is not allowing many of our deceased to maintain dignity in death. I wish I had a solution or quick-fix for this very sad situation. But everyone has so many diverse needs. Educating kids. Health care. Tzedaka What to do? What to do?
Words are so meaningful and powerful. It’s a good idea to use them carefully. Not always easy.