Miriam Edelstein
Communications Chair, Hadassah Lower NY State

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Yom HaShoah and the Holocaust Day of Remembrance

Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.
Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.

These three days are all indelibly linked to my childhood, growing up in Eastern Europe, ravaged by World War II. They are all connected. One of the most vivid memories of my dad, Marcus Wachtel, goes back to May 1948. He was listening to the radio to, the UN vote on the establishment of the State of Israel, I suppose. Suddenly, his face lit up. He couldn’t even speak. Since he was not a demonstrative person, I looked at him to see what the matter was. His eyes were shining, and he was waving his arms. Finally, he spoke. “We have a country!” The way he said it, it was as if the Messiah had come. In a way, he had. After all we went through, we had a country! For the first time in modern history, we had a home to go to! Israel!

Jews had been wanderers for thousands of years. Even in the most hospitable countries, they were just tolerated, always at the whim of whatever ruler they were living under, always the scapegoats. The UN vote was truly a miracle!

At the time, my family was living in Sweden, on our last leg of the journey to the US. The war years had really taken their toll, but the end seemed in sight. I was an idealistic young, very young teenager. The birth of Israel seemed like an opportune time to try to persuade my parents to go there. This was my last opportunity.

But my father would have none of it. He had had enough of war. He had lived through World War l as a 14-year-old in Vienna. He got there by walking (!) from his hometown in Poland. (At the time it belonged to Austria). No Jewish boy wanted to be in the Polish army. It was just as dangerous as the enemy, or worse. So, his mother packed a rucksack, gave him whatever money she could spare, and pointed him in the general direction of Vienna.

When he got there, he found a job sewing army pants for Austrian soldiers. He moved in with a young lady in her twenties. She taught him about a lot of things, including love of culture and opera. At 18 he went back home. That war was over. He spent the next few years in the attic, studying. In this way, he became a well-educated man, even though officially, he only had a sixth-grade education. He established a thriving business in wicker-ware (this is native to Poland). He married my mother, Esther, and they had a son, who died. Then I was born. The business grew. He had customers in many parts of the world, including Sears Roebuck in the US.

Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.

Then came World War ll. We moved east to escape the war. We ended up in Siberia, as “enemies of the state.” After the war ended, we returned to Poland. The country was like a big cemetery as far as Jews were concerned. After that, we moved to Sweden.

Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.

On a visit to Poland in 2018, I revisited all the places where I had lived. It was very emotional. On a long walk through Auschwitz/Oswiecim, we came across a beautiful small lake. The guide asked: “Pretty, isn’t it?” “Yes,” I replied. “Do you know what is at the bottom of that lake? Human ashes.” On that same visit we had lunch in a lovely restaurant, outside the camp. The food was delicious. Then I looked out the window. We were right by the gate that says “Arbeit macht frei.” I almost choked on the food.

Back to Sweden. You can see why my father had had enough of wars. Israel was a battleground as soon as it was born. Its neighbors wanted to wipe it out. They still do. My family just wanted to live peacefully.

When we arrived here in America, my father went looking for work. It was impossible. All the returning GIs were looking for work, as well. At that time, he looked old to me, but he was still in his forties. Every time he joined a line to apply for work some younger GI would shout: “Go to the back of the line, pop!” He became quite discouraged. In the end he bought a laundromat where he and my mother worked. I helped in the summers. This was quite a come down for a world-renowned businessman.

My mother used to tease him that he dressed like a bank president to pick up dirty laundry. His reply was always: “I don’t have to look like a laundryman just because I am picking up laundry” His pride was hurting, and he couldn’t wait to retire. After retirement, he went to the library every day to study the German philosophers. He gave himself assignments. After he finished one, he went on to the next. Unfortunately, he died before he finished them all. I am enormously proud of my dad, and I miss him still, even though he left us in 1978. Whenever something good happened, my mother used to say: “Daddy is taking care of us.” He always took care of us when he was alive. I’d like to believe that I take after him in some way.

I believe that we are all the sum of our experiences. Everyone’s experiences are unique and every human, therefore, is unique. In 2017, I was on another trip to Israel. Among other places, we visited Yad VaShem. Surprisingly, I had never been there before. I was very calm throughout, but in one room there were replicas of the wagons in which we left Poland. I must have had some sort of a flashback because I suddenly lost it. I started to cry hysterically. It took quite a while before I calmed down. It is small wonder that people who survived concentration camps are emotionally damaged.

Now I want to return to the present. Today, I am a member of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America whose mission is the safety and security of the land and people of the State of Israel. Today, People in Ukraine are clamoring to prove that they are Jewish in some way. This gives them a place to go. For the first time in modern recorded history, it is advantageous to be a Jew!!! This is a miracle. And it is because the miracle called the State of Israel exists. May it forever remain so!

About the Author
Miriam Edelstein, Communications Chair for Hadassah Lower New York State, escaped her home in Poland with her family during World War II at the age of five. Subsequently, her family was imprisoned in Siberia before fleeing to Uzbekistan and finally, Sweden before emigrating to the United States where the family settled in Brooklyn. Her columns have appeared previously on Thrive Global.
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