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August 19, 2022 1:36 pm
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Lessons for Ukrainian Refugees From My Holocaust Survivor Grandparents

avatar by Alex Teplish

Opinion

Emergency crew work amidst collapsed building site in Chuhuiv Town, Kharkiv, Ukraine, in this handout image obtained by REUTERS on July 16, 2022. State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Handout via REUTERS

The streets of Budapest are marked by stolpersteine (stumbling stones) and other memorials, recounting the names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust who once filled the streets. Today, thousands of Ukrainian refugees stumble along these stones.

As I walked along these streets and read the names of those who perished, my mind kept drifting between the past and present, from the stories of my grandparents’ survival through the Holocaust to my own circumstances that led me to volunteer with Ukrainian refugees. It was on the soil of Budapest, volunteering with Ukrainian refugees, that my life has come full circle.

I recently spent 11 days in Budapest, as part of a volunteer program operated by the Jewish Federations of North America, in partnership with the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Hundreds of refugees arrived at our facility with nearly no funds or supplies, traumatized by their recent experiences, and confused. Every so often, we received a group of elderly and children with special needs, who required individual and unique attention. We helped the refugees register and settle into their rooms. We organized activities and weekly Sabbath gatherings that brought everybody together — Jews and non-Jews alike — for a feeling of community, calm, and rest.

One young girl, no more than 7-years-old, offered to bring me a dessert during dinner as a gesture of gratitude. At that moment, my family’s own history flashed in my mind.

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I could see an image of my grandparents — though in very different circumstances — receive a piece of food from a stranger. I pictured myself as a young boy, having just arrived in the United States, receiving a warm welcome from the community that had already been established there during a different era.

My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, suffering at the hands of the Romanian and Nazi occupiers, but especially from local collaborators. They had watched their parents and youngest siblings perish from starvation and disease. Somehow, they resumed their lives amidst the ongoing state sanctioned antisemitism and hatred. Decades had passed since the Holocaust, and their children and grandchildren — my parents and I — were still living as second class citizens in the only country our family had ever known.

When the opportunity arose to leave for the United States, my family decided to take it. We knew it would be accompanied by immediate loss of work for my family, being branded traitors of the state, and a number of other scary unknowns that would follow, all while trying to keep this secret from our neighbors out of fear of additional repercussions. We became stateless and designated as refugees, as we made our way through Austria and Italy, hoping to resettle somewhere where our lives would finally be comfortable.

While I was too young to remember any of these experiences, my parents and grandparents made sure to share their stories so that I’d understand the great obstacles they overcame to give me and my descendants a better life. Aside from the negative and sad memories my grandparents shared with me, they also emphasized over and over that had it not been for random acts of kindness, they may not have survived.

Throughout my grandparents’ struggle to survive the Holocaust, they encountered individuals who tried to help with small gestures; offering a piece of bread, a small amount of milk, or even a suggestion to walk in a certain direction to avoid being murdered. My family was further aided during our immigration, beginning with the thousands of Jewish people who lobbied governments to pressure the Soviet Union to free us, followed by volunteers who donated and helped us along this path.

As I learned more about my family’s history and culture, the concept of Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) inspired me to help others whose lives were also uprooted for no other reason than their heritage or circumstances. Amidst the darkness, there are indeed moments of light that are ignited by countless acts of kindness.

Echoing my grandparents’ experience, I hope that one day, the refugees I helped will remember me, and pass on this kindness to another human being in need.

Humanity has not been able to rid itself of the evils from 80 years ago, when my grandparents suffered at the hands of the Nazis, or 40 years ago, when my parents and I turned our backs on the antisemitic forces in the Soviet Union, but it has come a long way. I believe that the words “Never Again” are still relevant today, and we must all be the stewards of this mission.

Through small acts of kindness by ordinary citizens, not only can we change the direction of people’s lives, but we can create a society that is built upon peace and loving-kindness.

Alex Teplish is an innovation and technology professional and the author of the graphic novel memoir and history book, “Survivor: Aron’s Story,” which was recently adapted into an interactive virtual museum. He lives in NYC.

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