Charlottesville and Israel: Worlds collide

What we can learn from Holocaust survivors about confronting hatred.

August 28, 2017 22:18
4 minute read.
Virginia mourning

Two people stop to comfort Joseph Culver (C) of Charlottesville as he kneels at a late night vigil to pay his respect for a friend injured in a car attack on counter protesters after the "Unite the Right" rally organized by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. . (photo credit: JIM BOURG / REUTERS)

I flew to Israel once again this summer to help document the experiences of Sephardi Holocaust survivors who continue to speak their native language of Ladino.

Having just graduated from the University of Virginia this past May, most of the photos on my iPhone are still of my graduation day, walking down the stage, on the Lawn, and celebrating on the downtown mall.

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Flying to Israel earlier this month, I knew that I would connect with some of my friends of Charlottesville, including a colleague, Stephan Silverstein, who graduated around the same time that I started the program. We met up at Alma’s soup place in central Jerusalem and reminisced about our experiences; we both had gone a similar route, studying both Spanish and Jewish Studies. Both Stephan and I were presenting for the first time at the World Congress for Jewish Studies, and later that week, while at the conference, I met up with Prof. Saul Soswonski, who graduated from University of Virginia in 1970. I had read his work for years, but we had never met in person. As soon as I identified myself as a fellow UVa grad, Soswonski let out a “Wahoowaaaa.” I had no idea at the time that this exclamation was a foreshadowing of the tragedy to come.

From the conference, I headed directly to Bat Yam to the home of Moshe Haelion, a survivor of the Shoah born in Thessaloniki, Greece in 1925. I was sitting in his quaint living room, surrounded by his medals, photos, and the overwhelming presence of the sea that came in through open windows.

I will never forget the moment I stopped sipping my coffee in horror as the Israeli television news came on with “There’s been an attack in Charlottesville.”

Side by side with Moshe, I saw the footage: the Klu Klux Klan and white supremacists had marched all over the Lawn. I saw the red banners with swastikas and signs that said, “Jews are from Satan.”

I cried when I realized that the reporter on site was broadcasting in front of my favorite gelato shop, Spendora’s – where in my grad school days I had often gone to have pistachio ice cream for breakfast. I saw the car plow into a crowd of screaming people – literally right where I would walk on a weekly if not daily basis. My beautiful Charlottesville, my paths, my bricks, my steps.

Tears filled my eyes as I looked over to Moshe. What did he think about the swastikas? I told him that was where I live.

Unconsciously, I switched over to Ladino in present tense. I feel like I live there still.

I couldn’t stop pointing to the television screen. “That’s where I live,” I repeated, this time in Hebrew. But Moshe’s reaction was distant. After years of interviewing him and conversing at length about the camps, I knew him well enough to observe that he was completely disassociating. I realized in that moment that two worlds, and two times, were colliding. How can it be that after all the suffering, World War II and the Shoah, it feels like we are back where we started? Moshe survived seven different camps during the war. He is the only survivor in his family and one of the few survivors from Thessaloniki. My entire purpose in coming to Israel was to help translate one of his works in Ladino, “La Djovenika del Lager,” into English (ineloquently translated the “The Maiden in the Lager”).

It is Moshe’s dream that this poem (set to music) will become the international hymn of Holocaust remembrance. This recent outburst of Nazi sentiment in Charlottesville is just more demonstration of the vital necessity of projects like these and other efforts to quell hate with love and remembrance of those who no longer have a voice.

Now “Wahoowaaaa” has become for me, and for many others, a battle cry. This is not just about the small Virginia town – it is about every town, every community, every church, and every synagogue across the United States and the world. We cannot remain silent in the face of evil. Each one of us has a duty to respond within their circle of influence against division, hatred and bigotry. I never imagined that I would hear the town of Charlottesville on the lips of every Israeli media figure.

Overwhelmed by emotion that afternoon as I sat on Moshe’s couch, I was instructed by one of Moshe’s closest friends, Luchi, to stop crying. Before he left, he surveyed the two of us for a moment. I was completely enveloped by emotion, and Moshe seemed abstracted by the reminder of past trauma. I will never forget Luchi’s parting words: “Look at him and see what you also can overcome.”

The author teaches Spanish and Jewish Studies at Elon University in North Carolina.

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