In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.
Holocaust Memorial Day. Israel’s Remembrance Day. Israel’s Independence Day. The Big Three on the national calendar, and all in the same week. Am I alone in thinking it is too much of an emotional rollercoaster ride for the average person to bear? Of course, I understand the logic behind their proximity to each other; but, closing in on thirty years of living in this country, I still find the transition from heartbreaking memorial services to festive barbeques a bit too trying for my sensibilities.
I grew up surrounded by Holocaust survivors – my father, one of my uncles, neighbours; for that matter, many of my closest friends had at least one parent who survived the War. For these grownups, every day was Holocaust Memorial Day – they did not require a specific date on the calendar to remind them of what they had endured. For the most part, details of their ordeals were meted out sparingly; the wounds were still too fresh for most of them to openly discuss their past – certainly not with impressionable young children. All the same, we knew from an early age that our parents were different from other friends’ parents who grew up in Canada.
My father was born in Warsaw in 1919, the youngest of six siblings. I know very little about his early years since he died when I was fourteen years old. I do know that he left Poland before the outbreak of the War and served in the Russian Army – any more than that remains a mystery. I had to wait years until I moved to Israel to begin filling in some of the gaps in my family history. My Aunty Anna, my father’s only surviving sibling, was a childless widow living in Tel Aviv when Lori and I made aliyah in 1986. She miraculously survived The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by hiding in the sewers until September 1943. It is a story that defies explanation, but in her mind, it was crystal clear that she was spared for one reason, and one reason only – to continue her life in the newly formed State of Israel. To the best of my knowledge, from the time she settled in Israel until her death in 1998, she left the country only two times – on both occasions to celebrate the bar mitzvot of my older brother, Harold, and myself in Hamilton.
My Aunty Anna was not a religious woman, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, but she was, unquestionably, one of the most spiritual of people to ever touch my life. Her love for her new homeland was genuine, unwavering and in my eyes, extremely contagious. I came to really know her in 1974, the summer after the Yom Kippur War, when I volunteered on Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi. Her tiny apartment on Yitzhak Sade became my home away from home; a safe refuge well stocked with Coca Cola and my favourite chocolates. My aunt was perpetually on call – friends and neighbours dropped by at all hours for a hot drink and a friendly word of advice. I loved the informality of it all and at eighteen years of age, I already knew that somehow this would be my future destination. I returned to Canada in the summer of ’75 to begin my university studies. My aunt grudgingly accepted my decision; even so, she reminded me in no uncertain terms that Canada was merely a temporary residence – home, my real home, remained here in Israel with our people.
As olim, new immigrants, we are often critical of Israeli society – its foibles and its shortcomings. We still like to point out how things were done the right way back in the Old Country. This special period between Holocaust Memorial Day and Israel’s Independence Day offers us a brief respite from our usual complaining. It affords us the opportunity to take stock of our national purpose; to reflect upon the many blessings for which we should be grateful. Personally, I have come to the realization that life in Israel has less to do with being happy – although, that would be a welcome benefit – and more about fulfilling our destiny. My Aunty Anna understood that from day one.