Every Holocaust Remembrance Day I feel like a fake. My great grandparents all arrived on the shores of the United States from Russia and Poland in the late 19th century, which means that no one was left behind. No one perished in the Holocaust, escaped to Palestine, fought in the resistance, or survived as a hidden child.
One grandfather fought with the Americans in World War II, earning two purple hearts and certainly making sacrifices along the way. The other grandfather wasn’t drafted because he was working for NASA and helping with the first moon landing. They both have impressive and heroic stories and I embrace them and love what they did for all of us.
But when we arrive at Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’m always surprised by the stories that surround me. Last night at the yishuv’s memorial program, one woman described the hardships that her father endured. Fortunately, his story was preserved through a video of interviews, which even included a recent return to the camps. Near the end of the program, they had yishuv members come to the front to read the endless names of their families who died in the Holocaust.
One of my closest friends went up to read a list of names. When she returned to her seat next to me, I turned to her in shock, “I had no idea you had this history. Who did you lose?”
And she recounted a piece of history that I have never heard before.
She’s from Holland, and her great grandparents were descendants of the Spanish Jews who escaped from Spain before the Inquisition. The community of Spanish Jews living in Holland, and particularly in The Hague, had been there already for over 400 years when the Nazis invaded and they had established themselves in all aspects of life in Holland. She recounted that the head Nazi of the area, Ausderfunten, deemed that these Jews weren’t really Jews and that they should be treated as regular citizens. And so, her great grandparents and many others went around without the yellow Star of David sewn into their clothing, and they continued to work at their jobs and survive.
“What happened then that they perished?” I asked. And her incredibly ironic story was revealed.
Apparently, these Jews who weren’t being treated as Jews hid other Jews in their homes to keep them from certain death. And when they were found out, they were all sent to Auschwitz. When my friend’s great uncle heard what had happened, he made an impassioned plea to Nazi Ausderfunten to save them. And Ausderfunten sent a message to stop the transport and to save her great grandparents. But the Nazis who received that message laughed and ignored the order, and her great grandparents were sent to their deaths.
We could live to be a thousand and not hear all of the stories from the Holocaust. And we could live to be a thousand and not feel like we could possibly make up for what happened – possibly offer reparations to those who perished, to the families who carry their burdens forward, to those left behind.
And through all of this, and all of these stories, I always feel a bit off-center, left out. Certainly, I feel blessed to be left out, but I still feel left out.
But then I remember that I’m part of the story now, and that my story is one for the future.
While my family has a different history and a different story to tell, I will continue to hold the memory of the 6 million in my heart.
As we concluded the ceremony last night with Ani Ma’amin and Hatikva, I moved from the periphery of this story back onto center stage. Because our 2000 years of yearning, of suffering, of exile is over…I’ve chosen to be part of the collective story moving forward – of the story of our people who have rebuilt (and rebuilt and rebuilt) from the ashes of our past and are firmly planting our feet here, in Israel, for our future.
We’ve done so on the backs of all of the people who dreamed, fought, cried and died with the hope of a Jewish homeland on their lips. And while I sang Hatikva, I had those same hopes, dreams and thoughts on my lips. But I also had them on the soil of my shoes – the soil of Eretz Yisrael where I live, love, grow and am building the future, while always, always remembering the past.