Irene Rabinowitz
New Englander by birth, Israeli by choice.

Judenrein: Words and Images

In the last hour before Shabbat, I verbally attacked a total stranger on Facebook, when he used the word “judenrein” and I implied that maybe he was part of a group that has been credited with using the word as part of a policy. He gave me many examples when the word has been used by many advocates for Israel and those who are active in the fight against anti-Semitism. My bad. He also said that I might have indicated that he is a right wing Israeli.  No, I said, I was referring to myself. Nevertheless, I let the word judenrein take on the qualities of a red cape in a bullring and I went after the guy in displaced anger.

I apologized, said I was sorry and that I had made a mistake. He goaded me for a couple of more comments and then accepted the apology. I did the Jewish version of mea culpa by offering to take him out for coffee or a beverage of his choice whenever he might be in Jerusalem.  This is a sincere offer; I was a jerk to him. He accepted my offer of a beverage. He is probably a very nice guy.

So, why, when I have heard the word used over and over again in different contexts did it make me crazier than usual? Would I have reacted the same if he had used the expression “free of Jews” in English, as opposed to the German?  Did it have anything to do with the attack on a kosher market in Paris just before Shabbat when the terrorists were sure to have a large crowd of Jews present?  Maybe and maybe it was just a trigger to something that lives within me.

In a cabinet in my living room sits a brown folder filled with research I had done in the 1980s about the Nazi destruction of the Jews living in Silesia in Poland. Why there? Because that is where my then in-laws z”l came from.  Both are now gone, two wonderful people who survived, created new lives in the United States and had two wonderful sons, one of whom is my ex-husband and a dearly beloved friend.  My former father-in-law lived to be ninety-one and recently died.  Although she died way too soon in the early 1980s, his wife’s spirit and joie de vivre influenced my life more than she knew.

Also in my living room is a collection of books about the Shoah. One of them, All But My Life, was written by Gerda Weissmann Klein who I had met in 1982 and had inscribed the book for me.  I do not know if this is still done at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; I was there for the opening in April of 1993.  When people walked in the museum, they are given a card with biographical information about an individual. My card was about Gerda Weissmann Klein.  There are no coincidences; her book had resonated so strongly with me that I had read it several times. From her, and others, I learned that judenrein is not a vague concept, but a policy that was precise, brutal, and intentional.

In the past couple of weeks, I have been looking through the books and the documents that I have collected, reading the testimony of people from Silesia who had given testimony to the Central Representation of Polish Jews in Tel Aviv.  These particular documents were provided by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and are excerpts from World Jewish  Congress files). This is part of the statement of one woman, from Oswieceim who had been sent to Sosnowiec by the Germans. She was deposed in December of 1942 in Tel Aviv:

“We were kept on the square two days and two nights. We were not permitted to sit on chairs or stools but had to squat down in the mud. On the evening of the second day we were led into houses where people were beaten mercilessly.  Storm Troopers (transcript unclear) babies in their cribs, smothering. Many Jews threw themselves from windows and committed suicide rather than face deportation. When Jews asked for food, they were beaten. A new classification of the Jews now took place. About 6,000 were deported to an unknown destination and sent away without baggage, food, or money. The representatives of the Jewish Community were not permitted to approach the deportees. Among the deportees there were many old people, women and children. Children were separated from their parents and when a mother wanted to kiss her child before parting, she was brutally beaten. Corpses of murdered Jews were loaded on the trains together with the deportees.”

When I hear judenrein, this is what I see.  It is not something I can control and it does not excuse me from going nutsy on some guy I do not even know.  It is what it is.  And I do not think it will change.  These images are imbedded in my memory with hundreds of others that flash through my brain at will, at odd times, and at times like before Shabbat yesterday, when Jews were trapped in a building in Europe by those who wanted nothing more than to kill Jews.




About the Author
Irene Rabinowitz made aliyah in November 2014 and lives in Jerusalem. Prior to making aliyah, she lived in a small odd town at the tip of Cape Cod for 28 years. She lived in New York City for 16 years as a young adult (or old child), but is a Rhode Islander by birth. Irene has served as a local elected official and retired from a long career in non-profit management at the end of 2013, after serving as the Executive Director of Helping Our Women for 18 years. She works as the Development Resource Manager at the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center and the USA Charity Specialist at Fogel CFO and Management Services.