For the last few winters, I have guided hundreds of students from diverse backgrounds on educational trips throughout Israel. No matter their intentions or beliefs, each of them finds a unique connection to this special country that they take back with them to their respective campuses. With each trip I staff, there is one important speaker that I make it a priority for them to meet.
At first glance, my students can see he’s brimming with enthusiasm. He can talk all day about his favorite shakshuka in Jerusalem, the multitude of languages he speaks, and the joy that his family brings him every day. It’s hard to believe that in a few short months he’ll be turning 90, after a full life dedicated to serving the state of Israel.
But, this conversation is far more intimate and important than his life’s achievements; this is the story of how Yitzhak Yaacoby survived in Auschwitz. This is the story of my grandfather.
My grandfather starts from his humble beginnings. He was born in 1929 and grew up in Debrezzin, Hungary. His family was Ultra-Orthodox and his father imported commercial goods for a living. My grandfather’s life was content and he saw Hungary as his home.
But, at 13, everything changed.
The Nazis sent him and his family to the local ghetto for a number of days until they were deported to Terezenschadt. As they prepared to board the cattle cars, the railroad tracks were damaged. Their new destination was Auschwitz-Birkenau. When my grandfather and his family arrived at the concentration camp, they separated them into two groups: On one side were adults, on the other were children. His uncle spotted him in line and directed him to come toward the adult side. Frightened, my grandfather joined his uncle on the adult side and watched as the children were taken away. He would later find out that these children were never to be heard from again.
In 1945, my grandfather was liberated from Auschwitz by the 71st division of the US army. Due to his fragility, he was taken to a rehabilitation camp where he was given water and milk until his body could begin to digest food and recuperate. During his recovery, he was found by other religious Jews in the camps who took him to Salzburg, Austria and later Italy to study in a Yeshiva. By the time his life regained normalcy, the damage was done — most of my grandfather’s family was lost in the Holocaust. The sole survivors were his uncle and cousin.
A few years later, my grandfather made his own journey to the newly established State of Israel, where he began a career in the office of former Prime-Minister David Ben-Gurion. He dedicated his life toward the betterment of Israel and its people. He started a beautiful family — fathering Eli and Yael (my mother). My grandfather struggled for a long time with the atrocities that befell him. How could G-d let this happen to his chosen people? Why did the divine choose this collective punishment? Even as he dealt with this internal struggle, his journey brought him to the State of Israel where he created a new life in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.
At different points of my grandfather’s story, he’ll typically pause to bring up an old embarrassing story from my childhood. My face turns red as the students burst out in laughter at my expense. For Yitzhak, these moments are priceless, and an opportunity to share a little about the family he cherishes. But for my students, it shows a lot about the kind of person my grandfather is. Even while retelling his most horrifying memories, even while being forced to relive that pain, my grandfather has always found those sparks of joy even in the most difficult of times.
At the end of our conversations, there’s typically a student who asks the all-important question: “What lesson would you like to impart on our generation?” My grandfather’s response is simple, but always powerful. He encourages them to learn from the mistakes of the past, and continue to inspire hope in each other. He calls on them to build a better and brighter world, even as darkness and divisions feel more visible than ever. It still amazes me that my grandfather, at 89, can recall the horrors of his youth while striving for a hope beyond the horizon.
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’m reminded more and more of why the story of my grandfather is so important. As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindle, there will come a time when the stories of survivors will no longer feel personal, and their lessons will exist solely in the pages of history books. It is our responsibility to ensure that their narratives and stories continue to burn brightly.
When I return to Israel in the coming months, I look forward to seeing the smiling face of my brave and resilient grandfather. We’ll probably talk about Lionel Messi’s latest feat, current events in Israel, and of course, he’ll find time to tell a few of his favorite jokes. Above all else, I’m going to reassure him of something truly important; that the message he has imparted upon these students continues to stay strong, and that his hope for a better world will be upheld by each of us.