Four or five years ago, I was spending a sunny Sunday in the Miami Metro Zoo, content to just be tall, dark and handsome for a day without wearing my Jewishness on my sleeve. A man about seventy, Italian-American in appearance and inflection, approached me and asked if he could share something with me for a moment. We sat down on a bench and this is the story he told.
"I was drafted into the United States Army at the end of World War Two but actual combat had ended before we shipped out. They sent us to Berlin in early 1946 as part of the force that policed Germany in the postwar phase and oversaw its reconstruction. When our unit arrived, they took us to our sleeping quarters and gave us a nice meal. Then, before we were given any assignments, we were brought into a large room that had been set up as a makeshift theater with a large screen on the front wall. There were Army men stationed along the wall; each one had a mop and a bucket.
"When we were seated, the lights went out and a film began to play on the screen. They showed us footage of concentration camps being liberated, of living skeletons tottering around, of corpses in gigantic piles, horrors beyond what any of us could imagine. One by one, we all got up and staggered into the aisles to retch. That's what the mops and buckets were for; those guys were used to this; they just went through the aisles mopping.
"Then a Colonel got up at the front of the room and announced: 'Now you know what these animals are, go out and treat them like they deserve.' I never told this to anyone before but I saw you were Jewish so I had to tell you." So much for suave and debonair Jay, citizen of the world. If the enemy knows I am a Jew, better that my friend knows, too.
I FIRST LEARNED OF THE HOLOCAUST at age seven. It was 1965, and the press was documenting the twentieth anniversary of Victory-Europe Day. The Sunday Times Magazine devoted a special pictorial issue to the occasion, replete with the images of brutality. I asked my father to explain it, and he filled me in a little.
Later that very day, we went to his father's house, and I watched together with my Grandpa as hours of documentary film was shown. One image I could never shake: some kind of a ramp angled into a mass grave, with Jewish bodies being loaded on top and then sliding down the chute to land in an anonymous mass of human rubble.
For me, that was the end of the innocence.
IT WAS NOT UNTIL LATE IN HER LIFE, circa 1985, that my mother's mother told me her story. I knew that she had a slight accent, but I also knew she had graduated from high school in the Bronx in 1939, hardly a midlife immigrant. And I knew her six living brothers and sisters. As a child, we had gone to visit her mother, ninetyish and mostly senile, in a nursing home somewhere in Brooklyn. Now she was getting older and I already had children of my own; she was ready to talk.
"We lived in a small town we called Freestag, near Neusanz, in the part of Poland known as Galicia. We were nine kids, six boys and three girls. My father was a stockbroker in the Bourse in Cracow. He would come home by train Friday for the weekend, always with a little trinket for the girls, then head back on Sunday afternoon. He was very alert to the political situation and he decided to get out when Hitler was elected in Germany in 1933. He went to America by himself. Within two years, he was successful enough that he sent visas for my mother and all the kids.
"My two eldest brothers, Joseph and Herschel, were married already and chose not to leave. They were killed later, along with wives and children. My mother went to a Hassidic rabbi known as the Koleschitzer, a grandson of Rabbi Chaim of Sanz, and asked if she should go. He told her the Nazis were a great power ('grosser macht') and if she was fortunate enough to have visas she should go. 'Will my children remain Jews in America?' she asked. Not to worry, he said. So my mother and the seven of us came. Someday, if it's possible, I hope you could see to it someone is named after my brothers.
"My late husband, your grandfather, would send visas to his relatives as soon as he could make enough money where the State Department let him sign the affidavits guaranteeing their support. In the end, he only could save his two brothers, and he always felt guilty he had not managed to save uncles and cousins who perished."
HOLOCAUST DENIERS HAVE GATHERED IN IRAN for a conference hosted by the government, presided over by this fiend Ahmadinejad. For a sovereign nation to take such a step is unimaginable. For its leaders to speak freely in the United Nations, flitting about New York City without incident or protest, is inconceivable. For that entity to be declaring its intent to destroy Israel and repeat this hellish crime is unfathomable.
And for it to be building nuclear weaponry without drawing a credible military challenge is unconscionable.
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