Far from home, close to home

In sharp contrast to Israeli Americans, most Israeli Australians don’t vote in Australian federal elections; we barely know the names of the candidates, let alone the issues of the day

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
(photo credit: REUTERS)
About 12 years ago my husband and I visited Poland with an English-speaking group, whose purpose was to explore Jewish roots in the country. The itinerary was comprised of the usual mix of once-thriving communities before the Holocaust and the major concentration camps.
The 28-strong group was made up largely of ex-patriot Americans, one European, my husband and I who were from Australia, and an Israeli couple with good English. Out of the whole group only I, one American and the European had a direct connection to the Holocaust.
We didn’t know anyone in the group, but had joined it because it was to be conducted in English and I was finally ready to confront a past my deeply scarred parents, who had survived the camps (my father in Auschwitz and my mother in Skarżysko-Kamienna, among others), had kept from me. My husband’s family was also originally from Poland.
This was the first time we had spent concentrated time with a large group of Americans and among the striking differences we found between us was their lack of knowledge of the Holocaust or contact with survivors and of allegiance to our respective home countries.
This was peculiar to me, having grown up in Melbourne, a community with a high concentration of Holocaust survivors, and made up consequently of first generation Jews, while the US connections ran far deeper.
My knowledge of the Holocaust, sadly, had been mainly acquired secondhand, through voracious reading of the sparse literature that was available during my teenage years, followed up as an adult when more information became available. My parents, both of whom had lost spouses and children, died relatively young without having imparted any information about their experiences other than some post-Holocaust stories that my widowed mother told us when she lived with us briefly before her death in 1989.
After that I was done with the Holocaust. I couldn’t read about it, watch documentaries or movies about it; my childhood memories are vague; Yiddish, which had been my mother tongue, is now a foreign language. I can barely put a sentence together.
But what I do remember are those shadowy figures, many with numbers inked onto an arm, who populated my parent’s social lives. The fellow Holocaust survivors who could only relate to each other, slipping in and out of the outside world only when necessary. Finding refuge in a country as far away as possible from the scene of the crime, their allegiances were to each other and their landsmannschaften (Jewish immigrant societies), not to their host country.
This is in sharp contrast to Jewish Americans, who maintain strong emotional ties to the US even when they have relocated to Israel. The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving are celebrated with great gusto; for weeks Facebook pages are awash with announcements, suggestions and invitations to celebrations.
At election times, these same Americans passionately debate the issues and the relative qualities of the candidates. They vote in numbers well above the US national average. Many remain tethered to the “old” country, even sending teenage children back to America for the ubiquitous summer camp and even college. A big mistake. Their aliya rate is relatively low and their attrition rate high. Today, the majority of US aliya is made up of the Orthodox, retirees, and young families who may be seeking relief from the overwhelming cost of Jewish education.
In sharp contrast, most Israeli Australians don’t vote in Australian federal elections; we barely know the names of the candidates, let alone the issues of the day. As a group, “Aussies” sporadically celebrate Australia Day in half-hearted fashion and remain dedicated only to “Aussie” Rules football and the national cricket team. Exceptions to such relative detachment is high attendance at ANZAC memorial ceremonies and great interest in the Centenary of the Charge of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade, marked by a commemoration service in Beersheba and a reenactment of the Charge on October 31, attended by visiting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Warm feelings aside for having grown up in an open and free society, my own experience was one of feeling like a visitor, only passing through until I could make my own choice as to where I wanted to spend my remaining days. My husband and I were graduates of Jewish day schools, of the highly successful Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement, and were active members of the vibrant religious-Zionist Mizrachi kehila, which was the backbone of our social lives. Israel was, for both of us, the only option.
We steered our four children in the same direction; they made aliya on their own as teenagers or young adults, and were absorbed into Israeli society, serving in the IDF and attending university as undergraduates. They all married in Israel and we are blessed to be surrounded by our grandchildren, albeit they live outside our hometown of Jerusalem.
We took somewhat longer as life intervened, as it does, in ways we could never have imagined. But in September-October 2000 we finally made aliya. We were home. 

The writer is a journalist and freelance English-language editor who made aliya from Australia in 2000 and lives in Jerusalem