In recent years it has become customary in Israel, in addition to the official ceremonies marking Holocaust Day, for small groups of people, whether survivors, descendants of survivors or simply those who feel a connection to the subject, to gather together in private homes and talk about their own or their family’s experience of the Holocaust. These meetings have been given the name ‘Memory in the Living Room.’
I belong to a group of Israelis whose parents originated from Germany or Central Europe. We meet on a fortnightly basis in the Jerusalem offices of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin (Die Vereinigung der Israelis mitteleuropaischer Herkunft) to talk about subjects of mutual interest, and to do so in German.
The majority of the members were born in Israel or were brought here as children but grew up in ‘Yekke’ homes, namely, with parents who spoke German at home. Most of them seem to me to speak quite fluently, but then sometimes even they are stumped for a word, so that one or another person has to help them out. My own German is far less fluent as my parents, though originally from Germany, did not speak German at home because we were living in war-time London. But still, I do my best, and manage to stammer my way through a few sentences at most meetings.
Because of the desire to give the most recent meeting a different character, in tune with the new-found tradition of ‘Memory in the Living Room,’ this time we assembled at the home of one of the members. Although our hostess had provided light refreshments, some of the members brought treats of their own to offer to the twelve or so participants.
One member described growing up in a home overshadowed by sorrow, by the terrible guilt and constant depression felt by her mother, who had been unable to save her own parents. Near to tears, she described how, as a child of five, she had said to her mother “I will be your mother.” This gave rise to a general discussion about the effect on children of growing up with parents who had undergone trauma of this kind, causing them (the children) to feel that it was incumbent on them to protect their parents from further hurt, to cause them only happiness and to hide any display of sorrow.
Another member then told us how in her home there had been no sign of sadness, that the atmosphere had always been positive. In her particular case, however, all the members of the extended family had managed to reach Israel (then British-controlled Palestine), coming from a wealthy family in Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, before managing to leave that country her grandparents had had to engage in lengthy and costly negotiations with the authorities, and had also corresponded extensively with the relatives already living in Israel. She, too, was visibly moved as she read out an extract from one of her grandmother’s letters telling how she was determined to stay in her own house to the last minute, unwilling to see strangers living in their lovely home.
The overriding theme of the meeting was the struggle each family had undergone in order to obtain the necessary documents granting entry to any country ready to accept them. Those present at the meeting had obviously all ended up in Israel, and in order to gain entry to the country it was necessary to have a Certificate issued by the British Mandatory authority. In order to obtain this one had to pay a considerable sum of money or, in some cases, to prove that one was able to engage in heavy physical or agricultural work following preparation and training in a Hachshara institution before emigrating.
This led to a discussion about the similarity to the situation concerning migrants from Africa currently confronting Israel, and the concern many of those present felt at being forced to witness a repeat of the experience their own families had once gone through. There being no apparent solution in view to that particular problem, the discussion reverted to the individual experiences of families torn from the home and country they had loved, and, too, of families torn apart by the necessity of finding some kind of refuge anywhere in the world. The crucial work done by the Kindertransport enterprise, which brought 10,000 unaccompanied children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to England, was also mentioned. Many of those children have grown up to achieve personal and professional success in England, Israel, America and elsewhere.
For me, personally, the unavoidable message of that meeting, and of Holocaust Day in general, is the necessity for Jews to have their own country, as the situation that arose in Germany – and the whole world – prior to the outbreak of WWII could occur again. With all its faults, as long as Israel exists no Jews will ever be forced to become homeless refugees again and find that all doors are closed to them.