An open letter to my 17-year-old son visiting Poland

Every song you sing, every dance step you take, every prayer you make, brings some light into that darkest of locations for Jews – and humanity.

August 29, 2017 21:42
4 minute read.
People wear Israeli flags around their shoulders inside Birkenau (Auschwitz II).

People wear Israeli flags around their shoulders as they walk on the railroad tracks inside the former Nazi death camp of Birkenau (Auschwitz II) in Oswiecim-Brzezinka, southern Poland April 8, 2013.. (photo credit: REUTERS/JAKUB OCIEPA/AGENCJA GAZETA)


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Dear Aviv,

Since Thursday, my Whatsapp pings every few hours, delivering moving new photos of you and your friends taking back the night, Jewish style, in Poland. The picture of you waving an Israeli flag at Treblinka; the video of all of you singing and dancing in the Lublin yeshiva; the images of you wrapped in tallit and tefillin, praying here and there in what was once one big Jewish death camp, are goosebump-inducing. I’m proud of you for going with Hartman High School to Poland– and proud of the small exorcism you’re performing there.

Every song you sing, every dance step you take, every prayer you make, brings some light into that darkest of locations for Jews – and humanity. Each gesture shouts to the heavens – and to our haters – then and now: “Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish People Live!” Your noise and your exuberance, your tears and even your silences, highlight their failure to silence us, to crush us, to end our 3,500-year history in the ghetto of Warsaw, the slaughterhouse of Treblinka, the death factories of Auschwitz.

Despite my ambivalence about you and your 17-year-old buddies confronting this evil, I take satisfaction in the fact that this isn’t your first or last Jewish experience; this is not some desperate attempt to jump-start your Jewish journey with the ultimate guilt trip. Instead, you all have arrived from Jerusalem: alive, free and – a true rarity today – Jewishly literate and competent.

You are among the few who live the two dimensions of Jewish life fully, in three dimensions, daily. You understand what it is to be a committed religious Jew and a proud Jewish nationalist. You don’t hide or juggle different aspects of your identity – you’re out there, loud, proud, comfortable with kippot on your heads, the Star of David wrapped as capes on your backs, and joy in your hearts.

You have a deep set of Jewish understandings, commitments, emotions. It lets you appreciate the Jewish life in Poland that was – and to put the German evil in context historically, ideologically, even theologically. In weaving this week into your rich tapestry of Jewish associations, your Judaism won’t be defined by the Holocaust, it will defy the Holocaust by dwarfing this one inexcusable, unforgettable horror.

You (and our family) are so lucky. We are lucky that all my grandparents avoided the hellhole of Europe, before they could even imagine just how hellish it would become. Their lives in Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, were miserable enough to propel them to America in the early 1900s. We are lucky that Zeida and Grandma Annie each survived Romania during World War II and found each other in Canada (via Israel). And we are blessed to be writing Jewish history’s next chapter in Israel.

When facing this evil we must ensure it doesn’t overwhelm us; we cannot build our lives as reactions to Hitler. Our friend Irwin Cotler, growing up amid Canadian safety during those ferocious Forties, remembers his parents’ warning: “there are things in Jewish history – in human history – too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened.” Rather than just saying “Never Again,” Cotler has made that his life’s work. He has become a leading human rights activist – defending persecuted Jews and non-Jews worldwide. He understands that you must fight antisemitism as if the world has not changed, while fighting for change as if there were no antisemitism.

Cotler’s consistency is counter- cultural in today’s partisan world. I’m hurt. Too many American Jews are saying a few hundred neo-Nazis in Charlottesville traumatized them while ignoring the trauma Israelis experience with millions of Palestinians yelling “death to the Jews,” resulting in 55 deaths and 812 injuries since September 2015. And I’m furious. Too many conservatives only see left-wing antisemitism on campus while too many liberals can only see right-wing antisemitism among Trump supporters.

We need one steady standard: fighting all bigotry. Remember, the Holocaust started with words and rationalizations about why the Jews threatened the Germans. The words turned cancerous, metastasizing into laws then deeds that murdered millions.

And consider our post-Holocaust miracle. We as a people would have been justified in collectively curling up in a ball and fading away.

We would have been justified in becoming angry avengers, giving to the guilty Germans and Poles and Ukrainians a taste of the suffering they imposed on us. But instead of an eye for an eye, Zionists embraced a state after statelessness, power after powerlessness, roots after rootlessness. Yesterday’s wandering Jews were murdered en masse; today’s resettled Jews must learn different lessons about being proud as Jews, about being good as people, and about building a nation that doesn’t just stand in for all the Jews who died, but stands up for any people who are threatened.

It’s easy to become a bitter, blue, Bunker Jew, seeing enemies everywhere. It’s easy to become a White Flag Jew surrendering your Jewish identity out of fear, exhaustion, despair, or laziness. I salute you for being a Blue-and-White Jew willing to stand up publicly for the Jewish People – while remaining open to being shaped privately by Jewish thoughts and values.

The torch is being passed to you and your friends. You decide what to make of this, what to take from this – and how to build a world where such horrors never happens again to us – or anyone else.

With love,

The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.

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