Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance day, begins tonight at sundown and ends tomorrow night. But for my grandmother Miep, who is 94 years old and a Holocaust survivor, every day is Holocaust Remembrance Day. She and my late grandfather Arie were in their twenties when Holland became occupied by the Nazis. They managed to escape the Nazis for more than a year, hiding in different places, until, in their last hiding place, a neighbor turned them in. They spent a horrible year in Tereisenstadt concentration camp, stripped of all human dignity, and separated from their daughter, my aunt, Elizabeth. Grandma lost her father, her brother and many other family members, almost died of typhus, and suffers nightmares every single night. My grandfather Arie passed away in 1996.
Ever since I can remember myself, thinking about the Holocaust fills me not with sadness, but with rage. As a child, I used to try to imagine going through what they went through. Being kicked out of my home, living in tiny hiding places, not being able to go to school or to work, being forced to give up everything, knowing that because I am Jewish, just because I am Jewish, I can be harassed, tortured, ridiculed, and murdered.
With my eyes closed, I think about how cold they must have been in Holland in the winter in those tiny hiding places. How hungry and scared they must have felt! My Oma, my grandmother, a true lady, always impeccably dressed, how did she feel there, stripped of everything, her identity taken away from her, how did she cope with being so cold and hungry and desolate? A year of constant hiding, her baby in her arms, scared and fragile and completely dependent on the people who gave her shelter. Eating scraps, not allowed to move, be very quiet baby Elizabeth, if you cry, they will find us.
The neighbor that turned them in – was he proud of himself? I wonder. Did he get anything from the Germans in return? They had to leave their hiding place, pale and weak and skinny and scared, Miep and Arie went with the German soldiers, but they didn’t take Elizabeth with them. The amazing, kind people who hid them told the Germans that Liz was their own daughter and she stayed there with them, safe, for a long, long year.
A year in Tereisenstadt. Can anyone who hasn’t been there even begin to grasp the extent of the horror? I don’t think so. I have read about the camps, and I’ve seen photos, those horrible photos of people like you and I who were treated like animals – worse than animals actually – starved and beaten and tortured and mass murdered. I am closing my eyes again and I wonder, do I have that in me? Do we all have a monster inside that would enable us to believe that a fellow human being is not human, that they are something less and we can inflict terrible pain and suffering on them without ever feeling remorse? It’s a scary thought, and as much as it is tempting to think that it was something about the Germans that made them capable of such unimaginable cruelty, the latter part of the twentieth century showed that genocides were still possible and that the world was not too quick to intervene and stop them.
My grandparents suffered immensely at the concentration camp. They hardly ever talked about it, but I do know that Grandma almost died of typhus and that grandpa had a terrible “job” of getting valuables off dead bodies before burning them in the crematorium. My dear grandpa, a true gentleman, I can’t imagine him going through this. My dear, dear grandpa Arie, how you have suffered. My eyes fill with tears.
The war ended and they were released and reunited with their daughter Liz. They rebuilt their lives and raised a beautiful family that didn’t lack an element of dysfunction, as one would expect. They were – they are – beautiful people and everything has been taken away from them and they went through hell, because they were Jews, just because they were Jews. Their lives were ruined, changed forever – they were changed forever – and my father’s life was forever touched too by being born, after the war, to a family of Holocaust survivors.
When I think about the Holocaust, I don’t feel sadness. I feel rage.
In the photo: Grandma Miep holding her great granddaughter, my daughter, in Jerusalem, May 2000.