I am the child of Holocaust survivors. My father, born Marcel Abramovici, grew up in Romania, and after joining HaNoar HaZioni, the Zionist youth movement, he left his family home in the countryside and moved to Bucharest.
The Fascists had come to power in Romania, and Ion Antonescu, the Romanian dictator, allied the country with the Axis powers. My father was interned in a slave labor camp and was being worked and starved to death. Being very industrious, he managed to obtain forged identification documents and escaped, booking passage in the Black Sea port of Constanta and sailing to Turkey. From Turkey, he made his way to British Palestine in 1944 and, after the founding of the state, fought in Israel’s War of Independence.
After the war, he became a shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency. He was sent to France and North Africa, giving orientation classes to North African Jews on their way to Israel, where his fluency in French came in handy.
My father tried living on a kibbutz, but after starving in Romania, he found kibbutz life too difficult. He told me that if they had one orange, they would have to divide it eight ways to make sure that everyone could have a piece. Clothes were shared among the kibbutz members. He decided to leave his friends and the kibbutz because he had experienced enough hardship during the war. Filled with a spirit of adventure, he and a friend set out for Canada.
My mother, Annie Cohen, an only child, also grew up in Romania and lived in hiding throughout World War II with her parents. Her father was a tailor, and as my grandfather described it, his “non-Jewish” appearance enabled him to circulate freely and take tailoring jobs to support his family throughout the war.
In 1947, the family set sail for Palestine and were turned back by the British, remaining in an internment camp in Cyprus until the state was declared. My mother was 14 when she arrived in Israel and attended high school in Jaffa, but her parents found life difficult – in those pre-air conditioning days, they found the weather oppressively hot – and moved to Canada.
When my father arrived in Canada, he mingled within the Romanian Jewish community, where he was introduced to my mother. They married and raised four children. My parents were very matter-of-fact about their wartime experiences. My mother had been a child then and didn’t speak much about those years because she had been in hiding for five years. My father, however, spoke about his forced labor experience and told us how they had to scavenge for food like beggars while working at all hours of the day for the Romanian war effort, and he liked to recount the tale of his epic journey from Constanta to Palestine. Looking back, he would smile and joke about his experiences. He was a very optimistic and forward-looking person.
Despite their Romanian background and fluency in the language, my parents did not consider themselves Romanian because they didn’t have rights as Romanians and were considered outsiders. They were not Romanians. They were Jews.
In 1992, we returned to Romania with my parents. We visited the home in Bucharest, where my mother had hidden throughout the war. My mother saw an old woman, and speaking in perfect, unaccented Romanian, asked her if she remembered the family that lived in the apartment during the war. Not realizing that she had been the child who lived in the apartment, the elderly woman answered, “Oh yes, there was a family of kikes who lived there.”
Growing up as a child of survivors influenced my perspective in terms of having zero tolerance for antisemitism. I experienced mild antisemitism growing up. People would call me a dirty Jew, which was considered acceptable discourse. I got into more than one fight in the schoolyard, defending my honor, but I was never in any kind of real danger.
It was supposed to be ‘Never Again’ – not only never again for Jews, but ‘Never Again’ – period. It was supposed to be a universal value. Holocaust education is not just for Jews – it’s for everyone.
We need to understand where extremism and narrowness can lead. I believe that nationalism can be a force for good. What could be more tribal than patriotically cheering for one’s nation at the Olympics? But we’ve seen what taking these instincts to extremes can do and how it can inflict terrible harm on the soul and breed intolerance towards others. There’s a healthy balance between nationalism, which I think is a very positive force, and xenophobia. Hitler’s Germany used nationalism to degrade the human experience and dehumanize elements of society.
We grew up in a Zionist home, as both my parents were here at the founding of the state and spoke fluent Hebrew. They loved coming to Israel and visiting friends and relatives. For me, making aliyah five years ago has brought it full circle, completing the journey of my Zionist parents. My father passed away at age 100 last year, and the resilience and strength of his generation are unique in history. This will be the first Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut since his passing, and I will be thinking of him this year.
Sylvan Adams is Israel’s foremost philanthropist, and an oleh hadash. He refers to himself as a ‘self-appointed ambassador’ for Israel, and has produced large events to showcase Israel to audiences of hundreds of millions of television spectators all around the world.