“Melody,” he told me, in his Polish-accented Hebrew, “I don’t know where I’m going when I die. I don’t believe in G-d since the Holocaust.”
He was blond with blue eyes from Poland. He had told us all about his long journey from Lodz to Siberia, and finally to Israel.
“I was in a breadline with a communist friend. Not Jewish,” he said. “We were waiting for hours. Then he called over a Nazi guard and told him I was Jewish. He blew my cover. I ran home and told my mom and younger brother I was leaving.”
He was 19 when he traveled on foot to Russia from Poland. He slept in barns, witnessed a man killing his own wife and son in order to feed himself, was saved from gun-wielding Russians by a dog, narrowly missed death by malaria by randomly running into an old friend who got him a job at a butter factory, and took much-needed R&R from cutting trees in Siberia’s snows by developing frostbite in one toe and getting kitchen duty instead, where he was able to live off of potato peals. He finally joined the Red Army to fulfill the one purpose that was keeping him alive: to see Hitler defeated.
“Saba, you’re 83 years old, and you have cancer,” I pleaded with him. By all logic, you shouldn’t be here, and I shouldn’t be here. You should have died long ago. That’s why I believe in G-d.”
He had moved to Israel after trying to return to Poland and finding his former neighbors in his old home, acting as if he had never lived there. He was Jewish by default, not by choice.
But my Saba was raised a Hassidic Jew. He wore sidecurls and a yarmulke and studied the Torah from the young age of three. What happened?
It was Hitler. He didn’t succeed in killing my grandfather’s body. But he had killed his soul, his desire to be Jewish, to be a light unto the nations, to be different, and to be proud.
I decided then and there that I had to be more Jewish. I couldn’t let Hitler win.
What does being Jewish mean? We learn that our ancestors, the Jewish slaves in Egypt, kept three things that set them apart: their names, their clothing, and their language. And because they kept these three things, they merited to be saved from slavery by Gd himself.
So I began focusing on the inner permanence of who I was, rather than my outer youth that couldn’t be trusted to stick around. I spent my Monday nights at Aish learning to pray rather than at Sephora trying on lipgloss.
Then I chose myself a Hebrew name. I was told that once you use your Hebrew name, a new part of your soul is revealed, and new aspects of your destiny will realize themselves. Once I changed my name I started on a path of personal transformation (also thanks to Tzipora Harris’s Clarity class) that made me ready to finally meet and marry my husband.
There is still a part of being Jewish that I have not fully come into, and that is language. In Israel my dormant Hebrew was revived and became fluent again. But, as with everything in Judaism, and being Jewish in general, a paradox exists. There is this modern Hebrew based on biblical Hebrew, that is considered to be the holy tongue, the pure language from which Gd created the world. It is a root language that has sprouted into all other languages.
And then there is its complement, Yiddish. A sprawling, hodgepodge language with no fixed grammar and a biting, sarcastic humor, it expresses the soul in all its yearnings, in all its trials and errors. It is made up primarily of German, which is itself an amalgam of nine other languages, and Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic languages. I can understand it, but I cannot speak it, because I just wouldn’t know where to begin. My guess is, if it came out wrong, it would be right, though anyone who overhears might correct me because it’s not the Yiddish they grew up with. It is a language we all make our own.
So I’m psyched that Yiddish is back, and that I can take classes in it at Aish on Monday nights. Click here to register: http://www.aishcenter.com/yiddish
I’ll probably need beginner’s level, but there’s intermediate as well.
Do you have a relative with a holocaust story? What is it? How does it connect you to your Yiddishkeit (that’s Yiddish for Jewishness)? Post it here in the comments below.