I am the grandchild of Jews who fled Central Europe before the Holocaust, leaving behind siblings and parents who died in concentration camps. My grandmother Helen was the lone survivor of twelve siblings—an unimaginable loss. On every International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I reflect on what it was like to lose eleven siblings, though I cannot imagine. And, I reflect upon how that shaped me.
Growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City in the 1970s, I witnessed the lasting impact of the Holocaust on our neighbors. In the summer, when shirt sleeves were rolled up, tattoos were a constant reminder of the horrors endured. From early on, I learned the importance of never being a bystander.
Advocating for the rights of Palestinians to self-determination and safe futures is an extension of my Jewish identity. Opposing Israel’s genocidal assault on Palestinians is how I honor the family I never knew and the ancestors whose stories were never passed down.
I am the child of two concentration camp survivors. Both of my parents survived Auschwitz and both of my parents lost their parents in Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. On this Holocaust Remembrance day, I am heartbroken by the inhumane and brutal actions of the Israeli government against the Palestinian people. The revenge they are exacting against the civilian population of Gaza is tragically reminiscent of the Nazi treatment of Jews.
The IDF has cornered the civilian population of Gaza into ever smaller and smaller spaces, just like the ghettos of Europe, with nowhere safe to go, without medical care, without clean water or food, systematically destroying their cities and murdering over 25,000 people in three months.
If my parents were alive today, they would be heartbroken that the United States, the country they loved, that took them in as refugees, is now the backer of this systematic murder of the innocent people of Gaza. I am outraged, as they would have been, that the Holocaust is used in any way as a justification for this barbarism. “Never again” applies to all people, not just to Jews. Genocide against any people is wrong and as a child of survivors, it is my duty to stand up and speak out against the war Israel is waging against the Palestinian people at this time.
I was born in August 1939. Two weeks later the Nazis invaded Poland.
I was not there. My grandparents had emigrated from Poland to Brooklyn, in the late 19th century. When I was 2, the Nazis began wiping out Polish Jews. But I was safe in Brooklyn. I was safe –so long as the Nazis didn’t win. No Jews were safe if the Nazis won the war.
After it was over, Jews who had survived said: Never Again. Some of us meant that never again would any people be annihilated. Others meant that never again would the Jewish people be caught unprepared and disarmed. No Jew—whether supportive of Israel or critical of Israel—was unaffected by the Holocaust.
Once, in a holocaust museum, I saw a photo of a Polish Jewish boy, 4 years old. He looked like me, but he never got to be 5. How could I be unaffected? How could I not take what Israel is doing to Palestinians personally? How many children in Gaza will never get to be 5?
This year I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather, who survived Auschwitz, made it to Brooklyn, and had my mother before passing very soon after. His trauma, compounded by my mom’s fatherless upbringing, lives on in me, and I feel deeply for those experiencing similar pain today. As an American Jew I was told the holocaust was the greatest atrocity in history, and I grew up wondering how it could’ve happened, but now I see how trauma continues to be weaponized rather than healed, and used for capitalist and militaristic interests. I grew up hearing ‘never again’ but here we are, watching another genocide unfold in the name of Jewish safety. It feels safe to say that slaughtering and starving Palestinians, poisoning the air, land, and water for generations to come is not making anyone safer.
My Grandfather Michael Wyschogrod, whom I was very close to until his death when I was 17, grew up Orthodox in Berlin in the 1930s, and did not successfully flee until just a few months before the start of the war. The indignities, deprivations and violence that his family experienced are too innumerable to do justice to here, so I will pick out a story that held particular weight in the annals of our family history. The morning after Kristallnacht, My grandfather awoke to a city transformed. The homes of his friends and the businesses he frequented daily were smashed and defaced, the streets piled with rubble and smoke, and Germans stood to gawk at the carnage on every thoroughfare and corner. As they came upon the Shul where he would attend Hebrew classes, Michael witnessed their Torah rolled out in the middle of the street, with a man offering to allow passersby to trample its length in exchange for ten reichsmarks. The image haunted him until the end of his days, and has haunted me ever since he recounted that ugly day to me and my siblings when I was 13 years old.
I have seen image ever image echo that horrible familial memory since the start of Israel’s invasion of Gaza in October, from the Magen David carved by tank tracks into the barren crater that was once a children’s playground, to IDF soldiers filming themselves playing house in the abandoned homes of now indigent refugees, to countless incursions by both Israeli troops and citizens on Mosques in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem. I was taught to take the phrase Never Again very seriously as a child, and it is with this deeply held principle and the painful lasting wounds of the Shoach upon my family that I call for a Ceasefire: Ceasefire now; Ceasefire forever; and peace, right of return, and lasting freedom for the Palestinian people.
My parents were among the “lucky ones” able to escape from Nazi Germany before the War. Nevertheless, their lives were hugely affected by the Nazis. They were denied schooling, sports, and many other opportunities open to non-Jewish teens. My mom’s home was ravaged on Kristallnacht. Her cello was smashed and oil paintings were ripped from the walls and stepped through. Silverware was thrown out of the windows. My dad, and his non-Jewish friend who was with him, were spit on as Dad was walking to the train to leave the country. The trauma and upheavals in their lives obviously had lasting impacts on them. . . but also on me growing up.
If they were alive today, I feel certain that they would join me in expressing our mutual horror at Israel’s reaction to Hamas’s brutal assault.
NIE WIEDER! Never again! Not just for Jews, but for all humanity.