“Haven’t the Jewish people suffered enough?”
On the ride back from Dachau, the silence in the car was oppressive. I had settled into melancholic thoughts of the experience we’d just been through in the kingdom of absolute evilWe stopped at an out of the way gas station, and I went in to ask where the bathroom was. As I took care of business, my mind was working overtime. Shivers went down my spine — just like in the movies — I saw all the books I’d ever read about the Holocaust, all the war movies, the TV series. I heard Colonel Schultz’s dog barking; sneaking up behind me were Ilse Koch, Eichmann, Goebbles, Himmler, Hitler and the entire Third Reich — all of them coming to get me because of my Jewish chutzpa. The feeling was actually physical; I was amazed by how tangible it was.
I couldn’t believe this was happening to me, Rami Elhanan, the son of Yitzhak Elhanan Gold, a “graduate” of Auschwitz. I’d sworn to myself that I would never, ever set foot on this cursed soil as long as I lived; that I would never have to hear this terrible language, the very sound of which made my skin crawl. For years I had politely declined every invitation to come to Germany to speak. I couldn’t imagine the possibility of standing face to face with a German in uniform, or of hearing some terminal loudspeaker blasting, “Achtung! Achtung!”
Our family lived in the Beit HaKerem Neighborhood, “close to the parents”, the most normal of Jerusalem families. Every Friday evening, we’d gather around the Sabbath table, Grandpa Nissim would explain the weekly Torah portion, and there we’d sit, entranced by his thunderous voice, his flashing eyes.. For me, Nissim and Tova were Grandma and Grandpa in every sense of the words! Every day on my way home from school, I went to Grandma’s to eat the most delicious food in the world and to snuggle for hours in the corner with a book from the red-covered “Omanut” series.
When I was ten or eleven years old, I was hospitalized in the pediatric ward of Hadassah Ziv Hospital. My father, a busy and preoccupied police officer, would normally be away from the house for days and nights, but he sat there by my side, nursing me through many long hours. I took advantage of the opportunity, and I bombarded him with questions: “Tell me, Aba, how come you speak Hungarian, but Grandma and Grandpa don’t?” And he, in his quiet voice, with his Hungarian rolling “R,” told me about himself for the first time. He told me about his childhood as an ultra-Orthodox boy in Hungary, about the year that he spent in Auschwitz/Birkenau, about his arrival in the Land of Israel, disguised as a British soldier. He served as a police officer in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. In January of 1948, during an operation he led in which to take over a strategic point in the Old City, he was shot and critically wounded by Jordanian Legion soldiers. He was taken in critical condition to Bikur Holim Hospital.
In those dark days of war, Jerusalemite families used to sit with wounded soldiers until they recovered. And Yitzhak, the solitary young soldier, was looked after by the Levy family of Beit HaKerem: an old and important patrician family, Nissim Levy, a teacher and school principal, and his wife, Tova a pre-school teacher, mother and the perfect homemaker. They fed him, took him home to recover, and worried over him just as if they were his real parents. And Aba, who’d lost most of his family in the Holocaust, took this family into his heart and became their son completely and utterly. As the years passed, the connection grew deeper and deeper. Tova'leh, the young nurse who’d care of Yitzhak and performed her duty with wonderful dedication and who used to sit on the edge of his bed, became his girlfriend. His new parents, Nissim and Tova, accompanied the young couple down the aisle to the wedding canopy and supported them in their first steps as newlyweds.
As the years passed, Aba kept his silence and recounted very little about his past. The turning point came only when Smadari, my daughter, was 12. She’d been assigned the “Family Tree” project at school, so she sat down at Grandpa’s knee and asked: “Grandpa, how did you conquer the Germans?” She forced him to tell her everything — but everything! And he, melting on the spot, opened up to her completely like an overflowing fountain. Consequently he decided to take her and her cousin to visit the town of his birth in Hungary.
From the moment that I knew about our terrible family history, from the time that I learned about my relatives who had been burned in the crematoria, I became obsessed with the Holocaust. I read avidly anything written, saw every movie, every play, learned every poem about the Holocaust. I knew by heart the names of all the camps, the ghettos, I had become a great Holocaust and World War II expert. I was addicted to this obsession that had dug down deep into my soul, had fed my dreams and my nightmares, and had created in me a combination of burning hatred and a huge black glowing anger against anything German of any kind. My entire being was stuck inside the Holocaust - every year, Holocaust Remembrance Day was one of sadness and gloomy thoughts for me.
But slowly, gradually, as the years went by, I became wiser, and especially in light of the tragedy that befell me and the journey that I undertook in reevaluating my identity — as a Jew, as an Israeli, as a human being — cracks began to form in this fortress. My stand changed, I became more critical. Slowly, I began to understand more deeply the role the Holocaust played in the realization of the Zionist dream over the ruins of the Palestinian dream. Slowly I was exposed, to my great sorrow, to the manipulative use that the State of Israel makes of the memory of the Holocaust, and its subjugation to the interests of Israeli nationalism, to the justification of that which cannot be justified. Gradually I became aware of the cynical exploitation of thousands of young people who travel to Poland every year before their military service and return wrapped in the national flag, with the slogan “Never again,” of the defying flights of Hebrew jets over the skies of Auschwitz, of the memorial services of IDF delegations to Bergen Belsen, of the cultivation of the ultimate victimhood…
After the joint visits the bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families made to the destroyed village of Lifta and to the Holocaust memorial site at Yad VaShem, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast the Nakba memory that manifests itself in the silent ruins of Lifta to the awesome power of the memory empire at Yad VaShem. Despite all of these cracks, all of these doubts and wonderings, the Holocaust has remained a central part of my personality and my experience. And I never wanted to go to Germany. Not ever.
However, a terrible thing happened. We were together at a demonstration against the last war in Gaza, when my Palestinian brother Bassam Aramin turned to me. “Brother, I have a big favor to ask of you.”
“Whatever you want,” I said generously.
“I want to ask you to come to Germany with me next month,” Bassam asked.
How could I say no to him, to this special man who on Holocaust Remembrance Day would call my father to ask him how he was doing, to pay him his respects. How could I deny this magnanimous man who stood with me on the hill of the Jewish cemetery in Kishvarda and answered “Amen” to the Kaddish that I recited there. What could I do? I agreed, and then I stopped sleeping at night. I was full of thoughts, doubts, fears. I was worried; most of all, about myself, what my reactions would be, about the internal anger that menaced me like a volcano threatening to blow. And I went.
The whole time I kept looking over my shoulder. I looked everywhere for the distilled evil and the racism, the cruelty and the anti-Semitism, the hatred and the foaming at the mouth that I’d seen in the movies. I looked with suspicion at every adult. I looked for justification for my anger, and I didn’t find i despite the fact that I very much wanted to justify all the feelings that burned inside me.
In complete contrast to what I expected, everywhere we went, we met “good” Germans – polite, nice, good-willed people. After every similar meeting, I’d say to myself again and again, they act as if some historical accident befell them, as if they feel like the Nazis were aliens who landed from outer space and took the German people prisoner for 12 years. And so during a long intense journey, from meeting to meeting, the change took place. We spoke with students from Eichstaett University near Munich. We spoke with students, with elite lawyers, and with mixed audiences of Israelis, Palestinians, and Germans, In each setting, we had serious and substantive discussions. People asked intelligent questions, and there was overwhelming appreciation for the Parents Circle and its activities.
At the end of each meeting, Bassam would close, as if to himself, with the words, “Haven’t the Jewish people suffered enough?” When we explained to our curious German hosts the origins of that line*, and we showed them the clip, their reactyesions amazed us — they laughed loudly, roundly, easily and unabashedly, free of any complexes.
The Germans I met carry a deep sense of shame and a great burden of responsibility on their shoulders. I witnessed a society that takes historical responsibility for its terrible past, which makes sure to remember, at every turn, so that heaven forbid, no one might ever forget what happened. I met Germans to whom I could say, “You can’t let shame rule you forever,” and the automatic and unconditional support of Israel that springs from that shame opposes Israel’s true interests. I met Germans whom I was able to tell that these long years of occupation and the humiliation of millions of human beings who don’t even have one democratic right — these are not Judaism, and the opposition to this is not anti-Semitism. And the sky did not fall…
I thanked them and I thanked Bassam from the bottom of my heart for freeing me from this prison of anger and hatred that I’d been trapped in for so many years. And I remembered what Bassam says when he speaks at the Israeli and Palestinian high schools: “The Palestinians and the Israelis haven’t murdered six million Palestinians or Israelis, and there’s an Israeli ambassador in Germany and a German ambassador in Israel,” and I thought to myself that in the end, sooner or later, there will be an Israeli ambassador in East Jerusalem and a Palestinian ambassador in West Jerusalem. And maybe even a Palestinian prime minister and an Israeli president in the united Jerusalem for ever and ever?
And may the savior come to Zion… inshallah!
Thanks to Gali Grace Freedman and Nurit Peled-Elhanan for translating
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And the sky did not fall.
I am sitting here in tears. We are part of a small group of Quakers who vigil weekly for peace and justice in Palestine. Some folks from the local synagogue had felt physically threatened by our quiet weekly presence. Although our signs only read, "Justice for Palestine," we have been accused of being violent anti-Semetics. We are meeting with mediators from our local Peace center to dialogue and hear each other, although I fear that for some, what they want is for us to lay our signs down. One of the people from the Temple has published an angry blog about these meetings. So I pray every day that she, in particular, can know the healing power of God's love. I am reading a book about grace, in which the author talks about how you must forgive first. Forgiveness is very hard, lots of work: 'forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.' Thank you. And blessings from Huldah in Chalfont, PA.
The Savior shows up in mysterious ways. Inshallah.
"And the sky did not fall..."
I read every word as if I was there with you. Thank you for your honest story - not just this written part of it, but the wider story of your entire life. You are a consistent example, over and over again, of how the sky will not fall even when circumstances combine with our own convictions to push us to do that which we thought was unthinkable. The "sky" of a more loving human reality is strong enough to support the truths that you mention: that opposition to what is going on is not anti-Semitism, that it is possible for someone like yourself to have an encounter with a German where you are encouraging them not to let shame rule forever, etc.
You give us here a very practical example here of how we must -- and CAN -- act, believing that the sky of our hearts will not fall on us when we reach out and do the right thing, the powerful thing, the difficult thing that we know we must gather our courage and just DO.
I am grateful to Bassam for the relationship you have which allows him to challenge you to move beyond and transcend. He is a difficult person to say "no" to, isn't he?! I can hear him urging you to go to Germany with him, with truth, with conviction, and always with an edge of humor in his voice. I am so grateful you have each other.
All my love from Malaga, Spain.