Jerusalem and Babylon / Keeping Hitler out
A week before the Gulf War broke out in January 1991, my grandparents called my mother from their home in Milan and begged her to come with all her children and stay with them until the war's end. They would pay all the airfares. In the diary I kept at the time, I wrote rather indignantly, "my parents didn't come on aliyah to run away at the first sign of danger."
Naturally I was pleased by their refusal, and I still believe they made the right decision. But looking back today on my musings as an uncouth 17-year-old, I understand my grandparents a lot better and realize that they were only doing their duty as they saw it.
My grandmother, Gerti Tenenbaum, died Saturday morning in Milan. I admit we did not have the closest of relationships; we lived in different countries and did not share a fluent language. But even my mother and her siblings did not know many details of her childhood, spent with her family in Hitler's Berlin until 1939 and afterward as refugees, often in hiding in Italy and Switzerland.
They heard even less from my grandfather about his personal experiences in occupied Poland: the series of ghettos, labor camps and finally the little-known Gusen 2 Camp in Austria, known by its few survivors as "the hell of hells," the very last Nazi concentration camp to be liberated by the allies in May 1945. Almost all his family knows about his Holocaust story today is from the five-hour interview he gave the Spielberg Project 11 years ago.
I will probably never know whether they actually decided between themselves not to tell their children, so as not to overshadow their childhoods with the terror that had replaced their own. But I know that was my grandparents' mission in life. I also don't know why my grandfather gave up his plan to board a ship for Palestine in an Italian port and instead stayed in Milan for the last 63 years. I only know that from the moment he met my grandmother there and took her on their first date, to the movies, all they had in their lives was each other, and later, their five children. Never mind religion and ideology, professional and financial success; that was their sole purpose - keeping their family together. The past was not to intrude and deflect them from their only objective.
They did not even want to become obsessed with hatred toward the nation that had murdered my grandfather's parents and his seven brothers and sisters. They had a Volkswagen; my grandfather had business dealings with Germans; and they even traveled back to Berlin to see my grandmother's birthplace. Once, my grandmother heard one of my cousins make a disparaging comment about the Germans. "Stop talking like that," she said crossly, "I am also German."
Actually, she may have been born in Berlin, but her family was Polish. She was not brought up on Goethe and Bach; she was just trying to erect a wall around her family that no past sadness, fear or hatred could ever penetrate.
The last time I saw her was almost two years ago, at Ben-Gurion Airport. She and my grandfather were flying back to Milan after a family visit; I was heading to Berlin for work purposes. She wrote down the name of the street on which she had lived, not concealing her satisfaction that her grandson was going back there as a guest of the German government.
On Shabbat, after he was told of his wife's death, my grandfather finally allowed himself to reconnect. "I lost so much in my life, all my family, and was never able to sit shiva for any of them," he said. "Now I will finally have a grave that I can cry on."
Twenty-eight years ago this week, Israel Air Force F-16s attacked and destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad. Most of prime minister Menachem Begin's cabinet and advisors were opposed to the operation, but Begin pressed ahead. When he explained his decision afterward, he said, "we have to defend our nation, after one and a half million of our children were exterminated by the Nazis in the gas chambers in the Second World War."
The Holocaust never ended for Begin, who escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, arriving in Palestine three years later via a Soviet labor camp and Poland's Anders Army. In his six years as prime minister, he never ceased feeling that it was his personal mission to ensure that a second Holocaust never took place. When he sent the Israel Defense Forces into its disastrous occupation of Beirut, he likened PLO chieftain Yasser Arafat to "Hitler in his bunker."
In this, Benjamin Netanyahu, despite belonging to a different generation, is Begin's successor. When talking about the Iranian nuclear threat in recent years, he has used a stark historical analogy: "It is 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs." To his credit, however, he has stopped making this comparison in speeches since his elevation to the premiership.
For many of us - survivors, members of the second and third generations, and even those who have no family connection - the Holocaust is seldom out of our minds. It is unavoidable, and the Holocaust naturally occupies a huge space in education, culture and research.
Nevertheless, its banishment from political and diplomatic discourse is long overdue. This is not just because of the long list of reasons why there is really no comparison to Israel's current situation vis-a-vis Iran, but also because of the harm this continues to cause us as a society. The strategic challenges still confronting Israel are grave enough without bringing the Holocaust into it and inflicting existential fears upon yet another generation of Israelis.
Netanyahu's speech at Bar-Ilan University on Sunday, despite all the media hype, may indeed turn out to be a historic occasion. Dragging Hitler and the six million into it would only detract from its significance.