January 27, 2009

As the world commemorates International Holocaust Day, one Israeli-American reveals how for her, the Holocaust remains a constant companion.
Yotvata is the 24-hour cafe next door to my hotel and my second home in Tel Aviv in the wee hours of the morning when I can’t sleep. It’s a dairy restaurant, a chain, with all the milk coming from Kibbutz Yotvata near Eilat, established in 1957.

The young adults who work here are saving for their post-military dance-a-thons in Goa, India, treks in Nepal, beach parties in Thailand and rainforest off-roading in South America. This morning, the new one asks me if I want some Holocaust with my shakshuka, a glorious hot pot of tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggs and spices. I tell her its ok to leave it off, I’ve had enough Holocaust.

Except it turns out she was practicing American style politeness where you seek approval for things that already are and can only be.

I figure this since she brings my side order of Holocaust anyway, saying that it comes with the shakshuka. I tell her not to put it down that I will change my order in that case to an Israeli breakfast. She says not to bother, for the Holocaust comes on the side with every dish, with every meal, with every customer, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for the past 60 years. If I want to eat here in my beloved cafe so close always open so good and always fast I must accept it.

And that’s how it is here in Israel.

The Holocaust comes as a side to absolutely everything. You can’t say “Hold the Holocaust.” You can’t get around or get over it. You can’t avoid it, reject it or deny it. If you want to live here that is, truly live and not be a tourist.

The bi-coastal techie

Uzi. That’s his name. You know like the submachine gun. The “Uzi” was named after Uziel Gal, a captain in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) who designed it during the 1948 war. And this name, Uzi, was and is a common one here. So it’s the man’s name that came first. It’s not like the Israelis started naming their children after a submachine gun.

In the year since the passing of his father, Uzi has been on a mission to find his missing uncle. You see, it was known that this uncle had escaped from the Nazis and was alive after the war and resettled in Israel just like Uzi’s father. This uncle was known to be the only person from his father’s family who also survived the Holocaust. It’s just that for reasons left unsaid, and hence unknown, his father chose not to search for his brother. So out of respect for his father’s wishes, Uzi waited. He waited 33 years until his father died and he could start the search himself for his uncle. Uzi hoped he wasn’t too late.

The Israeli classic

Bald, hot, bright, alpha-male, works hard during the day moving money around the globe. He likes to “live the good life” as he puts it. This includes chatting it up and drinking on the beaches of Tel Aviv at night. He’s not so laid back as you would think, however. He’s German. For those not in the know, there used to be a large and thriving German Jewish population? in Germany of course.

Before the war, Germany was a bustling cultural and commercial center for Jews. Liberalism in worshipping practices accompanied a revival of Jewish literature and modern Jewish scholarship. Reform Judaism, the type I practice, was invented to allow “enlightened” Jews to continue to take part in Jewish traditions without having to believe in the literal interpretation of the Torah. From the mid-1800s until the Nazis arrived, Jews enjoyed close to legal equality with other Germans. Great fortunes arose from banking in families such as the Rothschilds, the Warburgs and the Schiffs.

Our Israeli came from one of these banking families, under whose guidance money was moved around the globe, before the war. His grandfather moved to the land of Israel out of Zionist passion. He told his fiancé that he would get settled and send for her, once his finances arrived. His finances never came and the woman was never seen nor heard of again. Eventually the grandfather married another woman and raised a family.

I think how proud of his grandson this man must be now, for our Israeli has grown up big and strong and is once again continuing the family tradition of moving money around the globe.

The peacemaker

Intensity is the hallmark trait of the former New York Yeshiva boy turned Middle East kingpin for peace. His soft-spoken style and gentle manner belies a consuming drive and high ambition. He runs a website that promotes conversations between Jews and Palestinians, along with anyone else who wants to talk peace. He meets with government ministers, speaks at conferences, coordinates rallies and speaks out against violence. He immigrated to Israel four years ago and has 20 more to go before reaching his goal of Middle East Peace.

His grandmother was living with her family in a small town in Europe when the trouble began. Her father was shot and killed. When the Nazis came for the rest of the family, her mother’s quick thinking saved her life. As the Nazis divided the Jews of the town into those whose labor made them worth keeping, and those whose lives were not considered valuable, this 16-year-old girl was initially shoved into the wrong line along with her mother and little sister. Her mother pushed her back and said to the Nazi: “Please sir, someone needs to cook and care for him”, pointing towards her older brother who was in the right line. It worked and her life was spared.

She ended up hiding out with an older man who would later become her husband in a hole dug out of the ground for the duration of the war. Eventually, they immigrated to New York City, where they built a clothing business together. But his grandfather always wanted to come to Israel. So at age 90, three years ago, he made the move.

Bless him, this Nazi. For his decision to allow one girl to move into the right line begot a daughter who writes about children of Holocaust survivors, and a grandson who promotes peace.

The party-boy

He has been spotted at every major party I’ve been to in Tel Aviv for the past six months. His flamboyant hats and mischievous grin are impossible to miss. The consummate flirt from Texas, I took him for a rather casual character.

Recently, I discovered that The Partier organizes parties as a volunteer side job with his day role being running a start up. He told me that these parties are fundraisers for Holocaust survivors. In other words, scanty clad young Israelis and associated travelers go drinking, dancing, smoking, kissing, hooking up and generally “carrying on” as my grandfather would put it, all in the name of Holocaust survivors?

Don’t get me wrong, there is no time that is a bad time to raise funds for such a worthy cause. It just seemed??.off. So I asked him if he knew any Holocaust survivors. “Yeah,” he said. “My family. At least those that survived.”

The Tel Avivian

The Tel Avivian has two Jewish parents but adamantly denies he is a Jew. He has lived in Israel his whole life but adamantly denies he is a Zionist. He dislikes Silicon Valley but stayed there long enough to receive funding and an exit that fuels his daily afternoons at the beach. He told me more about his experiences in a military intelligence unit than I know he should have told me so I have forgotten them.

Our Tel Avivian has a family that appears to have materialized only mid-century. Nothing before. He has four grandparents. All alive. Each arrived after the war. Alone. There is a word used for these Holocaust orphans but I cannot find it. Many had to be smuggled into Israel on ships, sneaking by the naval blockade set up by our wonderful British friends who didn’t seem to see that there was something truly inhuman about stopping Holocaust survivors from getting to Israel after the war.

The Tel Avivian can talk to me about just about anything, although mostly we end up on topics few Americans would consider discussing with anyone other than their therapist. He can tell me how each of his grandparents picked up shovels and literally built this country from scratch. But he cannot talk to me about these four individuals’ lives prior to their arrival in Israel. I do not know where they are from, or what happened to their families. At this point, I like it better that way.

Imagine living and working with, not the ancestors, but the close relatives of those individuals headlining at Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem museum and memorial to the Holocaust. Not the overwhelming unknown unidentified blur of six million Jews, but people whom you know and love.

The citizens of Israel don’t talk about the Holocaust the way I do. The Holocaust for most of the Ashkenazi Jews here is about “my father”, or “my grandmother’s whole family”, or “both of my parents’ families” or “only my mother and her sister”. It’s about “he came here alone”.

Imagine living in a city where the same people in those photos at Yad Vashem, those who were children and teenagers at the time, materialize right in front of you in the wee morning hours as you walk along the Tayelet (Tel Aviv’s three mile long beachfront promenade) with their Philippine aides. If they are at least 70 years old and Ashkenazi looking, chances are probably better than 50-50 that they weren’t in the land of Israel soon enough.

Try to remove the Holocaust from your life in Israel. Go ahead. I dare you. Learning to live with the Holocaust is a critical aspect of learning to live in Israel. And perhaps that is a contributing, unspoken factor for why so many who come here – go home again.

Of the five men profiled, Uzi, the party-boy and the peacemaker are real individuals, while the Tel Avivian and an Israeli classic are real but are each composites of two individuals.

The views expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of ISRAEL21c.

More on Blog

Fighting for Israel's truth

We cover what makes life in Israel so special — it's people. A non-profit organization, ISRAEL21c's team of journalists are committed to telling stories that humanize Israelis and show their positive impact on our world. You can bring these stories to life by making a donation of $6/month. 

Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

Read more: