Remembering and standing up is critical to ensuring that history is not repeated and that society is just and equitable.
Jewish Care Victoria is committed to educating staff and volunteers about the Shoah because we know our community is heavily informed by the trauma of the Holocaust. Victoria is home to the world’s second largest, per capita Survivor community, behind Israel. Through education, promotion of Jewish values and ethos we seek to understand people’s context and make to our community better.
In addition to our Jewish community, Jewish Care supports non-Jews in government programs. We do this because people are drawn to the Jewish values and ethos. We do this because it is right, just and equitable to support all who call on us – people who would have been targeted in the Holocaust; wonderful people with a disability, mental illness or from the LGBTI community for example.
As part of this commitment, each year, Jewish Care selects two staff to represent it on the March of the Living. This year I was one of the fortunate applicants and I will never be able to repay the organisation for the opportunity.
Without exaggeration I have come to describe the March of the Living as an experience nearly equal to being handed my first-born child.
There is immediate, overwhelming love and joy but there is also a sense of fear for the future and of one’s inexperience with this most important of responsibilities. There is a sense of never wanting to let it go and a certainty that life will never be the same ever again.
I was born and raised in the safety and security of suburban Melbourne. Though fortunate enough to be provided with the opportunity of a quality education, my context of the Holocaust was limited to documentaries on the History Channel, intermittent “serious moments” while travelling through Europe at places like the Anne Frank Museum or visiting train carriages in the Czech Republic. On reflection – superficial.
The Holocaust and all its hatred existed as a distant intrigue I am now ashamed to say. I did not deeply appreciate the breadth and depth of hatred before I started speaking with Survivors and heard their testimony. Sadly, I did not even understand what it meant to be a Survivor. It is so much more than the archetype tattoo or striped pajamas.
Since joining Jewish Care I also have understood that the Shoah has not ended. Its impacts are as fresh today for the children of Survivors and indeed their grand and great-grandchildren – the same generation as my children. On reflection, having had some dealings with Jewish communities in other countries, the Shoah more deeply shapes the Australian Jewish community. I note that many community members drop early into conversations (proudly) their families’ history which more often than not involves post Holocaust migration.
I have spoken with children and grand-children about the impact of an atrocity that occurred more than 70 years ago; and this was so poignantly brought home to me by Ruby Kraner-Tucci. Daughter of Marilyn Kraner and Great Granddaughter of Chawa Kraner (nee: Zilbernadle) – a Survivor.
Ruby went to Yad Vashem in 2016 and on return wrote in Farrago(August 2017), “When I visited Israel in early 2016, I saw…the Holocaust. My head became filled with the fear and worry of those involved. Tears ran wild and my knees crumbled beneath me. The Holocaust is a part of history that is studied. But for me it is a history that is still lived. This tragedy is my narrative. It is personal and yet, a shared experience. There is a responsibility to remember.”
With this in mind, I wanted to learn more about the Holocaust so that I could better inform the supports Jewish Care provides having a more personal context of the experience. I also wanted to impart knowledge to the broader community and my children so that they may know more about the past than I did…and to remember.
What I didn’t realise is just how personal that context would become and how that would, and does, continue to challenge me.
I am not a Jew. On many occasions, in my work, this has been made abundantly clear in a pejorative manner as if to reinforce the irrelevance of my contribution – you can’t possibly understand because you’re not Jewish.
Jewish Care exists to support those in need so emotions run high. I realise these negative statements are rarely personal. It is stated due to fear, distress or desire for an alternate path where race/religion or issue causing the need does not exist at all. I understand this but it doesn’t mean I am impervious to the slight, especially in the face of trying to do the best I can to ease the burden.
I highlight this because I went into the March of the Living with the preconception that I would sit as something of an outsider looking in. I would be there to be educated and to bear witness to others’ emotions without having a deeply personal experience. How wrong I was, and from the very first moment.
In the first session of the first day in Poland I sat down next to Andre Dubrowin, a child Survivor, spirited from a camp with a bribe before his family were murdered. Andre mentioned he has fond memories of a friend on arrival to Australia shortly after the war. Andre remembered this boy because he was the only person who could speak French and Andre had limited English. This boy was Charles Cattermole – my uncle.
From that moment in Poland we learnt, saw and heard of horror after horror only to be dragged in an instant up through stories of kindness, liberation and reunion quickly to be forced down again into the depths of human depravity. It was unrelenting.
The siblings who never said goodbye, leaving the surviving brother to a life of nightmares and less at peace than the one who was murdered. The engraved spoon that was sent by Jewish birth mother with child Survivor to the adoptive mother (now Righteous) then returned to the Survivor some 65 years later after the adoptive mother’s passing as a final act of love, closure and return.
Acknowledging, that had I lived in Australia during the war, being blind eye in one eye, I would have been ineligible to fight and, more likely, would have been indifferent to the horrendous acts being perpetrated across Europe. Frankly I was terrified to consider what might have been as a blue-eyed, blond-haired man with commerce and ambition had I been born in Europe…
We learned of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Many of us were shocked to learn that the efficiency of killing was perfected on German citizens with disabilities in Aktion T4.I cried for their loss knowing their families would grieve too for future generations.
I wondered if their memory was being forgotten in a weight of numbers. Unable to sleep and alone in my room I spent hours searching for information, seeking to ensure these others were not forgotten. For a moment, and only a brief moment, I wondered if the Jewish people had taken ownership of the Holocaust at the behest of these groups consigning them to a footnote of the horror. I have moved on from this notion. I have continued to educate myself and am certain they are not forgotten and gratified that I can continue to remember them as any victim of the Holocaust should be remembered.
These are some of the experiences and reflections that challenged me time and time again and with greater frequency even as we moved from Poland to Israel (please don’t start me on the emotional turmoil I went through during Yom Hazikaron).
I am an expressive man. I am not afraid of my emotions and allow them to be seen. As stated, I did not expect to be moved as I was. Recall I anticipated being something of the outside observer. Remember, I have been told this on more than one occasion and I can even say with confidence a few initially viewed me joining the March of the Living with skepticism.
This anticipated distance, the outsider if you will, is upon which my most profound experience of the March of the Living occurred. I was supported. I was embraced. I belonged. Every one of my circa 70 companions on that important journey took a moment to make sure I was OK. I was never alone.
I learned more about fundamental belongingin those two weeks than ever before. I have my family and my extended family and without question I wouldn’t trade them for the world but what I don’t have is a tribewith a shared and unquestioned history. For the first time I truly saw what it was to be a Jew..
This unconditional sense of belonging provides strength, unity and resilience. I learned that it is not a defensive, “circle the wagons” mentality as it is often perceived by outsiders. It is a coming together of a group of people who celebrate their commonality despite their diversity. The unquestioned belonging fosters difference of opinion and the safety of debate. This allows for discourse and disagreement but it also breeds creativity and unity which is passionately celebrated. It ensures shared success but also survival.
During those two weeks, in the context of destruction and horrors, I experienced the strength of the Jewish people. It is magnificent and I understand why it is celebrated the world over.
On my return I spoke with a dear friend who happens to be Jewish. On seeing how raw I was she was moved to write me a letter. She signed off, “You have empathy and compassion and your response to March of the Living has reinforced how significant human empathy is to you. You would have been a mentsch Hugh. Do not even contemplate otherwise.”
This will be my greatest learning and contribution to the community. I have a deeper context. It’s in my kishkasif you will…I understand how important belonging is, and as a result why we do what we do for the community.
March of the Living was traumatic, challenging and uplifting. Pushed to acknowledge I may have been a bystander to the Shoah, I know I make a difference and do good in other ways today. Empathy and compassion are critical to the supports we deliver. Being an upstander not a bystander, even in small ways and regularly, prevents marginalisation of those who are different. Being there, unquestionably. Promoting sense of belonging.
I thank Jewish Care, March of the Living and those who brought me into the tribe. I can’t wait to make a greater contribution.
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Photo Credit : courtsey of http://www.jwire.com.au