On Work and Freedom: For Holocaust Remembrance Day and Durban II

Apr 22nd, 2009

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Grandma Esther & Grandpa Al, about 2 years after her liberation from Auschwitz.

Grandma Esther & Grandpa Al, about 2 years after her liberation from Auschwitz.

My amazing grandmother, Esther Klein, is turning 91 next month. She was in her mid-twenties when she was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross from an aimless, endless transport, after having spent several nearly lethal winter weeks in Ravensbrueck. Before that, she’d “worked” for several months in Auschwitz, after having lived for a very short time, along with her elderly parents, in a temporary tent city near her hometown of Seredna, constructed right along the railroad tracks, the better for the Jews to wait for their “ride.”

Before that, Esther Herskovitz was a bright, active young woman with bad hay fever, living near the Czech border in a small town in a big house with an orchard and a vineyard and a large, warm family, all of which have since vanished, literally, into thin air. Except the allergies… and my grandmother.

Even nearly 70 years later, it is hard for her to watch the programming for Holocaust Remembrance Day. She told me last night: “It was bad for me to watch people running. I thought I could handle it by now…”

Still, my grandmother talks about it. She tells us stories and gives interviews (like for Spielberg’s project over a decade ago) and does not keep secrets. She lost sisters, brothers (there were 11 siblings before the war, from which only three, Esther and her brothers, Shalom -who left Europe before the war – and Joseph emerged), nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins, and her parents. Those came with her into Auschwitz but not out. But she has never lost her sense of humor or her dignity or her ingenuity or her sense of morality and purpose. Those came out of the wreck just fine.

Because that is a choice. An extraordinary choice. She and the overwhelming majority of her fellow survivors moved on, brought up children the best they could, educated them (how many children of survivors do you know who are slackers? According to my father, that wasn’t an option on the menu for his generation…), and became among the more productive members of any society they joined. “I didn’t realize what remarkable people we were,” laughs my grandma, “….not just one or two… all of us. At least we didn’t waste whatever talent we had.”

They did not teach their children to hate, but, as my grandmother puts it, “to be somebody in the world. Hate doesn’t help anybody. It just spoils everything.”

Tell that to the Pilgrims of Victimhood at Durban II in Geneva. Mass suffering of nations and races is an old scourge of humanity. It is tragic and it is worth discussing, as a world community. Preferably, grand scale human rights abuses should not be a cause to be championed by people who actually abuse their own people (like, say, Ahmadinejad) while getting very upset that others, elsewhere are being mistreated.

But I digress. The politics of blame and the Free Pass for Generations of Rage granted to the underdog (again, as long as he is not your underdog) by the third world, otherwise known these days as the UN, is not helping anyone. Except the leaders of those oppressive countries, who are pulling off some pretty nifty diversionary tactics for the benefit of their abused masses.

What if they were to instead tell people to become doctors to heal each other, lawyers to fight for their causes in the world’s courts, or film directors, to bring their stories to light? Why give your sons a gun, a black mask, and a suicide belt, when you could give him, instead, a hug and a ticket to study in Dubai? Why build bombs when you could have built a university, a hospital, or a hi-tech park? Why dig smuggling tunnels when you could instead build a subway system to take you to see relatives in Cairo? Why is there no Palestinian or Somali or Pakistani version of the JNF or Hadassah? There would certainly be enough Euros in aid and Saudi oil dollars coming in to fund them, if anyone local cared to organize those efforts, instead of blaming You-Know-Jew (again!) for all of the earth’s problems.

Because you have been oppressed. Because you are poor. Because you’ve had relatives killed. Are not good reasons. Not since the 40′s. Not since ever, really.

To me, these sound like the Bad Childhood Defense that pops up like a fungus in the American legal system when the guy on trial has nothing else to explain away his depravity. As if everyone who had a funny uncle or a mother who loved Jack Daniels more than Daddy couldn’t help it if he took some liberties with the neighborhood’s kids. Where is the sense of moral responsibility that most of us carry, whatever else we went through? Isn’t this the whole point of a legal system?

And – by the way – since when is this a “conservative” idea? Isn’t rising above and making the most of one’s circumstances supposed to be a spiritual, Eastern, fundamentally liberal concept? And yet… somehow many yoga-soaked leftists have pushed away the idea of responsibility, of moral culpability – both on an individual and national level – even though responsibility for the self and for one’s own spiritual development, as well as responsibility for the other, are at the core of humanitarian philosophy. Compassion has become confused with eliminating all expectations of anyone who has suffered. Again: Isn’t this the whole point of being a nation? To rise above your challenges and own them as part of your heritage, while taking pride in how far you’ve come?

I don’t know of any Holocaust survivors who entered a café in Germany or Poland circa 1946 or 1996 or 2006 and blew themselves up to liberate their family’s land or business stolen by the Nazis. Nor do I know of any Holocaust remembrance conferences where the chief subject is hating Hitler and his SS and the German and Polish and Hungarian people who kept quiet. The subject is remembering the dead and the lost. And how we’ve moved on. Grown, beyond survival. Celebrating the fact that Hitler ultimately failed miserably, precisely because he did not manage to infect his victims with the thing that drove him: Hate.

My grandmother was poor when she arrived in the US. And oppressed. She had almost no one left in the world and hasn’t smelled a thing since the day they told her what that smoke was coming out of the chimneys back in Auschwitz. (The one who told her, a week or so into her stay, was a drunk guard, with a gruff laugh, who she struggled not to believe, until it was heinously clear he had spoken the truth.)

Obviously, however, she had read the “welcome sign” on the gate. It said, horribly: Work makes you free. So she worked… on herself. On remembering her dead but forgetting about revenge or about stewing in what she’d lost. She worked on raising a moral, productive, educated family. On “living her best life.” She worked 12 hour days alongside my grandfather to feed their kids when there was no one alive to call for a loan. (She had been fairly well-to-do back in Seredna.)

And she is free. Free of hate. And free to see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren flourish in free countries. Marinating oneself or one’s nationhood in suffering, even if it is legitimate and documented, is not the way to gain freedom. That is the way to stay oppressed forever. Encouraging growth and forward movement is – and has always been – the only way out of a national or individual hole.

I would set up a meeting for Ahmadinejad to learn something from my Grandma. But he says she doesn’t exist.

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  1. 21 Responses to “On Work and Freedom: For Holocaust Remembrance Day and Durban II”

  2. Sara, thank you. Thank you.

    By Susan Leibtag on Apr 22, 2009

  3. Remember also the GI’s who fought and died in the effort to liberate the
    victims of those camps

    By Julius on Apr 22, 2009

  4. Beautifully put. Thank you.

    By David Handler on Apr 23, 2009

  5. Magnificent! I hope your insightful, heart-rending article reaches the huge audience it deserves
    God bless you and your grandmother

    By Diana on Apr 23, 2009

  6. The schmaltzy victims of Durban II are the tools of neo-liberalism, sentimentality the destroyer of reason.

    By Tony on Apr 23, 2009

  7. Just a couple of points.
    First of all my mother, who is Esther’s niece and survived the camps with her, also called her hometown Seredna but it is officially Seredne (Serednye if you are Hungarian and not Czech)
    Second of all there was a work camp in between Auschwitz and Ravensbruk which my mom thinks was called Frankfurt but not the one near France. But she didn’t really ever talk much. She wanted to minimize the pain, hers and ours. which is another thing the Palestinian could learn from the Holocaust Survivors, to try to shield one’s children from trauma

    By Marty Herskovitz on Apr 23, 2009

  8. please email me ,i am an ex muslim Iranian living in Britain for past 26 years (Thanks to British -French Prime-minister and of course not to forget THE DEVIL JIMMY CARTER in 1979).

    I would like to ask you and your Dear Grandma few question if i may please?

    By arya lotfmanesh on Apr 24, 2009

  9. nice article

    By roi Ben-Yehuda on Apr 24, 2009

  10. Excellent.

    By Sam Michelson on Apr 24, 2009

  11. What a wonderful article. Your grandmother is a beautiful women.

    By C Pruett on Apr 24, 2009

  12. chapeau!!!!!!!

    By אבי אלנקוה on Apr 25, 2009

  13. Marty, you are telling us what the Palestinians should learn from the Holocaust? Well my dear, we are a group of 15 belgians who visited the Occupied Territories last month and we have seen and heard and witnessed how the Palestinians are humiliated ‘daily’ by your nice Israeli army. You aught to be ashamed to steal someone’s land and property and freedom. Go and live near the Wall of Shame and spend a night in Hebron. We have done it and we know what we are talking about. The time we believed all your lies has gone. Wake up and return what is ‘stolen’.

    By Yvette Van Hauwe on Apr 25, 2009

  14. reading your very well written article reminds me of Eli Wiesel’s statement, “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Thanks for speaking up.

    By assaf on Apr 26, 2009

  15. Yvette -

    It’s good to see ignorance still flowering. The post didn’t claim that no Palestinian feels aggrieved. It explained that grievances are no reason to avoid the hard work of bettering oneself and society. Something, which if you actually did visit the Palestinians, you surely noticed.

    What have they built with all the aid they get?

    What was done with the greenhouses left for them in Gush Katif (paid for, in part, by Jewish donors!)?

    They revel in being “victims”. It’s an essential skill there. That and shooting rockets.


    By Samuel on Apr 26, 2009

  16. Dear Yvette
    I did not argue politics as to which side of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is right or wrong, I simply stated a fact that in this struggle the Palestinian people place their children in the forefront of the struggle thus exposing them to trauma. Perhaps if the Palestinians wanted to shield their children from trauma they would be more concilliatory and less rejectionist of the two state solutions that have been profferred by the Israeli governments.

    By Marty Herskovitz on Apr 27, 2009

  17. I loved this. Thank you for sharing it.

    By NYCity Mama on Apr 28, 2009

  18. My mother was 5 when she lived through it. My grandfathers died and my 2 uncles, who were 3 and 2 years of age. My mother and grandmother survived living on scaps in the woods. The train that they were on, thank g-d was derailed, with the bombing.
    I cry as I sit here and write this.
    I wish you well
    thank you

    By TXLADY706 on Jan 13, 2010

  19. What a touching post – thank you for sharing.

    It is very heart-breaking to imagine what people went through during the Holocaust.

    Your grandmother is very beautiful : )

    By Nikki May | Web Content Writer on Sep 6, 2010

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