Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel. It is a difficult day for all of us, as we remember the horrors that took place in Europe just 70 years ago. Every Jew in Israel, and indeed all over the world, is connected to the Holocaust. Every Ashkenazic (European origin Jewish) family lost relatives or themselves survived the Holocaust. My mother fled Czechoslovakia in 1938 as a child with her parents, spending some time in London before being one of the lucky ones to get a visa to the US. In 1945, when the camps were liberated, my grandfather checked the daily lists that were put out with names of survivors, hoping to find one family member that survived. Except for a few distant cousins, everyone had been murdered. His mother, brothers, sister and their wives, husband, children. All had ended up in the crematoria at Auschwitz.
Growing up in Cleveland, I was one of the lucky ones. My parents had both grown up in the US and enjoyed the freedom and dignity that Jews had always enjoyed in that country. But more than one quarter of my classmates were children of Holocaust survivors. Their parents had come to the US after the war, desperate refugees who had lost everything. Many of my friends had parents who had nightmares every single night which took them back to “there”, to that hell of a place that they could not escape, which haunted them forever. Some of my friends had parents who shared their experiences with their children, scarring them forever with the horrors that they had experienced. Others had parents who could not talk about it but whose silences and nightly screams told them more than any story could.
Yesterday, I went to a program on the Holocaust in which three Holocaust survivors shared their stories. What they all shared was the fact that they had been children in the Holocaust and had been separated from their parents so that they could survive. I was particularly moved by one woman’s story. Her parents had originally been from Poland but had moved to Paris when she was a young child. At the age of 8, her parents placed her and her two younger siblings in a Christian orphanage. The heads of the orphanage separated her from her sister and brother and no adult explained to her what she was doing there. But soon, she realized that the people around her hated Jews. So she understood that she had to hide her Jewish identity.
As the years passed, she suppressed her Jewish identity completely and began to hate Jews, learning this hatred from the church, which ironically had saved her. She absorbed Christian teachings and embraced them, all the while suppressing her Jewish identity. Or as she expressed it: “I became an anti-Semite.” For 25 years she was an anti-Semite until 1967 when the Six Day War awakened in her a powerful desire to identify as a Jew. Almost overnight, she could identify as a Jew and feel proud. Her journey culminated in a move to Israel where she reconnected with her Jewish roots and raised her family.
This woman today volunteers in Yad VaShem and guides Christian groups as they learn about the Holocaust. And she tells the French priests that she often meets –”I became an anti-Semite in the church.” And in this way, she challenges the European church to confront the anti-Semitism that was so much a part of its heritage.
Today, I received an extremely moving letter from one of our supporters. She tells the story of her father who fought in Europe as an American soldier during World War II. He had suffered in the war and rarely spoke about his experiences. And only after his death did she discover that he had taken part in the liberation of Auschwitz and had saved photographs that recorded the horrors of that place. He lived with these horrors all his life but never shared them with his family.
A few years ago, I visited Vienna with my husband and we took a tour that traced the history of the Jewish community of Vienna, from the middle ages until the Holocaust. Our guide was not Jewish but she cared deeply about the Jewish people. But when she told the story of the destruction of the Jewish community of Vienna during the Holocaust, I felt her discomfort. I asked her if her parents had lived in Vienna at the time and what they had done during the war. She became immediately defensive and I realized that I had touched a very raw nerve. She was at once sympathetic to the Jewish plight and incapable of confronting the role that her parents and their neighbors had played in this terrible part of history.
The Holocaust encompasses us all, not only Jews. While those of us who were born after the War could not possibly be culpable in any way, every one of us must ask him or herself how the Holocaust affects us. As a Jew, I cannot escape the lessons of anti-Semitism that have followed my people for hundreds of years and the modern State of Israel must absorb these lessons in making decisions for the future of our people. And as citizens of Israel, these issues are a daily presence in our lives.
As non-Jews, and as Christians, you must also find your place in this terrible history. If you were not there, you cannot be culpable. But you can ask yourselves where your parents were and whether your traditions included anti-Semitism. Just a few days ago, a friend in Norwich, England sent me an article and photographs taken at a reburial ceremony in which the bones of murdered Jews from the 13th century had been discovered and given a proper Jewish burial. Hundreds of years ago, the English were murdering Jews for no other reason than they were Jews. Today, Christians in Norwich were attempting to bring these remains to a proper resting place.
We cannot erase the past, but we can create a totally different present and future. Three wonderful Christian women from England visited with me today and planted trees in Karnei Shomron. As we discussed the significance of this tree planting, I quoted the last verse in Amos: “I will plant you again in your land never again to be uprooted.” Just 70 years ago, the idea that the Jewish people would return to the Land of Israel and establish their own state here, that we would indeed plant trees in our land, was a dream. In fact, many of the Holocaust survivors told of holding on to just that dream as they struggled to stay alive. Today, the dream has become a reality and Christians are planting trees in our land.
We cannot change the past, but we can ensure that the present and future are different. This is what we are doing today, you and I, as we stand together to build Israel. But we dare not forget nor gloss over the terrible past that we both must come to terms with.