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Zayda, the Holocaust, and the Future he Built

April 28, 2014

My mother’s father, Mr. Emerich (Yitzhak Isaac Hakohen) Schwartz, grew up in pre-war Hungary, and like the rest of his siblings, was a Holocaust survivor. We never new for certain how well he was into his eighties when he passed away eight years ago, but until the last two months, the fire of his youth burned strong within him. A baker by profession, he continued to work the graveyard shift in both the Florida bakery he worked in after his retirement, and at Franczos’s Bakery in Williamsburg whenever he came back to New York to visit. He had no fear of travelling alone at 4am on the subway across three boroughs. Nor did it make him tired, as every day, including the Friday morning after working all night, he was the first one in Shul in the morning.

He did not often to tell us what it was like during the dark times, but he was also not shy when he allowed my father to record his story for posterity. He was espescially proud of the time, when forced into slave labor by the Hungarian army, that he punched a proud German soldier square in the nose. The German, too humiliated by having his face broken by a Jew, did not have him punished. Zayda lived Jewish pride. After the war, he attempted to make his way to British-occupied Palestine, but the British, still reeling from the allied failure to allow the Germans to complete the destruction of European Jewry, detained my grandfather and other survivors in prison camps in Cyprus because the international Arab oil cartel did not and still does not want Jews to live safely in their homeland, the western powers who consume that oil didn’t want and still don’t want that to happen either.

Zayda lived in North America for more than fifty years after that. He raised an observant Jewish family, and lived to see his first great grandchild. When he passed away, I was overcome with the realization that he had been the last grandparent I had left, and that the rest of his generation was slowly disappearing. When I was a child, I remember that certain synagogues had many older men with numbers on their arms and stories on their minds. Now, I don’t see them anymore. The only survivors I know personally were the fortunate children who somehow managed to hide during the war, and their stories lack the observational maturity adult survivors had, the kind that allowed them to understand what was happening so that they could better relate it to the next generation. It is a secondary tragedy that the witnesses can not stick around forever, and with every passing day, we need them more than ever. Just like it is now considered en vogue among the scholarly types to question whether the Exodus really happened, or whether Haman was real, it is becoming acceptable to question the extent of the murders during the Holocaust, or to suggest that the nation of Israel was not faced with extermination in the days leading up to the Six Day War. The Holocaust reminds us that not only are there Hamans out there, sometimes they even have overwhelming success. God sends us Hurricane Katrinas and Sandys to show us that not only can he destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but he will do so again if necessary. The wicked can doubt and deny, but it will happen again. When I eulogized Zayda, comparing him to Joshua the High Priest, “the brand saved from the fire” (Zechariah 3:1-2) of the first Hurban, I had the Iranian threat in mind when I asked, “Why does it seem that the most vociferous deniers of the Holocaust are also the most vocal advocates of another one?”

As we start to take the State of Israel for granted, we risk making the same mistake our ancestors did the generation after the conquest of Canaan (Judges 2:7-15):

The people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work of the LORD, that He had wrought for Israel.  And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died, being a hundred and ten years old… And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers; and there arose another generation after them, that knew not the LORD, nor yet the work which He had wrought for Israel. And the children of Israel did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD… And they forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who brought them out of the land of Egypt… And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and He delivered them into the hands of spoilers..

Our generation can not afford to allow our enemies a measure of victory by our forgetting our own history and instead beginning to believe our enemies’ version of history, which begin with denying ancient history, continues with doubting the recent history, and culminates with delusional goals of peace with those that seek our destruction.

If we truly wish to honor those who lost their lives and those survivors who who gave us ours, we must strive to stand up for the principles and values they stood for: Jewish pride and continuity. (It goes without saying that both should be in the sprit of the Torah, or else it can not be claimed that they would be in any way Jewish.) Anything else would be allowing the bad guys to have won.

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