My uneasy inheritance

An Israeli teen confronts the dichotomy that has been drummed into Israeli society.

By JONATHAN HOWARD
September 24, 2007 19:47
My uneasy inheritance

Holocaust generic. (photo credit: Jonathan Beck)

 
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Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris. nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior. 'I hate and I love. Why do I do it, perchance you might ask? I don't know, but I feel it happening to me and I'm burning up.' - Catullus, Carmen 85. It's been said before and I am discovering anew that modern Israeli society is completely dominated by the memory of the Holocaust. I grew up learning about the Holocaust from my grandmother, who lived through it, from conversations around the dinner table about the madness of Hitler, and from the sighs that accompanied the conversation. When I grew up I got to talk to my father, who was once a teacher of 20th-century history, about the Bismarck and the Yamato, about Field-Marshal von Rundstedt and Field-Marshall Bernard Montgomery, and about the Nuremberg race laws, and Pope Pius XII. I also read a great deal and eventually developed my own ideas about the Holocaust. Not everybody in Israel has the luxury of a pluralistic education in studying the Holocaust; I have come across many people whose grandparents are survivors, but who have only the faintest idea what Operation Barbarossa or Vichy mean; they've never heard of the Wannsee Conference. Presumably, that doesn't stop them from sensing anti-Semitism as they travel to Poland on school trips to see the ghettos, concentration camps and hassidic rabbis' graves. They talk and sing proudly in Hebrew, their native tongue, a living proof that Nazi Germany lost. One of the pieces of evidence that the memory of the Holocaust is still shaping Israeli society is the argument I hear that "We are not going to give the Polish authorities the pleasure of earning our hard currency just so we can go and see the biggest graveyard of the Jewish people." My mother said, when I pleaded that our family should go and see the Black Forest before it is destroyed by industrialization, that she would never set foot in Germany. This made me wonder: That people who underwent the Holocaust would want nothing to do with the German people is one thing, but that a second-generation survivor would refuse to set foot on German soil was beyond me, especially when for many years she looked into buying a Volkswagen. I RECENTLY came across a brilliant painter whose parents and grandparents had been through the Holocaust; absolutely insane, and yet brilliant. I could tell that when she said she smelled the smoke coming out of the gas chambers in Majdanek, she could actually smell it as she was talking; that she knew what it was like, that she felt it herself. I have said to people who pretended to understand what depression was like that saying "two sleepless nights" and experiencing two sleepless nights are completely different things. Expressing suicidal thoughts versus actually planning your last will and testament are incomparable in magnitude; seeing Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind is not the same as living your life as a schizophrenic mathematician who solves the Riemann hypothesis due to a bet. Likewise, reading: "Sonderkommando who didn't pull out all the golden teeth were cremated alive," is not the same as feeling whatever it is you feel when your first task on the job is to shove your predecessor's corpse into the furnace. BUT IT is precisely those sensations that have somehow shaped Israeli society, so that we forever live in the shadow of their memory. I am not saying that the memory of the Holocaust will fade, but when it does, this transformation will herald a new era; it will no longer be the same Israeli society. For 15 years after WWII was over, nobody spoke about it; even during the Rudolf Kastner trial, the public remained largely silent. This changed during the Eichmann trial, where hundreds of people testified against him, and suddenly the public's 15 years of silent anguish were ignited, survivors talked about their ordeals, and a whole movement of memorialization - conceptual and educational - began. Yet even so, my late grandfather, in over 20 years of this new era, never spoke up until the day he died. And my grandmother only started talking after his death. Scraping information from random sources, we only had the faintest idea of what he underwent. How can I blame him, and tens of thousands of others like him, for not talking? They wanted to turn over a new leaf; to present their children with a better world, one without racial hatred, genocide, endless persecution and the constant fear of another pogrom. They wanted their new nation to be a haven - in every sense - for the Jewish people. And yet I have no doubt that every day of his life, as he lay beside his wife, whom he loved dearly and rebuilt a family with, my grandfather thought about his first wife and his two little girls, who were all gassed in Auschwitz. Were they bitten beforehand by German shepherds or crushed on the cattle-trains? I have no doubt that he cried for them throughout the 1950s as he chanted the El Maleh Rachamim prayer on Yom Kippur. But even as he silently relived the Holocaust, he tried to hide it from his children, for their own sake. MY GRANDFATHER would never have set foot again in Germany, nor do I think my grandmother could have brought herself to set foot on the soil that nurtured the Nazi Party. And yet I recall that she often spoke of the new generation of Germans who had come to volunteer with the elderly in Israel, who felt apologetic about their grandparents' actions, and had come forward to say "our grandparents were wrong. They did horrible things. We are here to show that evil existed, but that history can be changed." How could my grandmother shudder at the thought of setting foot again in Budapest, yet relate so warmly to the efforts of those German volunteers? I do not know. How can my mother flinch every time she hears German spoken, yet beg me to "raise the volume" when I'm listening to Johann Christoph Bach's motets so she can hear from the kitchen while she's cooking? I don't know that, either. But it reflects the love/hate dichotomy that has been drummed into Israeli society. We've been taught how horrible the German people are, yet our parents and grandparents speak (or spoke) German as their mother tongue; we're a society of people who refuse to pay the Czech authorities to go and see Theresienstadt, yet steer around every possible law just to get a Czech passport and, with it, EU citizenship. To paraphrase the Roman poet, "How can one both love and hate?" I do not know the answer. But I do know that it happens, and it's excruciating. The writer, aged 17, is entering 12th grade in the Hartman high school in Jerusalem.

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