On holocaust remembrance day, I dream of equality for all
I can’t remember a time that I didn’t know all four of my grandparents were holocaust survivors. I also can’t remember when my Baba (Yiddish word for grandmother) first shared her story with me but I was probably younger than most children when I heard the details of the Holocaust. Maybe my Baba was tired of evading the question I remember asking her a lot.
“What is that scar on your neck, Baba?”
“My child. A solider was not very nice to me.”
There are no substitutes for words and phrases like gas chambers, torture and death marches. Maybe my Baba sensed that I would not stand for anything but her truth. Maybe she needed me to know my heritage.
My Baba was only 13 when the Nazis separated her from her family and forced her to live in a ghetto because she was Jewish. She was not liberated until she was 17. While witnessing things no one should ever have to see, hear or smell she made promises to the women that helped her survive that if she got out of there, she would never let the world forget what happened to them.
She has lived up to that promise over and over again by speaking all over the country as well as volunteering her time at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Her husband, my Zada (Yiddish word for grandfather), doesn’t speak much about his experiences. I think they are too painful for him to recall. My father’s parents had other families before the holocaust and their spouses and children were also killed because they were Jewish. I don’t know much about their experiences beyond that because they didn’t talk about them and I was very young when they died.
So how do I live in a way that honors my grandparents’ experiences? To make sure I carry on their legacy and never forget?
Rewind to the summer of ’93. I’m waitressing on the Jersey shore and a customer is telling me a story. And there it was, the first time I was personally faced with anti-Semitism. I had a huge pit in my stomach because he had no idea I was Jewish. I ran through the scenario in my mind, do I say something or stay silent? Me, the grandchild of four holocaust survivors actually considered staying silent. I’m embarrassed to say I considered it, but I’m glad to say I didn’t. I said to him, “you know I’m Jewish right?” His face got red and he said, “Oh, well, I didn’t mean you.” I looked him in the eye and said, “Yes you did. You meant all of us.” And I walked away.
Fast forward to a few months ago. I overheard my sons, age four and six, repeating a girl’s accent they had heard earlier in the day. I said to them, “Please do not make fun of someone who is different from you. Your Baba was treated badly for being Jewish.” They asked me what I meant when I said she was treated badly. I asked myself, should I explain what the holocaust was or shield them from this horrific thing that their great-grandparents experienced? Because they are so young, I chose to use language they use in school and I said she was bullied for being Jewish. Their faces turned serious and I could tell understood.
Never forget. This is the message of every holocaust survivor. Because, let’s face it, as a society, we can certainly use the reminders. History tends to repeat itself. And I’m not talking about ancient history. I’m talking about the events that occurred at Jewish Community Centers in Kansas City, MO earlier this month. And, I’m talking about people being treated badly for being different all around the world every day.
To me, the phrase “never forget” doesn’t just apply to the Holocaust or Jewish people. I like the broader objective on the Holocaust museum’s website to “confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity.” It is my hope that we can all work towards these goals within ourselves, with our children and in our communities to make our world a much better place for everyone.
Editor's note: Learn more about Holocaust Remembrance Day from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.