Archives for posts with tag: Holocaust

My relationship to Judaism has always been weird. When my parents were still together (they split when I was 4), we must have observed many of the rituals in the home, even though Fullerton, CA was a long way from the New York and DC locales of the rest of our family and heritage. Why do I say we must have? My Bobe (my mother’s mother – second generation American) relished telling a story of some early visit we made to see her and Zade (my mother’s father, first generation – arrived from Ukraine in 1912 or so, I think). It must have been when I first visited them in DC as a walking, talking person (as opposed to a toddler). The way she told it, I walked around the table, and looked at the candlesticks and wine glasses and large pictures of a pair of ancestors from the shtetl, and asked in all innocence, ‘Are you guys Jewish?’ My grandparents found this hilarious.

Nowadays. Between then and now, I’ve gone through periods of greater and lesser connection. At the moment, I’m starting to learn a little about Yiddish culture and taking a Yiddish class online. It’s a period of greater connection, let’s say. Last week, I was listening to The Shmooze, a podcast from the Yiddish Book Center. The interview subject was Judy Batalion, a playwright and author from Montreal who recounted the sources of her latest book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos. She grew up knowing about Hannah Senesh, as I did – this one incredibly brave Hungarian Jewish woman living in Mandatory Palestine who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Hungary, was captured, tortured, and killed by firing squad in 1944. Batalion was researching other such women and found an entire book published in Yiddish in the US in 1948 or so, which told of other such brave women. And that book sank into obscurity, and Szenes (to use the original spelling) became the synecdoche in Hebrew school history for all those incredible women. This book one book sent Batalion on her own path, resulting in a 500-plus page book on the subject.

In that Shmooze interview, Batalion makes the point that those women did what they did out of a certain necessity, and for the simple reason that they risked less than the men by doing it. Men who were caught would have their trousers dropped, because only Jewish men were circumcised then. The women and girls had often gone to school with the non-Jewish girls, so their Polish was that spoken in the general populous, not the Polish of the yeshivabuchers who went to schools within the shtetl an mostly spoke Yiddish and Hebrew.

And this got me thinking about how we think about heroes, about Israel and its very male leadership. And, oddly, I read today about a female-created female superhero, Miss Fury, who had a 10-year run that ended in 1951. Not the same as actual heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance, but categorically similar, in that Fury’s creator, June Tarpé Mills, is another woman whose work was subsumed by the mid-20th century’s habit of glorifying the masculine and shutting away all the women who dared.

I think there’s a group psychology that comes into play in groups that need to be rescued. And I fear diving into what the survivors of the Holocaust had to deal with who then moved into a world where they could actively defend a new homeland but knew that they hadn’t been able to defend their previous homes. I’m an armchair psychologist at best. But hiding the stories of those girls and women who ran explosives between the ghettos and went out on other missions against the Nazi occupation serves to make a monolith of all the victims of the Holocaust. If all were victims, then the ghetto uprisings, and subsequent liquidations, were anomalies, rather than the rule. (Sometimes you hear someone say, ‘If I’d been in Germany, I would have fought back. Why didn’t the Jews fight back?’ The answer is, We did.)

There are a lot of people who study these matters of language and culture and history who know these things better than I do. But there’s one connection to draw about the decline of Yiddish and the loss of these stories. When Jews were settling in Palestine before World War I there were discussions of what the language of this new country (still a dream, but עם טירצו and all that) should be. Hebrew won out over Yiddish and there are a few what ifs regarding what that society would be like if things had gone the other way. I fear that the psychology of powerful men taking power would still fight for society to forget women who fought back.

ETA: Please read Nedra’s very thoughtful response to this in the comments. She’s on the ground and doing the work in Jerusalem and has a far clearer view of these things than I do.

Again, I’m writing from the perspective of profound ignorance that blights all of us who choose our media bubbles and stick to them. (Disclaimer: My preferred news sources include the BBC, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Rachel Maddow. If I get my act together this year, I hope to add, NOS Journaal, and at least one other Dutch source.)
In response to my last post, my mother referred to a friend of the family, a liberal Jewish woman who made aliyah (Note to the goyim: To make aliyah as a Jew is to emigrate to Israel) and lives in one of the settlements. Mum’s wish is that I get in touch with this friend who has on the ground experience and for a variety of reasons doesn’t fit the stereotypes, but ‘says things like “Palestinians teach their children to hate”‘.

This phrase has always struck a nerve with me. Yes, among the Palestinians are those who attack Israeli settlers and soldiers and who fire explosives from Gaza into those settlements. And the entire population suffers IDF (Israeli Defence Force) response far out of scale with the initial attack. 

And it has happened over and over and over again.

We Jews have an interesting history with occupying powers that predates our history as one. By the (hundreds of?) thousands we endeavoured to escape the pogroms of the late 19th century. We all know what happened to those who didn’t escape, but with almost the regularity with which we tell the story of Passover, we retell the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We tell of how the Jews of Warsaw were forced into smaller and smaller spaces and had their resources systematically cut off, and of how valiantly the Jews of the ghetto fought against the Nazis. ‘One shudders to think that it required a quarter of a million Jews to give their lives, for the remainder to understand the reality of the situation and come to the right conclusions,’ wrote one Shmuel Winter as documented on the Yad Vashem web site dedicated to the uprising (

This is the crux of the matter. When we were systematically restricted in World War II, we finally rose up. We glorify those who finally rose up and shudder through the tears of 20/20 hindsight at the meekness with which we suffered the slow approach of our destruction. I don’t have my copy of Night to hand, but Eli Wiesel described the situation in the Romanian village in which he was raised similarly. The villagers could see what was happening and talked about emigrating (to Palestine, generally), but few made the leap because that village had been their home for a thousand years.

I know I’m simplifying the matter, but wasn’t Palestine the home of these people for a thousand years before the Zionist movement and the establishment of Israel? Yes, their children are taught to hate the occupying power. We glorify our meekness, but wish we had hated sooner. Perhaps something could have been done. One of the problems is that Israel insists on the right to the territory that comes from greater military strength rather than the might that derives from diplomacy and its attendant hard work. 

Colonial histories, from the liberal perspective, often berate the colonising power for the length of time it took it to leave. Britain’s long occupation of India and Rhodesia (and, for that matter, Palestine) are cases in point. France in Algeria, Belgium in the Congo, the US in any great number of places – North Dakota at the moment comes to mind. And I berate Israel for the same reason. It’s long since been time to make a solution. Blaming the occupied population for their resistance isn’t productive. 

A couple of Sundays ago, Rachel and I visited the city of Groningen which is hosting the David Bowie Is exhibit at the main museum. The museum is directly across from the train station, but after a two-plus hour train ride from Leiden, we needed lunch before our entry time and walked towards the town center.

As we walked to lunch we passed this synagogue, having had no idea it existed. Overview Groningen synagoge, ca. 1939Note that I had one goal for the day, and that was the museum exhibit. I had no reason to look further into what the town had to offer. Had I given the Groningen page in Lonely Planet Netherlands a peak, I would have taken note. So it was a surprise. Had we taken a different little lane into town, I never would have seen it. A sandwich sign in front announced hourly tours from 1pm until 5. At 4 we entered and requested a tour in English and shortly after a woman whose English was passable started to tell us about the building’s history we were joined by another half-Jewish couple and learned much of the following.

In 1916, the Groningen Jewish community numbered about 3000 and the previous synagogue was unable to seat weekly attendance in excess of 600 worshipers, so they hired an architect to design a new building. Oddly the architect was not Jewish, but he had a wide range of influences. Rachel (who was raised in the Church of England) has been in a few synagogues with me and when our guide asked, what’s strange about this one, her answer was immediate and accurate: ‘It’s shaped like a church.’ And indeed it has a nave and a transept, and a dome at the intersection. In addition, there are elements of Spanish mosques as well such as the alternating light and dark brickwork of the arches on the second level.

The tour itself, after the history lesson, was sort of Judaism 101, but the history of the building was quite interesting. Many of the original artifacts were destroyed, but the building itself was simply used for storage (What did they store here? The answer, ‘As far as we can tell, confiscated radios mostly,’ elicited a sigh of relief. After the war, it spent several decades as a laundry, but funding to reconsecrate it as a synagogue was successfully raised in the early 1980s.

We visited the mikveh which was discovered much later. The baths had been tiled over in the years since WWII and the architectural designs had long since been lost, but being an orthodox synagogue, it was known there had to be a mikveh somewhere. Just off to one side and just barely, as far as I could tell, within the property of the synagogue.

At this point there’s enough of a community in and around Groningen to justify services twice per month. I don’t remember the number precisely, but of a pre-War population of over 3000, something less than 50 returned. From what I gather, the synagogue in Leiden (which I’ve never visited, and which does not share a welcoming sandwich board with tour hours on a Sunday morning) also has services only about twice per month. The liberal synagogue in the Hague is a little more community-facing with weekly services, but I’ve only visited that one once as well.

Rachel commented that it would have been great to share the Groningen venue with my folks when they last visited. Perhaps next time.