For centuries, Rabbis have used Naomi’s three
attempts to send Ruth back home as an example of how to deter a potential convert,
and with such dissuasion comes vague warnings of the persecution that is part
and parcel of being a Jew. Perhaps no other event has stripped away obscurity
and presented anti-Semitism in such stark black and white terms as the
Holocaust. It hangs over Jewish history like a dark cloud, necessitating a
distinction of life before and after. To become a Jew post-WWII is to know in grave
detail just what the worst case scenario is. That said, the unofficial slogan
of remembrance is “Never Again,” and while it may or may not hold true, the
phrase points to something that has already occurred.
I arrived in this world and emerged from the mikvah with my family intact and
unaffected by any ghosts of the past. My choice to convert has met with a
plethora of questions and light opposition, sure, but my observance does not stir
up pain for my relatives. Judaism does not for them beg the question of the
existence of a God who allows such a thing to happen. Is it my own guilt or
paranoia that makes me tiptoe around the topic, then, and feel that my grief
for the 6 million should be carefully measured? After all, I think, I know them
only as that collective number, not as individual names.
So sheltered from the Holocaust was I, in fact, that
I hadn’t even heard of it until I read The
Diary of Anne Frank at age 11. Out of sheer ignorance, I was less concerned
with the events that had landed her in the Secret Annex and more empathetic to
her misfit status within her own family; I, too, felt like the less favored
daughter. Imagine my surprise when the epilogue landed on me like a pile of
bricks, announcing Anne’s death as the inevitable ending that it was, but that
I in my innocence never saw coming.
A period followed in which I can only be described
as consumed. This was tricky for my parents, who were incredibly restrictive
with music and television but never with books. Still, I had never dived
headfirst into such a subject before and more than once the question arose as
to whether I was old enough to handle it. This goyish protectiveness alone sets me apart from my generation of
born Jews, who did not have the luxury of being sheltered from events that
directly affected their own grandparents. Certainly Anne in her young age was
not spared it. But unlike my campaign for access to MTV, I prevailed in my
desire to understand how the Holocaust had happened, and my studies continued.
Over time, I did ease up in my pursuit a bit, though I never resisted if the
topic found me. Understanding continued to elude me, and it is this, at least,
that I share with all Jews.
But before we get too cozy in our mutual outlook, a
full confession must be given. My dark hair and eyes often lead others to
presume I am Jewish by birth, and the revelation that I am not leads to
inquiring about my heritage. (Scottish, Irish, French, Dutch, and German.)
German? And when, ahem, did that side come to the U.S.? (1923 and 1925.) Their
expression relaxes into an unmistakable look of relief. At least, they are
thinking, I am not a descendent of them.
They are only partially correct. It is true that my
great-grandfather came over first, and my great-grandmother followed two years
later. From the safety of America, they watched their country go mad. His
dislike of Roosevelt was only surpassed by his detestation of Hitler. She was
nearly arrested by the Gestapo on a pre-war visit to her homeland. Tanks rolled
through the streets, but still her family believed the Fuhrer’s assurance that
there would be no war. “Look around you,” she said, incredulous, “Everyone in
the world knows what is coming.” We’ll never know who, but one of her relatives
promptly turned her in. It was only by luck of the train schedule that she was
already in France by the time there was a knock at the door. Perhaps it was the
uncle who would later write my grandmother, advising her to disregard the Old
Testament in her Confirmation studies. Or was it one of the parents of the
little cousins enrolled in Hitler’s Youth, whose photos in swastika-ed uniform
were proudly sent to the States? There is poetic justice in my becoming a Jew,
but it does not outweigh the guilt I feel by association.
I returned to my preteen preoccupation with the
Holocaust during my conversion process, inflicting every movie and book on
myself like emotional lashings I felt I deserved to earn my Jewishness. Funnily
enough, my determination to get to the bottom of it two decades ago never led
me to learn about Judaism, and even now, the two seem irreconcilable. I am
expected to mourn the destruction of both Temples with abstinence from both food
and armchairs, events from a time when my ancestors were likely polytheistic
pagans, but grieving over losses suffered in the century in which I was born
leaves me feeling like a poseur.
It was a conversation with a non-Jew that first
forced me to defend my feelings. There it was, the question I was unprepared
for: Why did I care so deeply about the Holocaust? Anne Frank once again acted
as my ambassador when I recently revisited her diary. I had been fully
expecting a nostalgic read but was instead struck by her talent and wry
insight, with a writing style that should have decorated a lifetime of books. I
don’t mourn Anne as the poster child of young lives snuffed out by the
Holocaust; I grieve her as the author who never was.
The Rabbis of the Talmud noticed an odd thing in the
story of Cain and Abel: When God corners Cain into a confession by telling him
He can hear Abel’s blood crying out to Him from the earth, the Hebrew is actually
‘bloods,’ plural. From this, the Sages deduced that Abel’s murder was not just
one life extinguished, but an entire bloodline. My family did not perish in the
camps. Still, I do feel the loss of the individuals, the Jews my age who should
be here but are not.
Kate Sample is a writer and
Jew-by-choice living in Chicago.