Learning from our elders
I had a conversation with an Israeli grandson of a Holocaust survivor this week. It gave substance to thoughts that were ruminating in my head all week about Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut – especially about the difference between the two memorial days.
I recall that when I was first in Israel, as a 10 or 12-year-old child, Israelis didn’t seem to talk much about the Holocaust. It seemed that they didn’t want to be reminded of it despite so many survivors living in the country.
I remember at the time asking my Israeli cousin why this was because at King David Linksfield, we spent a great deal of time learning about this horrific part of our recent history.
My cousin – about the same age as me – told me that Israelis weren’t proud of this time that Jews went “like lambs to the slaughter”, and so they didn’t want to it to be a big part of the curriculum. Rather, they wanted to show their prowess as heroes, people who could defend themselves, even to the death.
Now, you must understand that these were the thoughts of children, not sophisticated adults. We were in primary school at the time, and this is what he and, consequently, I understood.
It bothered me for a long time because it didn’t make sense to me not to shout out for generations to come about what had happened. It seemed that if you didn’t make a big deal of what had happened, it would be very easy to forget and allow it to happen again.
Obviously, whatever the thinking was in Israel at the time has changed substantially. Today, so much effort, time, and money has been put into building the Holocaust memory bank to ensure that Jews and the rest of the world will never forget a time when six million people were brutally murdered simply because they were Jewish.
However, the discussion I had with this young Israeli this week was about how his grandfather, who had managed to get to Israel after being freed from a concentration camp, had for decades not spoken about his past.
He was ashamed, according to his grandson. He didn’t want his emotional and physical scars to be shared. He didn’t want people to feel sorry for him or worse, to be ashamed of him. He wanted to be like all other Israelis – tough, strong, not letting anyone mess with them.
By the time this young boy was born, his grandfather had told his story because times had changed, and he was respected for having survived to tell the story.
But on Yom Hashoah a number of years back, the boy found his elderly grandfather staring at a crumpled photograph of his mother and sister who had perished in the war.
It was then that his grandfather explained to him that in Germany, Jews had money, power, and respect until Hitler came to power. Then, they had nothing, not an army, not a weapon, not a community that could stand behind them. Everything was taken from them, including their dignity and pride.
He told his grandson that he wanted to fight. He wanted to defend himself and his family, but he had nothing to do it with.
With pride, the old man told his grandson how today, we have a country and, no matter where in the world we live, we have a Jewish State. We have a place to call our own no matter what happens in the rest of the world.
So, if Israel is at war or battling, it’s still a country, a land that will always be there for Jews. That piece of land is to be defended and protected so that Jews can stand proud and fight off their enemies. Nobody can haul Jews off anywhere or kill them as they please anymore.
When I heard this story this week, I understood how Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron may both be days of memorial, remembering those who died, but they are very different. Yom Hashoah is about the devastation of people who couldn’t protect themselves no matter how much they wanted or tried to do so. They were at the mercy of the countries in which they lived. However, those we remember on Yom Hazikaron died in defence of the Jewish State, and although the sadness of their loss is just as great, they died defending Israel. They died so that we could continue to defend this country that we hold so dear.
Although the young man’s grandfather has since passed away, the lesson he taught his grandson was invaluable, and hopefully, I have passed it on to you. So, let it be with pride that we this week commemorate those who died for Israel and celebrate what we have in the 74th year of a Jewish State.
And in the same way this young man honoured his grandfather this week, Jewish people around the world are honouring the elderly over Shabbos when we read Kedoshim. “Rise in the presence of the elderly, honour the ages,” we will read in shul this Shabbat.
The chief rabbi this week told us that a late Israeli cabinet minister, Uri Orbach, created an initiative to pay tribute to our elders on this particular weekend every year.
The initiative, Shabbat VeHadarta, calls on us to give flowers to “oldies” before Shabbos, call someone, or visit them. Invite an elder to come for a Shabbos meal. The bottom line is, let’s make friends with people who are older and inevitably wiser than us. Let’s reach out to those who may not have as many friends as they used to – or aren’t able to get about much.
These people are our connection to days gone by. Listen to their stories. Record them. Let’s be the example to our children of how to treat our elders. Let this weekend be the start of beautiful relationships.