I can picture it now: our family sitting around the kitchen table, our parents across from their nine year old twinset. My sister, Alexandra, had asked what the “Holocaust” was after hearing the word at school, and our parents decided it was time for “the talk,” a ritual of many American Jewish households. Desperate to prove to them that we are ready for a grown up conversation, we do our best to sit still and practice proper posture. For 45 minutes, our parents reveal to us one of the most evil events in human history: the Holocaust. Our dad speaks first, alternating eye contact between Alexandra and me. His words rest like shrapnel in my heart. My first instinct is to run from the images behind them. I seek comfort by forcing myself to generate soothing thoughts. “This didn’t happen to anyone I know,” I tell myself. “It was so long ago.” It doesn’t take much time before this imaginary shield is punctured, and I am forced to acknowledge the reality of their agonizing words. This happened to my own relatives. This happened not lifetimes ago, but just eight years before Dad was born. This feels like a nightmare, yet I am astutely aware it is real. My heart pounds out of my chest. I am desperate for an escape. I want my parents to take it all back, to say they got it wrong. I just want this story to end, to be relieved of this onslaught of torturous information.
My life has unfolded in countless ways through the power of my Jewish identity. As far back as I can remember, my family has instilled in me a love of our traditions and heritage through dinner conversations and bedtime talks. Those conversations were far ranging: sometimes they involved the meaning of words and melodies of ancient prayers; other times, they centered on lessons to be gleaned from Torah stories. We spoke about Israel, its founding, its accomplishments, and the struggles of its messy, complex existence. We discussed themes of morality and social obligation and how they color our traditions. The essence of these discussions has remained with me, but the sting of that first Holocaust revelation stands out because it represents my first loss of innocence. The admission by my parents that our world is broken and they alone cannot fix it was shattering. The beautiful imagery and heroes through which I had viewed my identity—Moses, David and Golda Meir, flowers blossoming in the desert, the sweet taste of apples and honey on New Year’s—would be forever mingled with visions of crematoria and gas chambers that I could not eradicate. My view of the world would never be the same.
In my search to grasp the Holocaust, I have met with survivors—people who went on to build lives and families, who found optimism and purpose after losing everything. I despair that despite the lessons humanity could have learned, cruelty in the world seems to be a constant. The survivors are a small antidote to the sense of helplessness and loss that comes with my struggle to comprehend. My response to them can only be a vow to remember and a promise to retell their stories in a world that quickly forgets, along with a commitment to fight against hatred in all forms.
That night at the kitchen table will forever affirm my identity as a Jew and my place in the world. It is my Jewish identity that has inspired my engagement in organizations that seek to fight anti-Semitism, intolerance, and ism’s of every kind. Long before conversations about privilege, I was aware of how easily I could have been born in Berlin and not Bryn Mawr. I understand that as a Jew, my responsibility extends to all; and that when any group is unsafe, we are all unsafe.