By Irwin Blank
On the evening of May 1st, Israelis will begin to mark Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It is a day when we remember the destruction of an entire civilization. The world of European Jewry came to an end in gas chambers, crematorium and countless ditches and rivers. We remember people like us slaughtered without mercy or cause, simply because they were Jews, It didn’t matter if they were orthodox or atheist, Zionist or communist, healthy or disabled, rich or poor, old or young, man or woman, even babes in their mothers’ arms were pitted on bayonets.
An estimated one third of the Jews of the world were brutally exterminated. Two thirds of the Jews of Europe, 90% of Poland’s Jews, were all to meet in mass graves or have their ashes dumped in rivers, lakes or plowed under with bulldozers.
First, they lost their civil right and then they were robbed of all their property and possessions, forced into ghettos and traumatized with disease, starvation and slave labour-before they were transported to the death factories.
Who is guilty?
Is it the German Nazis and their henchmen who perpetrated these atrocities? Absolutely. The Nazis who along with all those who benefited from the slaughtered? Of course. But there is more. The world is guilty.
The British who closed off the gates to what was then mandate Palestine, the ancestral homeland, to those fleeing from the killers.
The Americans who denied visas to those who desperately sought asylum in the land of immigrants. Even their fellow Jews who in their comfortable safety in many nations, were fearful to demonstrate in their millions to cry out for their trapped brethren. Silence was not golden; it was a death sentence. Whatever happened to the biblical exhortation “Thy shall not stand idly by thy brother’s blood?”
There will be many fine speeches and many calls of “Never Again,” but I want to make this more personal.
My mother’s parents were lucky enough to have left Europe many years before the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother and her brothers and sister left the Polish city of Przemsyl, after the area was ravaged during WW I. Their family had been successful for middle class Jews in Poland, owning a flour mill and fruit orchards. My grandmother often told me of how, as a child, she and her siblings would catch fish in the stream that powered their father’s mill where the local peasants would bring their grain to be ground into flour. Had there not been the destruction wrought by the war, they would have remained in Poland and I would never have been born, and they would have ended up, like the other Jews of Przemsyl, in the death camp at Birkenau.
My mother’s father, my Zaide, was born in Vienna. The son of a family of furriers, well off by most standards and fiercely proud of being part of the Germanic world. My grandfather served in the Kaiser’s army during the Great War as a cavalryman and fought against the Allied armies of America, England and France. Why did his family leave a prosperous existence? They were by no means religious Jews, but, as they would say, “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion.” But the raging anti-Semitism after the war, when the new nations that emerged after the dismemberment of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire were feeling their birth pangs, the new nativist parties descended on their minorities with a vengeance and the Jews of Austria caught the enmity of their neighbors in their faces. Regardless of my grandfather’s service in the military, he was beaten and broken by the hatred and his family also left for the shores of America and arrived at the gates of New York.
My father’s family left Kaminetz-Podolsk in the Ukraine, after the Bolshevik revolution. My paternal grandfather was a bootmaker and had a small shop where he made all types of leather goods from boots and shoes to harnesses for horses. The Soviets took his shop and called him a lousy “Zhid,” Russian for “dirty Jew”. When I first heard this story, as a small boy, I couldn’t understand why they hated this man, with his shining blue eyes, quick smile and warm embrace. But, now I know, that they did him a favour because it motivated him along with my grandmother and my father, his two brothers and baby sister, to make the trek that ended up in an apartment building in the Bronx, weirdly, not that far from where my mother was living as her family also lived not far away.
So, for me, because my family took an often hazardous and dangerous sea voyage across the Atlantic, I eventually came to be. I used to tell my students when I was teaching children in my temple, that for want of a sea voyage, many of them would never have been born-including their esteemed teacher.
That is not to say that I didn’t lose hundreds of cousins who weren’t fortunate enough to have left Europe, and even though I never knew them, I grieve for them.
Only G-d knows how many souls were destroyed, how many artists, musicians, doctors, teachers, went up as greasy smoke in the crematoriums of the death camps, or were machine gunned and fell into muddy pits all over the European continent. Was the cure for cancer murdered at Majdenek, or burned at the stake at Kluga, or drowned in the Danube? Was anyone of them my kith and kin?
But as a people we have survived and thrived. We have rebuilt our sovereignty in our own homeland, and I am doubly blessed to be alive and living in the land of our ancestors. I wake up and see the flag flying from the pole in front of the elementary school across the street; I see and hear beautiful Israeli children schlepping their book bags to classes, laughing and talking in Hebrew. I watch as young men and women in the uniform of the IDF standing at the bus stop on their way back to their bases and, most importantly, I know that every day the sun rises over a free, proud and independent Jewish state and blesses her people with a bright, shining “boker tov” that another Holocaust shall never happen to this people again. We continue – not in mourning for what was lost, but in celebrating of being alive, free and forever Israeli.
Irwin Blank was born in NYC in 1952 and has a BA in Political Science from Colombia University NY. He was part of the Speakers’ Bureau American Zionist Youth Foundation and editor of the Zionost Organization of America. He made Aliyah in July 2008 and lives in Maaleh Adumim.