On the eve of World War II, many European Jews prided themselves on being the former first and the latter second. Take German Jews who were among the most assimilated and successful on the continent. Eugene Fuchs, a leading spokesman for the community captured the sentiments of many pre-Holocaust Jews embracing German patriotism amidst rising antisemitism. As David Aberbach wrote in The Jewish Chronicle, “The correct response to antisemitism, in Fuchs’ view, was not flight but greater patriotism.” Aberbach continues:
To assimilated Jews like Fuchs, antisemitism was practically justified in relation to the Ostjuden. The Eastern European Jews with their odious Jewish loyalties was described by Zygmunt Bauman as “a large refuse bin of human characteristics into which all that nagged the conscience of the Western Jew and filled him with shame was dumped.”
For Fuchs and his contemporaries, it was the choice between loyalty to an antisemitic state or recognizing and combatting its reality. That is the takeaway here: that polarization always leaves Jews exposed. That is the importance of history and, more topically, Holocaust Remembrance Day. By reviewing and reflecting upon the catastrophic missteps of our ancestors, we may gain insight into our present moment.
For it is today, most precariously, that Jews find themselves a politically homeless tribe. Across the political spectrum, Jews are targeted for their beliefs, their dress, their loyalties, their alleged power. In such times, where Jews are afraid to exhibit strength and confidence, to stand resolutely behind their convictions, history reminds us (as does Fuchs) the consequences of hiding our identity: of obscuring our true selves.
The Importance of Standing Up
So here I am, unequivocally embracing my Jewish roots. Eastern European Jewish communities – the Ostjuden Fuchs vilified – were obliterated in under five years. These communities endured atrocities we still struggle to comprehend. My grandfather found survival amongst partisans fighting Nazis in Lithuania. He fought for his life to survive. My grandmother was the only member of her entire family to survive the Holocaust. She survived because Israel existed. Nor is my experience unique. Millions of Jewish families across the world suffered similar fates.
That is why I was so moved when I visited Eastern Europe. In Poland, touring concentration camps, death camps, and ghettos, I was speechless. No words could explain the unsettling feeling of being in a place where eleven million people were tortured and murdered, over half-of-whom were Jewish. Killed for no other reason than their religion.
However, there was also something liberating about the journey. In Birkenau walking down those infamous train tracks, the knowledge that Jews today now live freely all over the world and can defend themselves, gave me hope and inspiration. Now, I am no longer afraid to say or show my Jewishness. I know who I am and what values I represent, and nobody can take that away from me. No matter how hard they try, even against the threat of violence, nobody can take my identity away.
Saying Yes To Life
Birkenau underscored the importance of living in the wake of tragedy. As Viktor Frankl’s latest book reminds us, Yes to Life, we must continue to grow despite such a tragedy by educating and sharing stories of those who no longer can. This includes the stories of Jews and non-Jews, alike.
Today I am privileged to be able to say that I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and a proud Jew. As someone directly affected by the Holocaust, I wear the numbers – 613 1948 – on my sleeve as an homage to the Jewish people tattooed by the Nazis during their imprisonment. 613 represents the mitzvot (good deeds) outlined in the Torah; 1948, the year of Israel’s independence. These numbers are deeply meaningful and in sharing them I hope you might find meaning in them as well.
In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day and as a granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, we must #neverforget.