I Grew Up In The Shadow Of The Holocaust

I was born in 1959, 14 years after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated. 

I grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s in a Jewish suburb of Baltimore. Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish that “clever people” called it “Kikesville” instead. My public high school was so predominantly Jewish that even the non-Jewish kids took the Jewish holidays off — cos they knew NOTHING was happening in school those days.

You might think growing up in a place so culturally Jewish would shield one from the Holocaust’s awfulness. You might think such an awful memory — so close in our rear view mirror — would have made my community so horrified that they couldn’t bear to discuss it.

We went completely in the other direction. I wouldn’t say we “embraced” the Holocaust so much as we “owned it”. As my community tends to do, we made it a teachable moment. From a young age, I was told about this tragedy and shown images that burned into my mind forever. I don’t regret that for a second. I needed to remember these lessons – forever.

I have always been grateful to Hebrew school for making me the atheist I am today — and for giving me a stone, cold accurate view of the world — and my place in it because of my tribe.

There’s a famous photo of a group of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto by the occupying Nazis –

From the first time I saw the photo, I became that boy in the lower right. I bet a lot of Jews my age did.  We saw and felt that boy’s terror, his helplessness.  His confusion: how can they be doing this to you just because you were born Jewish?  You’ve done nothing wrong to anyone on the planet – yet the planet wants you dead. 

“Never Again” became as integral a part of my “religious education” as chanting the ‘Shema’.  The past hurt.  That was not going to be our future. 

In our guts, my community has always known this was lurking somewhere in the American Character. You can’t cram peoples’ heads with that much bullshit and expect the bullshit not to screw them up. Bullshit always screws people up – cos it’s bullshit. When you cram a nonsense, hateful mythology into peoples’ heads that actually runs counter to your religion’s core message (and its core messenger) — don’t be surprised when the nonsense becomes the message.

It sucks being despised because of a total fiction. It sucks worse being killed over it.



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I Grew Up A Child Of The Holocaust

I was born in 1959, 14 years after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated. 

You might think such an awful memory — so close in our rear view mirror — would have made my community so horrified that they couldn’t bear to discuss it. We went completely in the opposite direction. I wouldn’t say we “embraced” the Holocaust so much as we “owned it”. As my community tends to do, we made it a teachable moment.

There’s a famous photo of a group of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto by the occupying Nazis –

From the first time I saw the photo, I became that boy in the lower right. I bet a lot of Jews my age did.  We saw and felt that boy’s terror, his helplessness.  His confusion: how can they be doing this to you just because you were born Jewish?  You’ve done nothing wrong to anyone on the planet – yet the planet wants you dead. 

“Never Again” became as integral a part of my “religious education” as chanting the ‘Shema’.  The past hurt.  That was not going to be our future. 

In our guts, my community has always known this was lurking somewhere in the American Character. You can’t cram peoples’ heads with that much bullshit and expect the bullshit not to screw them up. Bullshit always screws people up – cos it’s bullshit. When you cram a nonsense, hateful mythology into peoples’ heads that actually runs counter to your religion’s core message (and its core messenger) — don’t be surprised when the nonsense becomes the message.

It sucks being despised because of a total fiction. It sucks worse being killed over it.

I Grew Up In The Holocaust’s Shadow

I grew up in the 1960’s in a mostly upper middle class Jewish suburb in northwest Baltimore.  Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish that the area — and its Junior & Senior High Schools — were known as ‘Kikesville’, get it?

World War II ended 14 years before I was born.  By the time I started attending Hebrew School (beginning when I was 6) , the War was 20 years in the World’s rear view mirror.  Most of the War’s visible impacts were long gone.  But the scars — they were all still fresh for lots of people.  Jews, for instance.

The generation that had been alive during this atrocity now had to inform the next generation that this thing had happened.  They needed to tell us because even though the true horror was over, a new ideal had been born from the ashes falling over places like Auschwitz and Dachau and Buchenwald and Treblinka.  Jews would never ever go like lambs to the slaughter again.  That began with KNOWING that it happened and could always happen again.

It began early — knowing.  Keep in mind — these monsters killed children with not an iota of conscience.  It became important for Jewish children to understand that they could never be completely safe in this world.  You need to have that notion instilled early.  If you don’t learn it early enough, you’ll be surprised or disappointed or crushed when someone you care about or who you thought cared about you turns out to be one of them: A Jew-Hater.

Expect to be hated.  Have a plan — either to calm the situation down or run for the border — already in mind.

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The image that first got inside my head was this one.  Jews being arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto, sometime in April or May 1943.  I saw that kid with his arms up — his terrified eyes screaming ‘What’d we do?  Why us?’  Ironically — though a number of people in this iconic photo have been identified — along with their fate — the boy in the middle — the boy who kind of epitomized how I identified as a Jew — THAT boy’s fate is unknown.

Like a lot of young Jews my age, I identified with that boy.  He was me.

The Warsaw Ghetto — as terrible a place as it was — also was the site of the biggest (not the only) active Jewish Resistance.  From January to April 1943, the Germans were fired on and killed when they entered the Ghetto.  They fired back, of course — in the end, they wiped the Ghetto off the map —

Warsaw_Ghetto_destroyed_by_Germans,_1945

That’s what’s left of the Warsaw Ghetto — 1945.  400,000 Jews were transported out.  The Germans killed 35,000 Jews while starvation and disease killed 83,000.

The Will to Fight Back was born in that place.

When I see people like THIS in America — I know where it leads.

What’s truly horrifying — I absolutely believed as I was growing up that my parents and my community were nuts for shoving the Holocaust down our throats.  The World my generation was going to re-imagine would never allow such a thing to happen in the future.  There’s a reason we don’t let stupid children run things: they’re stupid.  And they’re children.

It truly hurts sto see swastikas here and know it’s not an anomaly.  It’s who this country is and always has been.

Lesson keeps getting learned:  Don’t get too comfortable here.  Don’t get too comfortable anywhere…

You live in a shadow.