When I was growing up, there was a program on television hosted by Paul Harvey which looked at important and well known events in history. He would review the story quickly and then give new information which either clarified, explained or set the record straight. It often made villains of heretofore heroes or vice versa and explained the background of an action. When he was done, he would end with his famous, “and now you know the REST of the story.” It was always an eye-opener. And often, a mind changer.
This week, nearly two dozen international leaders and dignitaries will be coming to Israel (something unprecedented) to take part in the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. They will be going to Yad VaShem. They will see what hatred can give birth to. With Harvey in mind, those more insightful and sensitive to the human condition, will also focus on what life was like in Europe for the typical Jew “before The War”. The rich communal life and the contributions to the greater good of their respective towns. All in attendance will see the awful truth of what people can do to one another out of ignorance, anger, hate and jealousy. Retelling the ghastly means by which riding themselves of Jews was accomplished by the Nazis is repeated yearly in the hope that it resonates loud enough so that it will never be repeated. We also honor the courageous non -Jews who helped us escape the horror. And then, it’s over. Except it’s not.
The story of the Holocaust has an unlikely aftermath. After all the bloodshed and cruelty, after all the confiscation of land (that had been theirs for nearly a thousand years in some cases), businesses and miscellaneous holdings, the Jews did not riot, they were not filled with vengeance nor did they become terrorists. Somehow, they realized that the best revenge is living a good life in spite of everything they had endured. Most moved to strange new lands, learned to speak languages they never needed before, married and made families (some for the second time). My grandfather owned the city bank in Ushorod, Czechoslovakia, along with his brother-in-law. His father owned and farmed hundreds of dunams of land which he cultivated as a vineyard. They lost everything they owned. But nobody resorted to vengeance once it was all over.
As the child of two survivors in a family of survivors I soon came to realize that there was really no such thing as a Holocaust survivor. My mother was tainted by her interrupted life as well as by her many losses, both in human form or in unfulfilled aspirations toward which she had labored greatly. From what I have come to learn, one was changed by the sights, sounds and smells of genocide. One could go back to their former houses, but they could never go “home” again. The change in my mother had a profound effect on me as well. The way that I experienced life, joy, grief, friendship and love were all colored by my parents’ wartime experiences and losses.
The unprecedented number of foreign attendees at this year’s Holocaust Rememberace Day event is likely due to the rise of anti-Semitism worldwide which has resulted in a frightening number of deaths. To me, it seems like a reenactment of what was happening in Europe in the 1930’s. And it’s also happening in the United States!! Something I never thought possible. So how many of these high ranking people will understand that acts of violence and cruelty are not only unacceptable, but result in far more damage than the obvious?
In summary, this is what we Jews take away from the events of the Holocaust :
- We Jews go on. We want justice, not anyone’s pity.
- We lost everything, but do not turn to violence ourselves. We have not lost our humanity.
- We want to prevent what happened to us from happening again to us or to others.
- The effects of extreme violence and cruelty can linger for generations. It’s not over when the action stops.
What will the takeaway be for our foreign guests? Hopefully, some of them will get it.