My grandmother set sail for New York in the early 1920s, at age 19. It’s hard to know exactly how affluent her family had actually been in Eastern Europe. The fact that her father had already moved to America was a good indication that things hadn’t been so hunky-dory in her hometown.
But her incredibly hard life as a Jewish immigrant in a cold-water flat in Brooklyn tended to make her selectively nostalgic – to the point where she once even said bitterly that she should have stayed in Galicia.
That every single member of her extended family who had remained there ended up being slaughtered by the Nazis didn’t seem to register during those moments of self-pity. And when my father pointed out to her with great exasperation that her fate would have been as theirs, she snapped, “Hitler wouldn’t have gotten me.”
My late mother-in-law was 9 years old when Hitler came to power, and her family fled Germany for Palestine in 1934. A mere few months earlier, she had been skiing happily with her parents in the Alps, all dolled up with pretty pink earmuffs and mittens to match. Then, all at once, her life turned upside down. Suddenly, there she was, on a kibbutz in the sweltering summer heat. Without being asked her opinion, she was given a Hebrew name she hated, to remove all vestiges of the “Diaspora” she had brought with her from Europe. This did not help her adjust to her new surroundings one bit. Nor did the fact that her wardrobe, which consisted of frilly skirts and patent-leather shoes, made her a laughingstock among her sabra peers, all of whom wore shorts and sandals – and lacked anything resembling manners or other forms of what she had been taught was proper behavior.
By the time she had learned to speak, read and write Hebrew fluently, and had become acclimatized to the weather and the culture of the country, a new group of Jews had arrived from overseas. These immigrants had not escaped the Holocaust; by the skin of their teeth and by the grace of God, they had survived it. The ridicule they suffered from their fellow Jews in pre-state Israel was even worse than that which my mother-in-law had endured. They were given a nauseating nickname: “sabon” (soap). Originating from rumors about the Nazis making bars of soap out of Jewish flesh, it was an appalling way of putting them down for being weak and submissive. (To this day, “sabon” is the Hebrew slang for “goody-goody.”)
Such disdain on the part of native-born Israelis for their victimized brethren would later become the subject of much psychological and sociological study. And what it boiled down to was a mixture of ill ease and denial – the very same kind that my grandmother had adopted in relation to those who had perished: “Hitler wouldn’t have gotten me.”
As the decades passed, a new attitude emerged alongside the individual and collective stories of heroism and survival in the face of evil. So, too, did museums commemorating the Holocaust sprout all over the place, and annual visits to Auschwitz became part of the Israeli high school curriculum and an overall tourist attraction.
Because the survivors are growing smaller in number as the years go by, such developments could be seen as positive – particularly when considering the alternative, which is to be done with and forget about it.
Ironically, however, as awareness has grown in relation to the atrocities of World War II, the ability to extrapolate wisdom from the events that led up to them has decreased.
That Israeli kids on the way to Europe are instructed to keep their kippot and their Stars of David out of sight does not put a dent in their post-army plans to make pilgrimages to Berlin. That the Jewish Agency contributes funds to the March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau does not prevent it from encouraging the renewal of Jewish life there and other places where it was stomped out. That Hungary has a parliament filled with Nazi-like fascists hardly makes it into the newspapers. That Britain and France have fallen prey to Islamofascism, coupled with a return to the classical anti-Semitism expressed recently by Gunter Grass, does not inspire mass emigration from those countries. That Israel has become the target of smear campaigns from the extreme Right to the extreme Left does not cause its populace to join together to combat the phenomenon. Instead, half the country blames the government’s settlement policies for the vitriol.
Finally, that Iran is soon to have atomic bombs with which it will attempt to impose Shariah law on the rest of the world – after wiping out the Jewish state – does not cause Jews across the globe to support an Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities. Nor has U.S. President Barack Obama’s appeasement in relation to all of the above lost him the Jewish vote.
This Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we stand in silence for the duration of the siren, one thing we should do is finally understand how Hitler managed to get as far as he did.
As for those of us who are still among the living, we should take heed: History does repeat itself when given a green light.
And my grandmother was wrong to assume that Hitler wouldn’t have gotten her.
Ruthie Blum, a former senior editor at The Jerusalem Post, is the author of a book on the radicalization of the Middle East, soon to be released by RVP Press.