Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Because of Schindler’s List

Dreizel and Shalom Yaakov Birnbach
Sitting in the second row at Israel’s national Yom Hashoah ceremony thanks to good friends, my mind wandered to things and places far away as I absorbed the powerful speeches, stories and performances before me. More than ever, the juxtaposition of this being both a personal and national tragedy was clear. And even though I have watched this ceremony on TV before, I reflected on how we commemorate this tragedy today and in the future. The theme of the program was especially powerful, “Children in the Holocaust.” Survivors’ whose stories were depicted were children during the Holocaust. Musical performances were both about, and by, children. Speakers referred to the 1.5 million children whose lives, and hopes and futures, were brutally cut short. The loss was made particularly relevant this week with projections that had the Holocaust not happened, the world’s Jewish population would number 35 million, three times what it is today. And while the stories of specific survivors were replete with personal horrors and grief, that they have each rebuilt their lives and raised families of their own offered hope for the future in spite of the suffering of the past. Without a doubt, we must mourn for our losses, individually and nationally. But to only mourn perpetuates defeat and victimhood. In an age when the number of living Holocaust survivors is dwindling, we must learn and teach from the past, and build for the future. By continuing to live and thrive, by magnifying Jewish life in every facet, we not only honor the memory of the six million murdered that their death was not in vain, but we also make sure that our very flourishing is a perpetual victory over those who tried to destroy us in the past, and a notice for those who would think of doing so again. Memorializing the six million is both a mission and obligation. We must consider not just the absolute losses, but the lives and stories of all the survivors and victims. We must consider the sacrifices of others in the past that made the present possible, for each of us as individuals, and for us as a people. And, especially in an era that provides platforms for those who deny that the Holocaust even happened, as a lesson to the world. On a personal level, my great grandparents were ones who made such a sacrifice.
Star of the Efrat (and Kanczuga) soccer team
As the Nazis rounded up my family in Kanczuga, Poland, all the shtetl’s Jews were being taken away to be murdered. My great grandmother, Dreizel, my great grandfather, Shalom Yaakov, their children, grandchildren and neighbors were among those being led to their death. Benny Shanzer, a teen at the time who was already an old man by the time I met him, told me how on that very day, my great grandmother saved his life. As they were being rounded up, she looked at him and said, simply, “You’re too young.” He understood and escaped, owing his life to the caring of a woman who would be murdered along with her family within hours of his escape. As much as she exhibited caring for Benny, I have no doubt that even until the last moment, they comforted their children with all the unconditional love that they exhibited throughout their lives. Lives cut short by the barrel of a Nazi gun. My great grandparents were also selfless parents in a way that nobody I know can ever imagine. They exhibited painful selflessness in the decade preceding their murder by sending four of their children away – to America and to Palestine - without knowing if they’d ever see them again. My great grandparents did this to protect their children, to give them opportunities, to give them a future. In doing so, they not only saved their children’s lives and enabled me to be born, but through them and their actions, they made it possible that we would have the privilege of living here today. As I sat at the Yad Vashem ceremony, it was clear that my great grandparents probably could have never imagined the life I’d be able to lead in Israel today, 75 years after they sent my grandmother, their daughter, to settle in Haifa. But whether they could or not, if they could see us now, they would be very proud. Others, like my relatives, made similar personal sacrifices, and there are thousands of stories of Righteous Gentiles who also sacrificed and put themselves at personal risk to save Jews, sometimes neighbors and sometimes total strangers. Among the most famous of these was Oskar Schindler whose story was captured in the award winning film, Schindler’s List. Many say the greatest victory over the Nazis is that Jewish life continues to flourish. A neighbor’s father, a survivor, celebrates Pesach each year with extra gusto, and his entire extended family at his side, as his victory over evil. Others speak of other occasions, holidays and lifecycle events in a similar way. Each one, another victory in the battle of the ongoing war against anti-Semitism. Yet sitting at Israel’s national Yom Hashoah ceremony, surrounded by Israel’s religious, civic, military and political leaders, by survivors, and even people like myself born after the Holocaust, something different came to mind. I sat near the world’s diplomats. For many of them it was their first substantial exposure to the Holocaust. The stories they heard, the ethical questions that must have been raised, were profound. How would they have responded then, indeed, how do they respond now to threats and rhetoric that is every bit as criminal and genocidal.
A special list - the Efrat soccer team
Oskar Schindler had his list of 1100. As Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) said in the film, “The list is an absolute good. The list is life.” Yet my mind wandered to another place, another list, surrounded by fewer dignitaries, but no less significant. Eichen Elkin Feldstein Goldberg Goodman Levy Revivi Shefler Taragin Zeligman Zivotofsky My ten year old son was privileged to be picked to be on our town’s 3rd and 4th grade soccer team, playing other third and fourth grade teams from throughout and around Jerusalem. It’s a big deal to him, an enormous point of pride to us, his family, and is as fun to watch as it is competitive and educational. But as I sat at the national Israeli ceremony commemorating the six million martyrs, I couldn’t help but think that this list of 9 and 10 year old boys is every much about life as Oskar Schindler’s list. In many cases, this list would not be possible without the bravery and sacrifices of those who came before us. And after all, what better representation could there be of the survival and flourishing of Jewish life, more than six decades after the Holocaust, than dozens of boys running all over soccer fields in and around Jerusalem, cheering one another on in Hebrew. I think that my great grandparents would have an extra measure of pride in seeing their great-great-grandson running up and down a soccer field in Jerusalem, and leaping to stop a goal in Gush Etzion. I think, if they could, they’d join me every week sitting in the front row at the game to see our future before their eyes, or at least in the second row, as I did this week, remembering their lives and sacrifices that made our life here possible.

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