How Europe’s history seduced its Jews

How Europe’s history seduced its Jews

The old Jewish Cemetery in Prague — a metaphor for Jewish history in Europe.
The old Jewish Cemetery in Prague — a metaphor for Jewish history in Europe.

As the child of two Holocaust survivors, I am always troubled by this not-very-simple question: Why didn’t my parents just run away? Why the hell didn’t everybody just run away?

My mother’s sister’s future husband left Poland; instead of Auschwitz, he slaved in the salt mines of Russia, eventually finding his way to Israel. Why not my parents? Why not everyone?

Like all not-so-simple questions, there were several simple answers proffered to me over the years — all perfectly true, perfectly understandable, but unsatisfying. 

“We lived in a different world — no radio, no electricity. We still used outhouses!” my late father once told me. “If we ever got a newspaper it was weeks old by the time we got it and half missing anyway. Probably from having been used in the outhouse!”

My mother was a child, barely a teen, and simply had to do what everyone else in her family was doing. Her family stayed, so she stayed, and was eventually deported from Sighet, Rumania, in March 1944 (in the same transport that included Elie Wiesel) — she was interned in Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen until the liberation in April 1945 — but my father was a fit young man in his late teens with a keen eye that had long been fixed on the United States.

My father’s father, a farmer and builder, strong and ramrod straight even into his 70s, dismissed the entreaties of his brother-in-law, a successful immigrant to the United States. Uncle Abe traveled home to Eastern Europe just before the war. “Now is the time to leave,” he begged my grandfather, “before things get worse.”

“And what do I do in America, at my age?” my grandfather asked. “Here I make a living. There I’m just a burden to my children.”

Four of my father’s nine living siblings did leave with Uncle Abe and with Grandfather’s blessing. My father stayed behind. Then the war began and America was out of the question. 

There had already been one close call in 1943. A thousand or so people in Bilke (part of Czechoslovakia when my father was born, it became part of Hungary in 1943; it is now in Ukraine) had been rounded up, my father and his family among them.

They had been taken to the railroad siding under the guise of a recently enacted Hungarian law that demanded deportation of any persons not able to substantiate their citizenship for several generations. Only Jews were rounded up — but they were saved by the courage of a local priest who swore he knew the parentage and citizenship of each and every one of them. 

Refusing to wait for another close call, a friend of my father’s fled, gone to Russia, perhaps, although what became of him is entirely unknown to us. Whatever his fate, at least he met it on his feet. He begged my father to go with him. 

Why didn’t my father escape? Why didn’t everyone?

“We didn’t know, not really,” he would tell me. “Nobody really knew how bad things were.” But there were wild-eyed escapees and deserting soldiers passing through who saw, who knew, who said in no uncertain terms what was, at least to my father’s young ears, just crazy, impossible. Jews by then were being rounded up again, and this time taken away. 

My father refused to believe what sounded like the ravings of the insane. “People seemed to think we would be sent to a work camp; that’s what I thought.” Such a camp would not be very dissimilar to the Czech Army work camp he visited to bring food and supplies to one of his brothers. “I believed,” said my father, “we all believed we would stay together as a family. I thought I could do the work; I’d help my parents, my brothers, and sisters survive.”

When he was finally forced on the train that would take him to his imprisonment in Auschwitz and Birkenau, the sliding boxcar door seared into my father’s mind the reality that before had seemed insane. The look of it, the smell of it, an instant understanding: This was no work camp, this was no family camp. Few would get out alive. 

A few years ago, I was preparing a presentation for a group of middle school students in the Bronx. One of the teachers I was working with asked me to talk about my parents’ experiences as survivors, which I had done a few times before. In such talks, I mostly avoid the actual experiences they had in “the camps” and speak mainly of their lives before the war and after. 

I was asking myself the same old question when I suddenly realized what I had actually seen in Prague’s Jewish Quarter the year before, when I had gone to visit my son, who was spending a semester abroad. 

In the Old Jewish Cemetery, ancient stones lean against each other. The grooved carvings washed nearly smooth by weather, by time, by the darkening of age, ghostly dominos waiting to fall one onto the other. In an area originally designated for 1,000 graves in the late 1500s, 12,000 stones now weigh down the dirt above the leveled coffins of what may be many thousands more. 

After years of peace and freedom for the Jews of Bohemia, the reign of Maria Theresa in the 18th century brought with it a royal shift. The Jewish Quarter became the Jewish Ghetto. New laws forbade Jews from acquiring more land. The Jews of Prague dug their graves deeper, burrowed in, their adaptability reflected in the layers upon layers of ancient lives joining their progenitors. It would not be until 1890 that a large, new cemetery could be opened which would eventually receive the bones of such modern Jews as Franz Kafka. 

That Old Jewish Cemetery, I realized, was also a metaphor for Jewish history in Europe. I’d seen etchings of the expulsion from Spain and sketches of pogroms in Russia, and remembered the ghettos of Venice, the mass movements from country to country, the royal shifts and ordinary everyday struggles, the English expulsion. It occurred to me, suddenly, that the entire history of the Jews in Europe could be summed up with seven little words: Things get bad, but then they get better.

In that moment I think I finally understood, with a sigh, that this is perhaps in the DNA of my parents and Jews all throughout Europe, if not the world, all throughout history. This is why they stayed; this is why they all stayed: Things get bad, but then they get better.

How bad things could get my father could not have then imagined. Perhaps today, confronted with the same choices, in this changed world, he might have left. Perhaps they all would.

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