As a child I often heard the story of the “benkl.”
It was 1944, and the Lodz Ghetto was in its final days of liquidation. My grandfather, Charles Lipshitz, and his brother Avraham were loaded onto a cattle car for the arduous journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
After almost four years in the Ghetto, they were weak, frail and starving. There were too many people in the car. Some could barely stand. Others collapsed after just a few minutes. But the train carried on. At one point though it stopped so the bodies of those who were already dead could be taken off.
The door opened. Outside were armed SS officers. My grandfather spotted a benkl – Yiddish for stool – sitting just below the open door on the platform. People barely had a place to stand, let alone sit. But my grandfather knew that his older brother needed that stool. He needed to be able to sit to rest and gain his strength ahead of whatever was to come next. As he would tell us as kids, he doesn't even remember how he got the benkl, but somehow, he did. He leaned over, pulled it into the car and gave it to his brother to sit on for the rest of the train ride, in their endless battle for survival.
The lesson from “The story of the benkl,” as we called it, as well as the many others that he would tell about his survival was that we – his eight grandchildren – always needed to keep our eyes open. Almost every conversation with him would include that line. We needed to keep our eyes open walking down the streets of Chicago on the way to visit a friend, we needed to keep our eyes open as we got on the bus heading to summer camp, and in 1993 I was told to keep my eyes open when my family moved to Israel.
A couple of years later, when the suicide bus bombings began in Jerusalem, I began hearing the line in greater frequency. I also learned a bit more of what it really meant. Every day back then when I took a bus to high school, I would suspiciously review every single person riding with me.
On more than one bus ride during those days, someone would catch my eye. His bag would be a bit too big, or his coat one size too large. It would make me nervous, and I would just get off at a random spot and wait for the next bus. It was annoying to me, but I was listening to my grandfather. I was keeping my eyes open.
My grandfather was on my mind this week as we commemorated Yom Hashoah, but also because of the ongoing corona-health crisis we are facing.
For me, not having my grandfather here to be able to hear his analysis and perspective of the situation is a loss. But his advice has stayed with me. As I venture out of the safety of my home to work every day, I am keeping my eyes open. Like many people, I find myself viewing everyone I meet – on the street or in the office – with a bit of suspicion. Does that co-worker in the office with me have the virus? Was I too close when we stood talking? Was it wrong to visit Mea Shearim for a story as the virus spread there a couple of weeks ago?
The problem is that keeping my eyes open doesn’t help me see the virus. It is silent and invisible. Eyes won’t help in this case.Nevertheless, keeping my eyes open over the last three months has let me see what makes this country unique.
On a daily basis, Israel is no different than any other country. We have our problems and imperfections – social tension, economic disparity and of course, growing security threats along our borders. But watching Abded Zahalka, an Arab doctor, cradle a Torah scroll as he carried it into a coronavirus ward moved me. Hearing an Arab Muslim nurse recite “Ma Nishtana” for the patients in a hospital geriatric ward brought tears to my eyes. And looking at photos of IDF soldiers going door-to-door to deliver food in Bnei Brak, a city where in the past they might have been spit on and cursed, gave me hope.
As we have all learned over the last few months, the virus is not just deadly and dangerous, but also something of an equalizer. Anyone, anywhere can get it. Tom Hanks got it in Australia. Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the UK, was hospitalized in the ICU with it. Their money and power didn’t protect them. They became sick just like every other person infected with Covid-19.
This sense of equality in illness is a familiar feeling for those who have spent long periods of time in hospital wards. When you are being treated for a life-threatening disease or taking care of a loved one suffering from one, you realize that everyone there is pretty much in the same boat. Some people might be sicker than others, but you are all living under the same cloud of uncertainty. Being Haredi, secular, national-religious or Muslim doesn’t make a difference in hospitals. You all share rooms, you all share the pain, and you all share the occasional smile. Denominational identities that we seem to never shake simply disappear. In a hospital, they mean very little.
This is what I have been witnessing as the virus spread across the country. I read a story in this newspaper about Mishel Zrian from Petah Tikva, who had been put on unpaid leave from his job and decided to become a full time volunteer as an organ courier. Since then he has landed in Israel numerous times but couldn’t get out of the airport due to quarantine rules. So he stays in the airport, waits for the ensuing package of bone marrow, and then boards the next flight to save another life.
This is a man who didn’t sulk in self-pity for being furloughed from work. He decided to leave his family and dedicate his time to helping others.
I read the story of Igor Rubin, a resident of Haifa, whose six-year-old son lives in Belarus and comes every six-seven weeks to spend time with his father. The problem was that with the new restrictions on travel, it seemed like Rubin’s son would not be able to visit.
However, when he saw that there was a direct flight from Minsk, he ordered a ticket for his son, hoping that he would be able to get him aboard. He didn’t know whom to call until someone referred him to a Facebook post, where Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich had given out his private cell number for anyone in need. Rubin sent him a message and received a reply within minutes.
Smotrich put Rubin in touch with Itay Hershkovitz from the Defense Ministry, and Hershkovitz moved mountains to make sure that the little boy received the necessary permits to travel to Israel. But when the boy arrived at the airport, Belarusian authorities would not let him on the plane. They told the boy’s mother that Israel was forcing everyone who landed into quarantine, and they weren’t willing to take the risk of flying an unaccompanied minor at a time like this. Rubin called Hershkovitz, who contacted Israel’s ambassador in Minsk, who called the CEO of the airline, who called the front desk, and they let the boy on board. Chad Gadya.
Smotrich and Hershkovitz didn’t help Rubin because he was politically connected or wealthy. They did what they did because that is how Israelis act in times like these. They put aside their differences, they come together, and they act as a unified nation.
COVID-19 has sadly brought too much misery and pain to this world – the people who have died, those who have suffered through the symptoms of the illness, the men and women who have lost their jobs, and the businesses that are on the verge of collapse. All of that is enough to send one into despair and hopelessness.
But it has also opened the door to an opportunity – an opportunity to repair what is wrong with our society, to fix what is broken, to bridge the divide among the different people who live in this country.
On a regular day, we all tend to focus our time, energy and resources on what divides us, but the virus forces us to look inside, to recognize our frailty, and to see that we are not all that different. Soldiers can become heroes in Bnei Brak, Arab medical staff can help Jewish patients observe their traditions, and a minister can break down red tape with a Facebook post.
This is who we should be. This needs to be Israel’s story.
Yom Ha’atzma’ut Sameach!