Tami Lehman-Wilzig

The Holocaust Helped Me Connect the Dots

This year. This tortuous year replete with fear and fortitude, has been for me a year of reflection, a year of (re)connecting the dots.

I grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the only child of an all-American mother and a Viennese-in-every-way father. The neighborhood was jam-packed with Jews. Some were affluent, others struggled, but what bound them together was the accented English that emerged from their mouths in either guttural or lilting tones. But to me it was all the same. It was the Upper West Side. It was as Jewish as you can get in a Christian dominated general society. Shabbat aromas wafted in and out of windows. Groups of boys and girls openly and loudly walked together to their synagogues and youth group meetings; rode in raucous groups on the subways or crosstown, Broadway and Lexington Avenue buses to school. There was absolutely no sense of angst for my generation.

Inside our homes, it was a different story. Most of our parents were Holocaust survivors, many of whom built remarkable lives in their new country – my father and aunts being sterling examples. Yet year after year, numerous times I would be woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of my father’s nightmare shriek, a siren that would get progressively louder as my mother gently shook him, assuring him in a soothing voice: “it’s alright, everything is OK.” Or the countless times he would break down in tears while talking of his mother, guilt-ridden that he had managed to escape Nazi evil while she had not. And my aunts, always remarking how I looked like their side of the family, a bloc of people that had poof, disappeared.

I didn’t want to hear any of this and as I evolved into a rude and rebellious teenager, I was driven to fervently disavow this past. In ninth grade I purposefully flunked out of the prestigious Jewish Day School I had attended, declaring myself more a humanist than a Jew. I opted for a very secular, private, college-prep school, where I never fit in and found myself quickly labeled “The Jew” by none other than a fellow East-Side Jew who didn’t have an inkling about his heritage. As my 17th birthday neared I just wanted out: out of observing religious traditions; out of being a Jew. Surely, my parents suffered – in silence. Their direction, especially my father’s, lay in creative solutions. He approached me with an offer I couldn’t refuse – join him and my mother on a month’s trip to Israel (2 weeks) and Europe.

As my father would reflect later on in life, there lay his biggest mistake for someone who always wanted his daughter nearby. The Six Day War happened, and we landed in Israel as soon as the flight embargo was lifted. It wasn’t the heavy, hot air that overwhelmed me. It was the sound of Hebrew spoken everywhere; that ancient, who-needs-it language I had been learning since first grade. It was the flood of relatives that kept on appearing. Cousins who early saw the handwriting on the wall and left Austria for Eretz Yisroel. It was the tell you like it is approach of Israelis, instead of the hemming and hawing American pose. It was going on a different daily adventure with an Israeli cousin who had been assigned to me as my host.

By the time the two weeks ended, I was at home and not going to leave unless my parents promised to send me back the following summer, which they did. But it was the back-to-back stops of Israel first and then Vienna, that sealed my future. His first trip back, it was a terrible time for my father. We went to his neighborhood, to the main synagogue where he gave the last speech to assembled Jews while Nazis stood outside, waiting to arrest him. Last stop was the neglected Jewish cemetery, where I thought I’d only visit the grave of my grandfather. What greeted me instead were rows and rows and rows of family graves. The numbers were astonishing. So was my disbelief. Where are their children? I asked. Gone replied my father. Wiped out.

At that very moment all the dots connected: the Upper West Side, the butcher, the baker, and yes the candlestick maker. The accented English. The ancient language shoved down my throat from an early age. The epithet “The Jew.”  The unbridled pride and joy of Israelis. It was all extremely existential. From that moment on I knew where I belonged, where I still belong today, even while living through another existential chapter of Jewish history. Existential for us in Israel. Existential for Jews all over the world.

About the Author
Tami Lehman-Wilzig made Aliya in 1977 with her husband, Professor Sam Lehman-Wilzig. She is an award-winning author of 13 published picture books, and three more on the way over the next two years. Her books include “SOOSIE, The Horse That Saved Shabbat,” “Keeping the Promise,” “Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles,” and “Passover Around the World.” You can find out more about Tami and her books by visiting
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