“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Elie Wiesel

Perseverance and Humanity: Timely Lessons from a Holocaust Survivor in Jerusalem

Last night, I attended a very special wedding in Jerusalem. Dasha is a Holocaust survivor who lives in NY. I met her at an event at NYU, but really befriended her when my friend Tanya and I insisted on escorting her from NYU’s Greenwich Village campus to its hospital, where she brought flowers to an ill friend. As I would learn, Dasha is always doing things to help other people.

Dasha’s family is from Poland, and like so many Jewish families in Europe, was hard-hit by the Holocaust. She had one son after the war, who moved to Jerusalem, where his 9 children (Dasha’s grandchildren) and their children (Dasha’s great-grandchildren) now live. Last night, the youngest of her 9 grandchildren stood under the wedding canopy. This was a very special moment, and Dasha is a very special woman. Although her son and his children are all Haredi, with men and women sitting on separate sections of the hall, all of the rabbis and other important guests made their way to the edge to the women’s section to congratulate Dasha, just as they have done at the other family celebrations I have been blessed to attend. They all know the pecking order, and Dasha is at the very top.

With all of her family in Israel, Dasha comes to Israel every year or two for visits, usually synchronized to coincide with the frequent weddings and bar mitzvahs. I usually love the opportunity to meet her at her hotel in Jerusalem, where she “holds court” to a seemingly endless stream of visitors and does what every Jewish grandmother does so well — tries to stuff us with food while excusing herself for not having enough to offer. This time though, I was worried.

This is obviously not the best time to plan a visit here, especially not for an octogenarian who spends most of her visits in Jerusalem, and East Jerusalem at that. So when I got a change to talk to Dasha, after wishing her a mazal tov and assuring her that I had a seat, plate and food on that plate, I asked her if she felt all right given the situation, and tried to insist that she not walk around by herself. Looking at Dasha’s face, I saw no fear. Those who know Dasha know that it is difficult if not impossible to faze this woman. She is physically diminutive — but her spirit is unmatched.

What I saw on Dasha’s face instead, was pain and sadness. She and I have had many conversations about religious extremism in general, and in the Israeli-Palestinian arena in particular. We both have personal interests in those subjects, and Dasha knows about my predilections for visiting Arab countries, yeshiva studies and academic study of Islam. Last night, she turned to me shaking her head in sadness and just expressed her utter bewilderment that such wanton evil, such unadulterated hatred, could be perpetrated in the name of religion. For someone who understands more than anyone how precious human life is, what she was witness to was nearly unfathomable.

As she has so many times before, Dasha once again inspired me last night. She gave me courage. Even as the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem was being closed down after yet another attempted stabbing, she was here in Jerusalem, celebrating the wedding of her ninth grandchild. There is perhaps no greater reassurance that, no matter how bad things may seem, we — Jews, Israelis, anyone who values human life — will persevere, than celebrating with a Jewish Holocaust survivor the wedding of her last grandchild, in Jerusalem.

What our attackers may not realize is that we as a people have been through so much worse than they could ever imagine. There is nothing to be thrown our way that will compare to what our people faced in Europe last century, and Israel rose from those ashes. It was failure to come to terms with the fact that we too have rights to and belong here, in Israel, that led to Israel’s War of Independence, and it was failure to come to terms with the fact that we are here to stay that led to us finally regaining full control over Jerusalem in 1967. They may further the chances for peace and reconciliation, and they put a knife in the back of the general state of coexistence that exists within Israel, but homicidal teenagers, Hamas fighters and PA leaders who lack the courage to fight incitement could never defeat us even if they could get on the same page for more than a few weeks of violence. We’ve seen and weathered worse to make it this far, and now that we’ve made it, we’re here to stay.

Dasha also exemplified a different lesson though. She showed no fear. And even if she felt any, she didn’t let it stop her from coming and attending the wedding. But she did feel pain. She expressed her distress at seeing violence, hate and radicalism in the name of religion. She asked, as she has so many times before, how children so young could be taught to hate.

Dasha has seen the worst, most unadulterated evil that society and human history have to offer. She has looked into the face of pure hatred, of the most virulent anti-Semitism and dehumanization — whose propaganda was only later translated and imported into the Arabic speaking world and other Muslim communities. She went through camps, lost family members, suffered through one of the darkest periods in human history, as a child. And she came out on the other side morally intact. With her humanity stronger than ever before. She never speaks in terms of hatred. Just of doing good, of helping people, anyone who is in need. She is strong and courageous and unbreakable, but she is also empathetic and caring. The Nazis took much from her. But they never got her humanity.

No matter how bad things get, for Israelis, for Palestinians, for Arabs, for Jews, for Muslims, no one here is going away. We can fantasize (I certainly do) about putting all of the extremists, the bigots, religious radicals, etc. into a box and shipping them off somewhere far away. But at the end of the day, we are all here to stay, and what religious and political leaders as well as we regular citizens need to do is to counter the messages of radicalization and extremism. I know I speak for my people when I say that we cannot and will not be defeated by any amount of violence or hatred. But to come out of the experience with your humanity intact — for something like that you need to be inspired by a Dasha.

Post courtesy of The Times of Israel

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