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Antisemitism in the Shadow of the Holocaust

avatar by Rochie Farkash

Opinion

The entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

My earliest memory of the word “Holocaust” was a bedtime story that my mother told us soon after giving birth to her fifth child, my baby sister.

I remember the strangeness of this new word, Holocaust; it had a certain gravity to it, a certain heft.

What’s a Holocaust we asked? There was a hesitation. I can only now imagine my mother wondering if we were too young to know. My mother, though, believed in honesty.

She started with the fact that she never had grandparents. She continued, “in fact, you all had a very large family once upon a time, great aunts, uncles, cousins — wonderful people who lived a beautiful life together in a place called Hungary.”

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“What happened to them,” we asked, alarmed. Our mother seemed suddenly different; a minute ago she was just our regular mom. Now, she seemed mysterious, apart — even frightening.

We didn’t get a play by play that day, but we did get a whole bunch of new words: concentration camps, Nazis, gas chambers, and Auschwitz.

We got a whole bunch of new feelings, too: loss, pain, and helplessness, to name a few.

I remember sitting with this new knowledge as my mother transferred our tiny baby sister to her shoulder gently patting her back — an unknowing witness to this loss of innocence.

Our education continued, with an ominous green book in the basement — Images of the Holocaust. We used to pour over the black and white photos of emaciated bodies and skeletons, piled carelessly into mountains of death. Naked women, standing in line, some cradling infants, bare wooden bunks crammed with skin and bones inmates, barefoot and filthy in their blue and white striped Auschwitz uniforms.

There were also pictures of well-known Nazis; my heart would start beating faster at the picture of Irma Grese, known as the Hyena of Auschwitz, for her particular brand of cruelty, something having to do with a raw hide whip. She wore a plaid skirt, frilly white blouse, and knee high black boots; she was only 22 years old.

I would imagine my sweet sisters coming before her, and would wonder if their beauty and charm could have possibly won her over.

My grandfather — an Auschwitz survivor — never spoke to us about the Holocaust. The last time he saw his father, he was going to the left of the line as my grandfather, the baby of the family, was directed to the right. His father was looking at him steadily, already beginning to murmur what my grandfather later realized was most likely the Vidhi — the confession prayer said before death.

The only thing I ever heard my grandfather say about his time in the concentration and death camps was on a Shabbat afternoon, when he saw a piece of bread and butter on the table.

“Ah, what we would have done for a piece of bread and butter in Auschwitz.”

Growing up in Seattle, I don’t remember experiencing any antisemitism, although I believe my father did. It wasn’t until I went to an all-girls yeshiva in Pittsburgh, at the tender age of 13, that I had my first run in. We stood out as we walked in our pleated skirts and cardigans. More than once, local teens threw pennies at us, miming pretend sneezes, and shouting “Jew, Jews.”

My own sons experienced this same bewildering heckling of being called “Jew boy,” among other things. And we all know people experienced antisemitism in the 20th century that was far worse than this.

But now — in 2021 — things feel different.

The howling for Jewish blood is deafening, a virtual pogrom is playing out on social media –while the world, along with so many who claim to care about peace and human rights, just sits idly by. The double standard, the silence, it just feels different.

I was never afraid growing up. I believed the Holocaust was the worst of it. I believed we were the new world, a better world. Now I think “Et Tu, Brute? You too, America?”

The trepidation I feel — this pit in my stomach — is not fear for myself, for my sons, or even for the Jewish people.

The real dread I feel is for America — the land of the free, the home of the brave — the country my grandparents were so grateful for. Will you let us down America, country of our dreams? Will you lose yourself to false prophets, serving up stale, tasteless tropes of hatred and contempt for Jewish life? Or will you stand strong, and fall on the right side of history?

Only time will tell; but Jews have every reason to be concerned.

Rochie Farkash is Co-Director of the Eastside Torah Center-Chabad in Bellevue WA. She is a proud mother of seven children.

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