Dedicated to my father and to Liviu Librescu.
The massacre at Virginia Tech this week has been so unspeakably tragic all you can come up with are the old cliches. The world has gone mad. No one is safe anywhere anymore. Hundreds of lives have been changed forever.
It's all true and it has all been said. It's been said not just of this event but whenever some epic injustice occurs.
For me, it's particularly poignant that the shooting occurred this week, when Jews worldwide traditionally commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is one of the proudest examples of Jewish resistance. It symbolizes the courage and spirit of all who refuse to give in to tyrrany, no matter the personal sacrifice. If you've seen the movie Schindler's List you might have gotten the impression that all Jews were meek lambs easily led to slaughter. It is the thing that most repulses me about the film. There were plenty of Jews who fought. You don't hear about them because they died. Being Jews, birth and death records were poor or non-existent. Often no one but other Jews even knew their names. There were the Jewish Partizaners, who hid in forests and waged guerilla warfare against Nazis. Thousands of Jews joined European armies to fight. Countless others engaged in sabotage. Untold numbers died to protect their wives, their children, their parents, their friends. Many Jewish heros were lost and forgotten because no one was left alive to remember them.
But the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto was a defining moment in Jewish history. It was on April 19, 1943 that a grubby, hungry, untrained band of Jewish rebels undertook armed resistance against the Nazis who had turned Warsaw's Jewish neighborhood into a vicious police state. It was painfully obvious they couldn't win, but they were determined to fight to the death rather than accept the rule of Nazi law. And, unlike so much of Jewish life at the time, this event made international headlines. No one could deny it. It once and for all disproved the sickening racial stereotype that Jews were passive weaklings.
But in our home, the story of April 19th was not about historical meanings. It was about friends or relatives who no one else but my parents remembered. It was about individual lives forced to early and horrible ends. It was about a girl named Mira who had been my mother's classmate and childhood friend. My parents fled Warsaw in 1939 (my father, just before the Nazi invasion of September 1st; my mother a couple of months after their invasion, staying just long enough to see a local pickle factory destroyed by bombs - pickles flying everywhere, rolling out into the street, while starving children gaily plucked free pickles from the debris). Mira stayed in Warsaw. She was in love with a man who was passionate and brave, and she wouldn't leave his side. His name was Mordechai Anielewicz and he was one of the leaders of the Ghetto Uprising. Mira fought with him. And she died with him when the Nazis prevailed, as everyone knew they would.
For us, April 19th was about the loss of grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters. It was about homelands that never felt like home again. It was about the guilt of surviving when others - others who were better or nobler or stronger than you - died. It was about grieving for events so irrational, so excessively brutal and violent, that no matter what answers you come up with you could never fathom why or how people could be so evil.
The irony of a Holocaust survivor being murdered so close to April 19th (and, for Zionists, on the day of Yom Hashoah itself) has not been missed. To survive Nazi terrorism, and live beyond it to rebuild one's life, and then ultimately die by the hand of another kind of terrorist, such things cannot fail to make an impression on those whose lives were affected by the Second World War.
The third week of April was always a difficult time for my parents as they prepared emotionally to attend the commemoration services in New York. Every year of my childhood, and even into my early 30s, I went with them: we would assemble with thousands of other Jews in cavernous venues to listen to speeches and poetry and songs that told stories of suffering, cruelty, despair and, ultimately, redemption through remembrance. Our families had died but we, together, by bearing witness to their lives, by telling their stories and remembering how they came to harm, we would carry their flame forward nonetheless.
It's been a long time since I've attended a commemoration event. But the timing of the Virginia Tech Massacre and the bravery of Professor Librescu have brought it all back. Just as I plan to continue to honor the memories of those who died before me, I pray that, as a nation, we will honor those who died in Virginia by keeping their memories alive in our hearts.
Want to learn more about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?