I wasn’t aware there was either an annual Day of Remembrance or Holocaust Memorial Day until I went to Israel on a pre-college semester at Tel Aviv University a few months after the Yom Kippur War. In my life, every day was Holocaust Memorial Day. I was a child of Holocaust survivors whose small community of friends and family consisted predominantly of survivors.
In my house, the dead greatly outnumbered the living. My Bubbah survived the Plaszow Ghettto, Auschwitz and the Gross-Rosen concentration camp with my mother, her only daughter, and didn’t sleep at night. Instead, she read the Jewish Daily Forward in Yiddish to the light of a bare bulb hanging from a pink plastic holder attached to her imitation oak headboard. The sole surviving photograph of her husband Moses who died in the death marches a few days before the liberation watched over her. It was his Polish Army recruitment photograph. Resting his left arm on an Ionic podium, he gazed into the future from the black box of his studio pose.
My mother was paralyzed on her left side, the residual effect of a stroke later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis that could be traced to the meningitis she had suffered in concentration camp. She lumbered as she walked with her tripod cane. When she fell, she screamed. I could not pick her up.
My father was the sole survivor of his immediate family but for the husband of his beloved sister whose name I was given. The brother-in-law remarried and lived in Montreal and became a Communist butcher.
My Aunt, who with her two sisters survived Auschwitz for four unbelievable years, lived next door, married to my mother’s brother, my laconic Uncle Sam. My Bubbah was the matriarch, pious and fierce. She prayed all the time and our dining table always seemed to be lit with Yizkor candles. Though we lived in Brooklyn and then the Five Towns on Long Island, it often felt as if I was living in encapsulated mourning. Our furniture was covered in slipcovers, the windows were masked by heavy drapery and dinner table conversation always seemed to devolve into remembering the lost or competing over who had endured more.
Raised in darkness and fear, I always felt like an outsider, escaping through the light of the arts. I read voraciously, played classical piano, and went to the theatre and to comedic plays with my father who had come from the industrial city of Lodz and considered himself an urbanite, unlike my mother, the country bumpkin, who came from a small town on the border of Poland and Czechoslovakia.
My teenage years were plagued by bullies as well as depression. I refused to go to school for my entire junior year and only returned when my psychologist threatened to stop seeing me if I didn’t go back to school for my senior year. He said that it would be the hardest thing I would ever do in my life, and for the most part, he was right.
Remarkably, that senior year was wonderful. I studied international relations with a young teacher whose youthful passion for her subject was contagious. She believed in me, and encouraged my writing. Before her, I did not know how to write a comprehensive essay, and, retrospectively, I attribute my later successes in university to her devotion and enthusiasm.
Then one day over the school intercom, I heard about a pre-college semester at Tel Aviv University where students would be housed with families who had a child of high school age. It must have been early in the fall, for I went to the meeting and begged my protective parents to let me attend the program. I had enough credits to graduate and my applications to college were complete. Though they usually said no to anything out of the ordinary, they could not say no to this program because it was in Israel. And to them, Israel was everything. The existence of the Jewish State emboldened them with pride, especially my father was was active in raising money for Israeli Bonds. The fact that they had many friends and relations there helped my cause. And so I signed up to the program.
Initially, 50 students were enrolled, but by the time we were to go in the spring, the number had dwindled down to 5 for the Yom Kippur War had happened in the interim and there were still skirmishes on Israel’s borders. The country was not quiet. But I had made up my mind. And so I went on my first big adventure, even though my father was the only parent to travel to Montreal which is where we met the program’s Director, Abrasha, who escorted us to Tel Aviv.
Landing at Ben Gurion Airport, I was met by my host parent, Anna Raveh, and her daughter Smadar. Days later, I would travel to visit my family’s surviving family. I remember how the air smelled fresh and the air was dry and hot from the Chamsin. Anna Raveh forced me to take public transportation to the university where I studied political science with my fellow students. It was the first time in my life that I no longer felt like an outsider. The country abounded with survivors who spoke Hebrew with heavy accents, yet their children were Sabras, seemingly unburdened by the past which was remembered only on the days of remembrance. My peers seemed vital, free, independent, living in the present. The burdens they carried were the heavy loads of military service, but that was their contract to the future, not the past. They were the engineers of their lives, not its victims.
I remember how stunned and moved I was by the experience of Yom Ha Zikaron. How everything stopped, twice in one day, but then everything went on. The past was not forgotten, it was the foundation upon which the present was built.
Looking back, those were idyllic days. Peace and freedom seemed tangible, even as the permeable borders were penetrated by “mehablim,” terrorists, probably one of the first words I learned in Hebrew. For me, traveling to Israel was truly a Stepping Up. I wanted to live there forever, but that is another story. I was astonished that a country had institutionalized times of national memory, giving the nation a time to mourn. The mourning was definite, not continuous, lighting a future born of hope. In Israel, I learned that I did not have to be victimized by mourning, and that allowed me to break away from the past which seemed to be dragging me down like a hand emerging from a grave.