Life after horror
It’s often startling how the Jewish Standard seems to develop themes, almost on its own.
Some weeks, many or even most of the local stories focus on one issue — sometimes it’s inclusion, sometimes stigma, sometimes politics, or work, or relationships, or Eastern Europe, or a whole range of other subjects.
Sometimes it’s logical — the holidays elicit stories about themselves, unsurprisingly — but at other times it’s not.
I don’t know why this week’s focus is on the Holocaust and its long-term affects. There’s no particular commemoration — yes, International Holocaust Day is at the end of the month, but that’s a few weeks off, and that day never has the emotional depth and heft of Yom HaShoah anyway.
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There’s certainly enough else going on around us. The political world seems to be imploding; as I write this, it’s not clear if we’ll ever have a speaker of the House, but it is entirely obvious that being in Congress this session would feel like being a patient in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Politics in Israel are likely to prove dangerously divisive in the United States. We have a great deal of ugliness ahead.
The message from the Holocaust stories, though, oddly, is something else.
It’s about the life that follows devastation.
It’s not that people bounce back unscathed. They’re deeply scathed. Deeply scarred. Their pain becomes part of their DNA, and it’s passed down through generations.
But still, somehow, despite living through horrors that make me cry just to read about them, despite their losing so many family members and friends to unhinged evil, so many of the survivors managed to make themselves lives that included — that still include — joy. Not only joy, but also joy.
I often think of Eta Wrobel, a Holocaust survivor who lived in Fort Lee and died in 2008. She was short and stout; she was warm, a great storyteller, a generous host. She gave a great interview.
She was also one of the most powerful people I’ve ever met. She radiated strength, in a way that is hard to describe but was impossible to miss. She’d passed as a Pole to work as a spy at the beginning of the war, joined the partisans in the woods after nearly being captured — but not before she’d gathered and passed on important information. After the war, she’d returned home to become mayor of her town — remember, she was a woman, at a time when that was not a recommendation for public office — and then left when the Soviets came and made clear that they were going to take her to Russia for some mayoral training.
Yeah, right, she decided.
She, her husband, and their baby escaped to Vienna and then came to New York, where they lived prosperous lives and became the head of a large, multigenerational family.
A week or so after the story came out, I met a man at a lighting store whose thick accent prompted me, I have no idea why, to ask him if he read the Standard, and once he said yes, to ask him about Eta. It turns out that they’d met in Vienna, and that she’d had to escape her town because she had decided to mete out justice to collaborators in her town. She’d done it successfully, he said, but it put a price on her head.
I have no idea if that story is true, but it made sense, given the power of the woman I’d met.
Eta told me that she loved going to smachot, that she loved to dance, and that she’d always be the last person up on the dance floor.
In other words, the horror she’d lived through made her want to live, and she did.
That’s the message that the exhibit about the DP camps, and the other Holocaust stories we’re publishing this week, make clear. Evil isn’t something that allows you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. Pain doesn’t just say goodbye and go. But there’s something about the will to live — and in these cases, to live Jewishly — that evil did not eradicate.