Throughout my 15 years of life, I have grown up in a Jewish bubble. I lived in New Rochelle, New York, for my first six years. Most of my neighborhood was Jewish, and everybody knew each other’s names. We had Shabbat lunch together, Passover seders together, and we all attended one another’s bar/bat mitzvahs. It was a small, secluded Jewish community. From preschool until the end of middle school, I attended a Jewish Day School. Although I currently attend a secular public high school, about 40 percent of the school is Jewish. Almost every year of my life, I have either studied or discussed the Holocaust to some extent at school. However, I never fully understood the concept of anti-Semitism. It was a foreign idea to me because throughout my life, I have always lived on this Jewish island, and I have never experienced anti-Semitism firsthand. Yet, in the past few years, anti-Semitism in my neighborhood has become more prevalent. Anti-Semitism is invading my hometown. Since the beginning of last year, swastikas have been drawn in the bathrooms. Last June, the local Chabad house was vandalized and set on fire. Yet, despite the anti-Semitism that I have been increasingly seeing, I struggled to understand its origins and impact.
While traveling to Europe on a cruise, my family and I toured Bavaria, Germany. After visiting a local cathedral, the guide explained his version of the death of Jesus. Previously, I had never understood why some people blamed Jews for the death of Jesus, but this tour guide was clear in his reasoning. Subtly, this German-born man related the “history” that the Jews had asked the Romans to execute the blasphemous Jesus, and he called Jews “Christ killers.” Not a single person in our tour group objected or even shook their head. I was disturbed, but I had not seen the most virulent anti-Semitism on this trip yet.
Later in the voyage, as we stopped in Vienna, a group from our ship visited the estate of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s surviving granddaughter. Her mansion was the archetype of ultimate wealth. After the butler guided the group to an upstairs salon, the “princess” regaled us with stories about her life and her family. Although her stories were rather tedious to me, they initially seemed innocent. Then, she began describing her family’s travails during the Second World War. She recalled her “poor” uncle Max. She detailed how the Nazis removed her uncle from their hometown and confined him to a nearby castle owned by the royal family. She quickly added that he, of course, was not on one of the “terrible transport trains used for those people like in the movies.” Those “people in the movies” she so automatically ignored were Jews. Maybe her “poor” uncle was prevented from leaving the luxurious castle, but the Jews ignored by people like her family were suffering unimaginably. This trip to Europe made me confront a world that I did not really believe still existed. I had understood that there were still anti-Semitic people, but they were elsewhere in my mind, certainly not in my everyday life.
Last December, my family and I traveled to Berlin, Germany. Berlin is renowned for the city’s remembrance of the Holocaust, and their efforts to prevent a similar event in the future. One of the highlights of the city is the Holocaust Memorial. The guidebooks describe nearly five acres of 2,711 large gray concrete blocks arrayed in rows that rise up and down from the ground’s gentle hills. At first, I found walking through the narrow passages between the blocks isolating, claustrophobic, and haunting. Then, the silence was pierced by sudden laughter. I turned and next to me was a mother playing hide-and-seek in between the stones with her two children. I moved away only to find myself confronting a gaggle of teenagers perched on top of one of the blocks as they enjoyed their fast-food lunch. A young German policeman made an effort to shoo them away, only to be ignored by a family playing with a soccer ball. How was this memorial a remembrance of loss in the face of horrific evil when it was forgotten amongst the insensitivity, infatuation, and inebriation of this generation?
I hoped to find more answers in Berlin’s Jewish Museum. The zigzagged displays in the Jewish Museum teach about the history of the Jewish people and what led to their persecution. The exhibit was filled with haunting artifacts from Holocaust victims. Amongst the people peering at the windowed displays, I encountered a group of French high school students following their teacher through the museum. I saw my father frown as he listened to one young woman grab the teacher and ask a question in French, and I asked my father to translate. He looked at me sadly and told me that this high school student had asked the teacher if the Holocaust really happened.
At the end of the museum, there is a room painted in bright colors with an interactive exhibit about modern Jews. One of the many stations plays a video of two children talking about Jewish laws and practices. One child explains that Jews do not work on Saturdays because of Shabbat. Immediately, the other child chips in and “reassures” the viewer that most Jews do not do that anymore and that Jews today are not too different from everybody else. I was in utter shock. The entire exhibit treats us as if we are a species from another planet. Why should Jews feel compelled to be “not too different?”
Near the exhibit’s exit is a hallway with notes hanging from a mobile. The notes are questions that visitors wrote after touring the museum. Many of the questions were similar to: “Who are Jews? How could the Holocaust ever happen to these people? Did this really happen? Does it matter?” The Holocaust happened fewer than 80 years ago and was history’s largest genocide, yet people are still extremely uneducated. Some do not know it even happened, and some actually ask if it is fictional. Anti-Semitism continues to spread throughout the world simply because people do not know any better. People are anti-Semitic because that is what they are raised to know or, really, not know; people hate what they do not know. Despite all the hate that we must constantly fight, we have to teach others. We can fight anti-Semitism with pure knowledge. When somebody asks me why I do not put cheese on my hamburger, I will take it as my responsibility to explain. If people know who we truly are and what we value, then they will no longer randomly hate us. Even though people often feel they need something or someone to hate, Jews cannot withdraw. Despite my shock at what I heard and read on my European travels, I am now committed to find every opportunity to answer with calm and love the questions I saw hanging on that museum’s mobile. We must engage and educate to prove that hate is not the answer.
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