November in Canada was Holocaust education month, and over the last few weeks, the Holocaust was very much on my mind.
I spent hours every day looking at footage of the incessant bombing of Gaza: images of destruction, dead bodies, the seriously injured, parents wailing over the bodies of their dead children and the forced displacement of the Palestinian people — another chapter of the Nakba that started in 1948.
Even now, when I try to sleep at night I am haunted by the eyes of the surviving Palestinian children, full of fear and panic. Their ground has crumbled and what would have been their future is no longer. Fear will never leave them. What they experienced and saw can never be unseen.
These images take me back to my childhood where there was an omnipresent fear of impending doom, a world that was unsafe and the needling sense that your parents could not protect their children as parents should. Although as a child, I personally did not have firsthand experience of the horrors of war, my parents did.
My parents were both Holocaust survivors. My mother was from Poland and my father from Lithuania. Each of their respective war experiences were worse than the other, based on a scale of the unimaginable.
My mother was incarcerated days after the war began, working in labour camps and moving from one concentration camp to another, then the death march, and finally Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Her husband was murdered in Buchenwald on the last day of the war.
War came to Lithuania in 1941. My father, his wife and two children were imprisoned in the Shavl ghetto and became slave labourers. The conditions were harsh and cruel, and everyone had to make do with the little they had.
On November 5, 1944, he and all the Jews from the ghetto returned from their work to find that most of their children (570) were rounded up in a kinder aktion, taken to Auschwitz and murdered. His daughter, my sister, was one of them; his son, my brother, somehow was not. I do not know the details but at 11 years old, he either was old enough to be at work or he managed to hide during the roundup.
A year later, when the ghetto was razed, my father, his wife and his son were deported to the concentration camp, Stutthof. That was the last time my father saw his family. His son was immediately transferred to Auschwitz and presumably murdered, and his wife died, days after the war ended.
All the Lithuanian men were sent to Dachau where they were slave labourers building an underground bunker to house German fighter jet planes. Their job was to mix and carry cement for 10-to-12-hour shifts each day, while being fed 250 calories a day: the life expectancy of a Dachau prisoner averaged four months. The living and working conditions were inhumane, and by 1944, typhus was an epidemic.
Fearing the advance of the Allies, in the last week of April 1945, the Nazis began the evacuation of Dachau. On April 27, most of the Jewish prisoners/slaves, 7,000-10,000, were forced to walk towards the Austrian border where they were supposed to build a bunker to protect Hitler’s summer home. Once completed, they were going to be killed. My father was one of them.
Dressed in threadbare striped uniforms, many barefoot and with no food, they walked 10-15 hours a day in unseasonably cold and wet weather. More than half the Jewish slave/prisoners died or were killed during the Death March. My father somehow survived.
He lost everything: his wife, his children, his brothers and sisters and their children, and his mother. He lost his home. After the war ended, he wanted to emigrate to the US where he had siblings who left Lithuania around the time that he was born, but the United States border was closed to the majority of Jews.
Desperate to leave Europe, his only other option was to try and illegally enter Palestine, then under British Mandate. His attempt to enter Palestine failed and the British sent him to a Displaced Persons camp in Cyprus. There he met my mother, they got married and when the state of Israel was established in May 1948, they made a home in Jaffa, Tel Aviv.
A displaced persons camp in Cyprus after World War II.
Jaffa, the largest city in historic Palestine, had a population of more than 80,000. With the establishment of the state of Israel, 95 per cent of the Arab population was forcibly and cruelly displaced and their homes were given to the many thousands of new Jewish immigrants. My parents settled in one of these homes.
From what I understand, my father never had a burning desire to live in Israel. Frustrated by the continuous fighting and a currency that was rapidly devaluing, he was actively pursuing ways in which to leave Israel. In 1952, our family was given the opportunity to emigrate to Canada, being sponsored by a stranger under the façade of being a cousin of my father’s.
We settled in Montreal in an overcrowded neighbourhood that we know today as the Mile End.
Approximately 22,000 Jews lived in this area, mostly survivors. All our neighbours were Jewish; almost everyone was a Holocaust survivor. Yiddish was the language we grew up speaking in the home, and Yiddish was commonly heard spoken on the street. All my parents’ friends were survivors, mostly people my mother met in the camps — that is, the concentration camps. They were her lager shvesters, camp sisters. They were all the family we knew.
My mother would tell us daily of the horrific experiences she endured during the war. And when her lager shvesters were around, which was a lot of the time, inevitably war stories were told and retold, stories of pain and suffering, torture, and death. This was our normal growing up. It was all that we knew.
In my mind’s eye, the whole world was comprised of Holocaust survivors. And the world was a scary place. We were raised not to trust anyone and to always be mindful of who and where our enemies were. Home had shallow roots, and displacement was not a foreign concept. I revisit my childhood years a lot these days. And I ache.
I am a secular Jew. Apart from Pesach (Passover), I do not celebrate any of the Jewish holidays. Pesach is particularly important to me and my community of friends, many who are not Jews. The seder, the traditional Passover meal, is organized around the telling of the story of Passover — the Pharoah’s enslavement of the Jews in Egypt and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
During our seder, we commemorate and understand that the Holocaust has added a new meaning to Passover. The poignant moment in the seder is when we remember the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that began on the first night of Pesach on April 19, 1943. Shots of resistance broke the stillness of the night. For 27 days and nights the remaining Jewish population in the Warsaw Ghetto — 40,000 men, women, and children — fought the Nazis.
Our seder recognizes our collective need to work for the liberation and social justice of all people. We, as Jews, have a particular responsibility to the Palestinian people who live in desperate conditions with little control over their destiny, Israel being the cause of their suffering.
A nation that oppresses another can never itself be free. We recognize the juxtaposition between the creation of the State of Israel in direct response to the genocide of European Jews, and the human rights atrocities Israel has committed against the Palestinian people. As long as Palestinian people are displaced, ghettoized and living under unthinkable conditions, there is fertile ground to raise arms.
And so, it came to pass.
When I woke up on the morning of Oct. 7, and learned about Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel and subsequent murder and kidnapping of Israeli civilians, I was horrified and devastated at the Jewish lives lost. My deep sense of grieving quickly turned into anger.
If we stop and think about it, there was nothing surprising about this attack. History will tell you that an oppressed people will take up arms. In Gaza, the Palestinians have lived under horrific conditions referred to as an open-air prison, and in the West Bank, the Palestinians are systematically and illegally displaced by Israeli settlers and are routinely subjected to violence and incarceration. We can reduce Hamas as terrorists or “savages” but, in so doing, we lose sight of the larger problems at hand.
History also tells us that once-terrorists become world-respected politicians. The most relevant example here is the Irgun Zvai Leumi, an ultra-right Zionist group, who supported the use of violence for the purpose of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine throughout the 1930s and 1940s. There were numerous terrorist actions and assassinations, first targeting the British occupiers and then the Arabs. With the establishment of the State of Israel, the Irgun shifted into a political party. One of its members was Menachem Begin, whom the British refused entry into the UK in the early 1950s for leading a terrorist organization. He became the Prime Minister of Israel.
There was cautious optimism among Palestinian people for a two-state solution after the signing of the Oslo Accords (1993) even though many prominent Palestinians such as Edward Said warned that the Oslo Accords was “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.”
Their warnings were prescient and any hope for a two-state solution has long evaporated.
Instead, we have witnessed deteriorating conditions of the Palestinian people, an increasing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank (presently 279 illegal settlements in the West Bank and 14 in East Jerusalem) and restricted movements and economic blockades of people living in Gaza.
Meanwhile, Western nations have turned a blind eye to the violence Palestinian people incur daily. Hope for a peaceful solution has disappeared and the Palestinian people’s support for Hamas has grown. For many, violence has become the only viable solution.
It is within this context that the October 7 massacre occurred. Not surprisingly, Israel immediately declared war against Hamas, with blanket support from Western countries with the assertion that Israel has a right to defend itself. At what cost, I ask?
Israel’s revenge has moved beyond an eye for an eye. Israel wants a far greater retribution, one that secures its permanent defense which means the eradication of Hamas and the permanent displacement, if not the genocide of the Palestinian people. And seemingly nothing will get in its way, even though international laws of occupation and human rights are violated.
Western countries have expressed concern over the horrendous conditions under which the Palestinians in Gaza are living, with little to no access to food, water, electricity, and fuel, and the demolishing of unarmed hospitals, killing the people inside who were either seriously ill or taking refuge. How are such actions not war crimes? How is it that among Western states there was no call for a permanent ceasefire besides the French president?
With millions of people worldwide demonstrating in support of the Palestinian people and demanding an immediate ceasefire, the Americans agreed to help broker a four-day humanitarian pause which included the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. The pause was extended to seven days.
As I write, the bombings have restarted, each side blaming the other. However, over the past few days, Netanyahu and his cabinet are adamant in their resolve to put an end to the pause and continue with their stated military objectives to obliterate Hamas and permanently displace the Palestinian people. President Biden’s loyalty to Israel is as strong as it was on Oct. 7, but there appears on the surface to be a softening towards the Palestinians.
He is now asking Netanyahu to consider a more targeted approach in Southern Gaza, one that will protect civilians, its infrastructure and prevent further displacement of the Gazans. All this means is the US continues to back Israel in its war against Hamas which is a de-facto war against the Palestinians. There is no permanent ceasefire, no permanent solution for the Palestinian people, and many more lives will inevitably be lost.
At the beginning of World War II, the Western countries turned a blind eye to the mounting Nazi persecution against the Jews in Europe. The Americans were more concerned about maintaining good relations with the Nazi regime than providing a safe haven for European Jews. Consequently, the Jews were refused entry to the US. Canada closed its borders to them as well.
Today the Palestinian people are threatened with being permanently exiled from their home (about 80 per cent of Gazans have been displaced thus far), should they live that long.
To come full circle, what has the Holocaust taught us? I would like to think that human lives are precious and need to take precedence over political maneuvering and power. Anything short of a permanent ceasefire in the Middle East is an act of complicity in genocide. As the blood of Jews were on the hands of the Western countries after World War II, so will be the blood of Palestinians.
The Holocaust also taught that in any struggle, there is resistance in many forms. During World War II, Jewish uprisings took place in ghettoes in Poland and Lithuania, and even in the extermination camps. Others had the opportunity to join in armed struggle and underground movements throughout Europe.
For many, staying alive was itself a form of resistance. Hirz (Hirsh) Glick, a Lithuanian Jew, was a poet and freedom fighter. In 1943, he was imprisoned in the Vilna ghetto.
A panel on Hirsh Glick, poet and freedom fighter, at the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum of History. PHOTO: Velda Abramson.
Inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Hirsh wrote Zog Nit Keyn Mol, a song of armed resistance, hope and survival, that became the anthem of the partisan fighters. We sing this song every Pesach when we commemorate the Holocaust.
As I think about my grandmother, my grandfather, my brother, my sister, my aunts, my uncles, and cousins who were all brutally murdered during the Holocaust, and my mother and my father who derived strength from their courage and survived the war, I dedicate this song to their memory. Their only crime was being Jewish. Let the brutalities they experienced not be in vain.
And so, I also dedicate Zog Nit Keyn Mol to the Palestinian men, women and children who have been brutally murdered, injured and displaced for no other reason than being Palestinian.
ZOG NIT KEYN MOL by Hirsh Glick
(translated from Yiddish)
Never say that you are going your last way When leaden skies above block out the blue of day The hour for which we long will certainly appear The earth shall thunder ’neath our tread that we are here For us the morning sun will radiate the day And the enemy at last will fade away But should the dawn delay our sunrise way too long Then let all future generations sing this song. But should the dawn delay our sunrise way too long Then let all future generations sing this song. This song was written with our blood and not with lead This is the song of free birds flying overhead But a people of the crumbling walls did stand They stood and sang this song with rifles held in hand.