My parents were refugees. But they chose not to live like that.
Of course, I didn’t know they were refugees when I was growing up. I just thought they were immigrants, like the parents of most of the kids I knew. Sure, they spoke Yiddish – Russian when they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying. That was normal, right? My sisters were refugees, too. One was born in Uzbekistan, the other in a displaced persons (DP) camp In Vienna, stops along the way from Poland (now Ukraine) to America. But they were like all the other girls I saw on TV. I was born in Philadelphia in 1952, their last stop.
Before the war, my father’s town, Trochenbrod/Lozhist, was a lively Jewish community where his family lived for generations. It’s gone now, a monument marking the site where it once stood. My mother’s city, Luck, home to some 20,000 Jews before the war, had only 200 Jews after the war. All that remains of the two are ‘yizkor books’ – stories and personal reminiscences about ghosts from the past.
My parents never could go back. They never wanted to go back. Despite that, they never spoke of themselves as refugees. And I never thought of them as such.
Almost from the day they arrived in the US, they started to build a new life. My father found work. My mother had me. They raised a family, faced challenges, mourned loses, celebrated successes, built a loving home together, and taught us important values such as education and responsibility. We were like many other families in our circle of ‘lantzleit’. And yet they never called themselves refugees.
My parents were proudly Jewish even as they proudly embraced their adopted culture. They learned English from newspapers and from watching Walter Cronkite on TV. They vacationed in Atlantic City in the summer, ate turkey on Thanksgiving, and turned down the volume on the radio in December when the stations played Christmas songs. They put us through school and through college, paying what they could afford, but refused to take reparations from Germany. They kept kosher, observed Shabbat, and tried not to be too ostentatious because you never know. The war robbed my parents of their home, their families, and their Polish nationality. Still, they did not see themselves as refugees.
November 14th, the first day of Kislev, is my father’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death. Although he lived to see me move to Israel, remarry, and start my life here, he never met his sabra grandsons. Both have served in the IDF. One of them, named in his memory, is serving now.
The longer I live here, the more I hear about the plight of Palestinians who have been herded into various refugees camps around Israel, the more I think back to my parents. Their wartime experiences were traumatic. Their losses, devastating. Yet they chose to define themselves by their aspirations not by their tragic pasts. They were not refugees. They were Holocaust survivors, not victims, and in the end, this spirit made them into something even more.
It made them into pioneers.
*(With apologies to Tom Petty)