It is the season of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, and yet in our country a dark energy is afoot. Worshipers have been murdered at synagogues and recently people at a kosher market. There have been scores of incidents of anti-Semitic hate, including the crude graffiti scrawled on the door of a school in south Minneapolis. Attacks are increasing worldwide.
My thoughts have drifted back to the very first time I heard of such brutality against Jewish people, but I was too young to even know what I was hearing.
I first walked the crowded streets in Washington Heights in New York City as a small child with my mother in the early 1950s. Three feet above the ground, my dreaded enemy was the gritty dust that would swirl up and into an eye. One such piece of debris was so difficult to remove that we had to walk down the block to the neighborhood doctor. I sat in his wife’s lap, and quick as could be, he swiped out the log. This is the first great victory I can recall in my life.
That evening, when my father returned from the jungle of the city streets, we gathered in celebration. But in the midst of my telling my story, my mother turned aside, her beautiful red-lipsticked face changing, and said to my father in a way I shouldn’t hear ... but I could hear ... “His whole family was lost.”
Gentle reader, this was very bad news. You knew from the earliest age, you must stay near your mother — you don’t want to get lost. But did no one in the whole family know how to get home? How could they all lose their way?
I was about 10 when I finally saw the black-and-white footage — sad and frightening images of people being packed up into trains and shipped off. If you followed the story, and forgive me, but this is the blunt truth that hit my young body like a blow, they all go up in smoke. And I came to understand that the lost family I had known of from the earliest age, the family of the beloved doctor, didn’t take a tricky side street off Riverside Drive. Rather, they were swept up and murdered.
It was years later when, as a 22 year-old in Montreal, I was invited to hear Elie Wiesel speak at a temple. And there I heard a firsthand account. He had a small body and he limped. He survived, but what a price he paid! I made it to the courtyard after the talk, but there I was overcome. I put my head in my hand and wept. People passed me by with a respectful, sympathetic glance. I suppose they thought, “Ahhh, she must have lost her family...” I thought, “Well actually, yes, it is about the lost family.”
More years later, as a newly married woman, having come to the land of lakes, my husband’s land, I was invited for tea by a neighbor. I was delighted. This I could handle. As I raised a fancy tea cup to my lips, this pleasant middle-aged woman referred to a mutual neighbor; “That’s a Jewish name isn’t it?” I said, “ I think it’s American Indian,” as it conveyed a lovely image like, “shining horse.” “No, it’s Jewish,” she said.
I could feel a chill creep up the back of my neck. I went over it in my head — I said, she said — and I realized she wasn’t asking me a question. She was telling me, as a recently arrived neighbor, that there was a Jew living nearby. But by the time I got it clear, the conversation had moved on.
When I got home I brooded. My dearest friends, my nieces even, had been singled out as the other. I told my husband that I couldn’t marshal my thoughts, and in the face of the ugliness I said nothing. When I confided my failure to my cousin, she said, “Yeah, you should have said, ‘Thanks for the lovely tea; next time you must join us for Hanukkah.’ ”
Here’s the thing. The lost families are still being lost. The same sinister energy that killed 6 million Jews is very much alive. And there are many young people who have never heard of the Holocaust.
When I asked my 95-year-old waspy mother about the doctor, she said with vigorous feeling, “Ahhh, what a mensch!” We must each be a mensch and be on the alert and ready to call out anti-Semitism over tea cups, or in schools, or wherever we see it, and in whatever form. Let’s live the response the students chalked to the hateful graffiti on their Lake Harriet Upper School: “I belong. You belong. We all belong. Love all.”
Elissa Hulin Peterson, of Minneapolis, is president of the Sullivan Ballou Fund.