Letter from a Nonagenarian


When my mother turned 80, she spoke out for the first time in “Letter from an Octogenarian.”


At the time, she wrote: “I never thought I would live to see the day when ‘Death to the Jews’ was again heard, as it has been heard in Europe, the Muslim world, and even North America, much less read the unsettling cover story in New York magazine (December 15, 2003) entitled ‘The New Face of Anti-Semitism.’”


Now, 11 years later, she feels the need to speak out once again. Here’s what she has to say:


My name is Nelly Harris.


I was born on August 4, 1923, in Moscow.


My parents, Ida and Lova, had moved there from Belarus, when it became possible for Jews to leave the Pale of Settlement and live in a major Russian city. Their hope was for a fresh start after the fall of the czarist regime and the end of the Romanov Dynasty.


But it wasn’t to be. The Bolsheviks imposed their own tyranny, and the Jews, among others, were to face daunting new challenges.


In 1929, at the age of six, I left the Soviet Union with my parents and older brother, Yuli. We were among the last to leave before Stalin totally shut the exit doors.


We arrived in France as refugees.


We had to start over – new language, new culture, new everything. And not everyone was especially welcoming to a Russian Jewish child, as I quickly learned in my new school.


Still, we were away from communism, and being Jewish became a personal choice, not the government’s decision.


All went more or less well until 1940, when the Nazis invaded France. Those who believed in the power of the French military and the invincibility of the Maginot Line were quickly disabused of their trust.


Once again, my family and I were on the road, this time trying to stay ahead of the advancing Nazis and their Vichy French allies.


For 17 months, we fled, feared, hid, waited, and hoped.


In the end, after knocking on the doors of the American consulate and countless others, we were lucky. We were able to get entry visas for America, when so many others could not.


In November 1941, we boarded a ship from Lisbon for New York.


We arrived in America on the eve of Pearl Harbor, refugees for the second time. Again, we had to start over.


But it didn’t matter. Most important, we were free, even as we worried about the fate of those Jews, including family members, still in Europe.


I’m not sure a native-born American can fully appreciate the meaning of the Statue of Liberty. When we saw it for the first time, it wasn’t the stuff of tourism. Rather, it was like a protective blanket, a message to us that we were now home and welcome.


Within months, I went to work. I learned English wherever I could, and continued working for the next 65 years. It wasn’t always easy, but not a day passed that I didn’t give thanks for the blessing of America.


Sure, this country has its flaws, but there’s no other nation that holds out as much hope for humankind. I only wish more Americans realized the gift they’ve been given by the chance to live here.


So, if all is so good, why do I now write? For the same reason I did 11 years ago.


The world is a more dangerous place and I fear for the future – not my own, as my life is nearing the finish line, but for those who follow me, including my precious grandchildren.


True, I’m a Jewish grandmother and worrying is part of the job description. But I also worry because I lived through some of the most tumultuous events of the past century. Even though America too often gives short shrift to the elderly, believing instead in a cult of youth, there’s one advantage older people have – real-life experience.


I know the world needs American leadership. Without it, a dangerous vacuum is created and bad actors step in.


I know the slippery slope that begins with anti-Semitic rants and chants in the streets of Europe. If allowed to continue, the path to dehumanizing the Jews becomes all too familiar.


I know what happens if Jews try to bury their heads in the sand, wishing to believe there’s no danger, or if there is, it’s about “other” Jews, not them.


I saw it in France. When the warning bells began to sound in 1940, some Jews tried to convince themselves it was about foreign-born Jews, not French-born Jews, or about religiously observant Jews, not assimilated Jews. How wrong they were!


Since the war, I’ve seen some Jews try to shed their identity, just make it go away. I can’t understand why. I’m proud to be a Jew and won’t give anyone the satisfaction of disappearing voluntarily because of their irrational hatred.


And I see much of that irrational hatred now directed at Israel. It’s a new form of an old disease. Israel has as much right to live in peace as any other nation, yet it’s not allowed to. Moreover, it’s judged in ways no other country is.


Oh, and by the way, the Palestinians are not the world’s first and only refugees, though from listening to the discussions and reading the newspapers, you might think so.


The Arabs started wars. What wars don’t create refugees? But unlike other refugees, including my family, the Palestinians, it seems, would rather wallow in self-pity than build new lives. How sad!


Those newspapers, incidentally, include the New York Times, the paper I’ve read daily for over six decades. No longer. I just cancelled my subscription. There’s not a lot I can do at my age to fight back, but that’s one small gesture. I’m not paying for a newspaper that has a strange obsession with Israel, and fails to grasp the true nature of its enemies.


But then again, my neighbor’s daughter, Laurel Leff, wrote an entire book, Buried by the Times, on how shamefully the paper dealt with the Holocaust 70 years ago.


I don’t know where I’ll be on August 4, 2023, my 100th birthday, but I can only hope there won’t be the need for another cri de coeur.


Instead, I pray the world will look back on the past century, learn its central lessons, and ensure that others, Jews and non-Jews alike, don’t have to endure what we did.


Wouldn’t that be a worthy legacy to pass on to future generations?