Several months ago, I wrote a series of articles about my original journey to Greece, where I had traveled to help with the huge influx of Syrian refugees in Athens and the islands. Last week, I found myself back in Greece again, prepared to assist however I was needed.
I will tell you a little secret: I know that I am criticized (mainly behind my back) for all my travels and my desire to help refugees. That knowledge is neither going to stop me from continuing my life-long journeys nor discourage me from doing more. I wish that I could somehow explain to my friends why I find it so personally important and rewarding to go on my “missions.” Let me feebly try:
More than once, more than twice in recent history, we have been witness to genocide. Well, “witness” is an imprecise word to use, as most of us didn’t really witness it. We heard about it. Even then, it was usually not in the top of news headlines, but buried somewhere below. It was not on a personal news agenda for most of us – and for the few who did read deeper, we felt bad at best and perhaps couldn’t believe it. So we went on with our lives. We had many responsibilities at home that felt greater and more consuming than what might be happening in Cambodia, Rwanda, Nigeria, South Sudan, or Syria, to name a few genocidal regions.
Yet many of my friends and I grew up in families in which the Holocaust was and remains fresh in our minds. As the children or grandchildren of survivors, we remembered. As third generation-born American Jews whose friends’ parents or grandparents had numbered tattoos on their arms and spoke with strong accents, we did not forget. As a generation that feels obligated to return to the tracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau to re-emphasize the words “Never Again,” we continually keep these words in our heart. All of us – all of us – questioned where the world was when this part of our family history was taking place.
Here is another part of my family history: Almost seven years ago, we went on a family trip in celebration of my daughter Dafna’s Bat Mitzva. The trip was designed to commemorate and understand where our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents came from and where some were led to their deaths. We saw the towns, cemeteries, and concentration camps that still dotted the countrysides of Romania, Hungary, and Austria. We met some of the former neighbors of long dead family members. They remembered them fondly, and of course we wondered to ourselves, “Where were they?” as they spoke.
During that trip, the event that had the greatest impact on me was a meeting with a remarkable family in Budapest. This family took Jewish children into their home and hid them throughout the war. They recognized what was taking place and accepted their role in history, regardless of differing religions.
It was after meeting this family that I vowed to myself that I would learn to make a difference even as this family had. Until this moment, no one else – even my own family – knew the root of my seemingly absurd passion for helping the helpless. I view it as an ultimate “pay it forward” in tribute to my forebears. When someone asks where the world was when the next atrocity occurs, at least I will be able to answer, “I was there.”
When I hear the words “Never Again,” they convey a dual meaning. First, never again will we permit another Holocaust in our midst. Secondly, never again will I sit idly in the comfort of my own home, doing nothing to help, while another Holocaust is taking place in my backyard.
That, my friends, is what continually brings me to Greece.
A few more questions I have been asked by friends and others:
- Why go abroad when there are so many in need of help at home? I’m often told that we have enough problems at home to deal with, so there is no need to go abroad to look for problems to handle. Unfortunately, that is true. By no means am I suggesting that one should go abroad and not confront the problems on the home front. However, one action does not exclude the other. I have tried to do my part in my own community and country. But I also believe it is important to be an ambassador to the world on behalf of Israel.
- What is the greatest feeling you have when abroad? There is nothing more special for me than when I am asked by a fellow volunteer or refugee where I am from, and I can proudly answer, “Israel.” On so many occasions, I am then given a second look. Each such look serves as a confirmation that it’s not just the work that motivates me. However menial or seemingly trivial that it may seem, what matters most is the proud name of Israel and that Jewish State that I hope to be leaving with people that I will most likely never see again.
- How can I help today? Let me assure you that I’m not a first responder. Neither am I a psychologist. I’m not a speaker of Arabic or Farsi. But I am a human being – just like the millions of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq that are now displaced in Greece and numerous other countries around the world. Some of their needs are quite simple: a nourishing meal, fresh clothing, a clean toilet, a listening ear. You or I can serve a meal, donate gently used clothes, scrub a bathroom, or – most importantly – listen to people’s stories. When people tell me about their former lives in Syria, I can see the unburdening. And yes, I share with them stories of my life in Israel. It’s all pretty basic: find what has to be done and do it, in order to make life better and give some sense of hope to people in need. All of us can’t travel personally to Greece or other crisis areas. But we can all make contributions, large or small. We can also serve as vocal advocates for the refugees, in order that they don’t become invisible to the world.
In Part II, I’ll share with you the personal stories of several refugees with whom I spoke during my most recent visit. Their voices speak to the needs that remain.