The Hate That Is Being Revived Before Our Eyes
My father was born in Poland, born at a time when anti-Semitism was not just prevalent, it was a fact of life. Yet while Dad talked about his childhood, rarely did we hear about the hatred he had endured. He told stories of his youth that I loved to hear. He talked about going to cheder, about the time he stole a whole herring and tucked it in his coat pocket, only to find that there was a hole in the pocket and this prized fish ended up stuck in the back lining of his coat, with no way for him to grab it. I didn’t realize then that this was a story about hunger so profound that my ethical-to-the-core father was moved to an action very far from his character.
He told the story of falling on a wooden bridge that spanned the river in his little town and of the splinter that went deeply under his chin, about the illness that followed, and of hearing the adults around him despair about his condition, certain he would not survive. He spoke of his younger twin brothers, the stronger one dying in infancy and the weaker one, against all predictions, surviving into adulthood. And he shared the story of his mother’s fierce determination to get her children out of Poland, the risks she undertook and the courage she showed, bringing her four sons and one daughter to join their father in America.
There were stories of anti-Semitism, but not so many, at least as I recall. Dad talked about boys chasing him, calling him a “dirty Jew” and throwing rocks at him. He shared the story of scrambling up a stone wall surrounding someone’s property and hiding in a tree and that the property owner chased him away, wanting no Jews hiding in his yard.
Our family was among the lucky ones, out of Poland before the Holocaust. Dad’s stories never mentioned the others who were left behind, the others who lived in a shtetl that was wiped out, so wiped out that even when I searched records today for those with the same last name, there are no survivors recorded after the war. I have no concept of how many family members were lost, but a look at the census before WWII suggests there were many. Dad never said, never named those people in family albums we couldn’t identify and who were clearly relatives in Poland. I know now that they didn’t survive and that it was too hard, too painful for him to say that, protecting me from a truth he too did not want to acknowledge.
Growing up, I understood the extermination of six million Jews as a historical fact, as a horror, as something that we must never forget. I understood it, and I understand it, intellectually. These people are my people and there were atrocities of unimaginable scale committed against them. We are one people, yet they were the ones who suffered and died and I could only see and understand from the distance of time and my own reality.
When my oldest son was in high school, he had the opportunity to take part in the “March of the Living.” The experience was profound and, perhaps, too much for a 16 year-old. Jason came home and showed photos of the images we all recognize—shoes piled haphazardly in enormous spaces, representing so many lives lost, household items, eyeglasses—that symbolize lives lost, genocide beyond rational comprehension. I saw those pictures, I listened to his words and I was, as always, freshly and fully horrified.
In 2008, I was a part of a mission that followed much the same route that Jason’s program had taken, spending days in Poland and then, a few healing days in Israel. I stood where Jason had stood, where so many others have stood before me. I shivered in the yard at Auschwitz, in my jacket and pants, wondering how these malnourished, abused prisoners stood in their thin striped garb for hours, stood while roll call was conducted, stood until each person was accounted for. This was October and I shivered. I could not even conceive of what these brave and tortured souls endured. I saw all of the sites that tear at your heart, from the collected items to the photos left behind, from the train tracks to the models of the crematoria. From camp to camp we traveled, with stories so devastating that there were no tears left.
I understood and yet, I did not fully understand. I understood, then as before, what had been and what had happened. I understood the need that I, as a Jew, have to stand up and firmly say, shout and believe that “never again” is more than just words.
Until now, though, I didn’t fully understand. I didn’t understand because I didn’t feel the fear that I feel today. I didn’t understand because I believed that I lived in a country where I was safe, my children were safe, where we were all a part of the fabric of a far-from-perfect but still secure environment. Sure I had my moments when an anti-Semitic statement was made in my presence or someone used the expression “Jew them down,” words I had never heard before.
But my bubble was still my bubble I guess. Threats were “there” and not “here.” I lived in a place where my rights were inalienable, where my liberty was not at risk, where equality was still a work in progress but heading in a direction that I thought was positive. Hate was not a word that defined our society. There may have been pockets and instances but overall, hate—especially in a global sense—was not a term we thought of, or used, every day.
The Torah tells us that “Thou shall not hate thy brother in thine heart” (Lev. 19:17). This is more than a tenet of our faith; it is what many of us have been raised to believe and have both lived our lives that way and taught our children to do the same. In fact, I would have said that philosophy was one that was pervasive and that those espousing “hate” were in the minority, were not part of the mainstream of our society.
I no longer feel that way. Today I feel fear. I am afraid that my children are no longer safe, that we now live in a country where hatred is the rule and not the exception, where neo-Nazis are not just a splinter group of radicals but groups of people who are carrying increasing weight. The words of Martin Niemoller’s poem continue to ring inside my head, “First they came for . . . and I did not speak out because I was not . . .” Today there is no longer “I am not . . .”
Today they are coming for me, for all of us. And we cannot close our eyes, we cannot pretend, we cannot ignore. Today they come for us, Jews, persons of color, immigrants, members of the LGBT community and more. We must speak out, we must speak with one voice that says we cannot condone hate and that we will not stand by and watch hate replace freedom, watch fear replace security, watch our lives and the lives of future generations be in jeopardy.
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