Every Holocaust survivor is a living reminder of one of the most important historical lessons of the past hundred years. They are testaments to the anti-Semitism that engulfed Europe during the first half of the 20th century, a hatred that inflicted unprecedented horrors on the Jewish people. Yet as the community of survivors grows older and passes away, we are losing the only living proof left to remind us where this intolerance of Jews leads.
Reading historical accounts of concentration camps, visiting Holocaust museums, and watching movies about Nazi Germany do educate the next generation about the horrors of the Holocaust. But none measure up to a glance at a survivor’s tattooed arm, or the pained look in their eyes.
Every Jewish family with roots in Europe has relatives affected by the Holocaust, and these stories must be told, recorded, and handed down. Like so many others, my family also has a story of devastation and triumph.
My father was a little boy living in Romania near the Hungarian border when Hitler came to power. His grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived a few kilometers away in Hungary. And though he was a young boy, he recalls the fear and panic which set in when news spread about the Nazis’ plan for the Jews of Europe.
“Should we run or stay put? If we run, where do we go? Palestine? The United States? South America? How do we get there? Will we be allowed to enter?” These were the typical dinner conversations my father recalls as a little boy.
Another factor which concerned my grandparents and complicated their decision of whether to stay or go was that most of their family lived in Hungary, a country more antagonistic to Jews than Romania, and where travel restrictions were also far more stringent.
My grandparents stayed put, and my grandfather started searching for ways to sneak the rest of the family out of Hungary and into Romania, where Jews stood a better chance of surviving.
My grandfather, Mordechai, paid people off, bought forged passports, and began to form an undercover operation to rescue his family. While he was never reunited with his parents or siblings, the network he developed rescued many other Jews from the Nazis.
He would routinely visit the train station in the city of Arad, Romania. Whenever he spotted someone who looked like they had run away, and who he thought was a Jew, he would brush by them and fake a sneeze into his handkerchief, blurting out, “Du bist a Yid?” (“Are you a Jew?” in Yiddish).
He never found the family members he was hoping to save at the train station, yet he never turned Jews away who were fleeing the same horrors that killed his loved ones. When he picked up a Jew, he would hide them in his cellar until he had the money and documents to help them escape to Russia, the U.S., or Palestine. My father recently visited his childhood home in Romania, took a video of the modest house where he grew up, and even found the cellar where my grandfather hid Jews who had escaped from other parts of Europe.
These were my father’s early childhood memories. His grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were murdered in Auschwitz, and yet he and his immediate family survived.
At a recent family gathering my cousin’s wife recalled that after my grandfather’s passing when my family sat shiva – the seven-day Jewish mourning period– strangers kept showing up to pay respect to the man who had saved them from the Nazis. My family was shocked to hear stories my grandfather had never shared – stories of the people he had saved during the Holocaust.
Every so often, I tell my children how my father survived the Holocaust as a young boy and how their great-grandfather risked his life to save others. I recall how a few kilometers and a border crossing was the difference between life and death for my family, and how living on the ”right” side of the border was the difference between me being their dad or not.