Iranian Jews in America need to meet Holocaust survivors. We need to stand in their company, hold their hands in ours, listen carefully to their words, and humbly thank them for sharing memories from the darkest points in their lives.
On Sunday, Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Ha'Shoah), we had the honor of hearing from Bergen-Belsen child survivor Eva Brettler. An indefatigable 77-year old, Eva stood before 300 Iranian-American Jews at Nessah Educational and Cultural Center in Beverly Hills and told her heart-wrenching story. As I listened to this living witness of the most infamous crime in the history of humanity, I began to connect the dots between her world and ours.
From one survivor's 30 minute talk, I understood so much about why Iranian Jews in America should make meeting survivors a priority in their lives and those of their children's. Issues of being Jewish, of faith, of Israel, of evil, of the unity of all Jews, top the list, of course. But a few others include:
Survivors' narratives have many different levels--horrors they themselves personally faced, and then there is the loss of parents, siblings, other relatives, teachers, friends, and much, much more. As we ourselves age, perhaps we know people that have lost their parents due to illness or old age, for example. But it is tragically unique to find a person that not only lost his/her parents, but grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and others to targeted murder.
I only know one person that lost a loved one to murder. On Sunday, I met someone that had lost many more. Eva Brettler lost over 120 members of her family. One hundred and twenty.
As I listened to her, I couldn't help but think about how Iranian Jews are so wonderfully family-oriented: that favorite aunt, that amazing cousin that is as close to you as your own sister or brother, that grandparent that you love so deeply, the hundreds of relatives that we see at major life events and that bring us random crystal bowls that we then re-gift and give to other relatives.
Imagine planning a big family gathering, say a Bar Mitzvah, engagement party, or wedding, and creating a mailing list of 120 family members, including their young children. Now imagine if a very hateful person that labeled you as his enemy got a hold of that list, complete with names and addresses, and personally came to every one of your family members' doors. When that aunt or grandmother or eight-year old cousin opened the door, that evil person aimed his gun and murdered each one. Door to door, house to house, until there was no one left on your mailing list.
I have such a list of relatives I am inviting to my upcoming wedding. The Nazis had lists, too. As I sat and listened to Eva, I imagined the unforgivable LOSS I would know if each of these persons was destroyed by someone. I thought about how many people were missing from Eva's own wedding, including her own mother. And then I realized how blessed I would be to have the chance to dance with a fourth cousin whose name I won't even know...at my own wedding.
To meet a Holocaust survivor is to meet someone that has experienced not one, but many murders, of their most beloved relatives.
When Arrow Cross soldiers, members of Hungary's fascist party, stormed Eva's grandmother's home, they told her, Eva's aunt, and Eva that they had 30 minutes to pack their belongings and leave for the trains. Her grandmother ordered Eva to run and hide in the cornfields. I can't imagine what her grandmother and aunt must have packed. Clothes, food, photos? What was most important to them? Heirloom jewelry, underwear, soap?
It didn't matter. The Nazis took everything away anyways.
I thought about what I would pack in half an hour for a journey that could last many painful years. Photos, letters, and copies of loved ones' addresses and numbers on paper? No computer, no phone--those would all be taken away anyways by anyone that wanted to control and imprison me. I then looked around the room of 300 blessed Iranian-American Jews. I knew that in our homes, cars, and offices, we had everything, many things, wonderful things.
How much did these things mean to us? If our iPads fell off of counters and broke in a million pieces, would we feel a sense of personal loss? Maybe.
If our hands were stripped of ou rings and watches, our bodies stripped of our fitted suits and lovely dresses, would we feel like a lesser versions of ourselves? Possibly.
At Nessah that day were people that were struggling under heavy financial burden and others that owned homes worth millions. I thought of these people all losing everything that they owned, as Eva had, and suddenly the gap between those that have very little and those that have very much...seemed quite small.
It also made me realize that almost everything I own is worth nothing...nothing where it counts most.
To meet a Holocaust survivor is to meet someone that at one point had lost almost every possession that they ever owned.
In a powerful profile published in April 2013, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles sheds light on Eva's horrific experiences. One specific paragraph describes the struggle of hunger when 8-year old Eva was in Bergen Belsen:
Behind the kitchen was a fenced-off area where potato peels were stored for the pigs. Some women enlisted Eva to crawl under the fence to steal food for them. As Eva exited with her hands full of peels, the women immediately grabbed them from her. On subsequent forays, she ate her peels before crawling back out.
Potato peels. Potato peels from a storage area for pig food. Potato peels that women grabbed from a child's hands and ate ravenously.
Not far from where the stage where Eva was speaking on Sunday stood two six-foot long tables, one containing all sorts of delicious muffins and cookies, and another table with enough Persian tea, coffee, and water to feed everyone in attendance. While Eva spoke of starving women clamoring for potato peels, I thought of the countless events that the sacred halls of Nessah and other venues, especially hotels, have hosted--Shabbat and High Holidays meals, Brit Milas, lectures, lunches honoring community leaders, funerals, and most of all, weddings.
The famed Persian weddings that feature those buffets--whether appetizers, the main meal, or dessert--that are now the stuff of legend.
What happens to all of that food once the event is over? How often do we innocently complain that it's always the same food at these events, that the pizza is too cold and the tea is too hot? And most of all, how often do we complain of the lines at our now famous buffets?
I suddenly understood. When we stand in those lines at weddings, we WILL be fed, no matter what. We don't grab anything out of each other's hands (expect for the occasional tadig hijacking). We roll our eyes for the two minutes that we stand in line, and then we are FED.
No starvation. No deficiency. No potato peels.
At that moment, I wasn't sure if I wanted to invite Eva to my Persian wedding, lovely and holy as I hope it will be. Not because I was worried about the sight of the outrageous feast that we would be blessed to provide. But because she would see the attitude with which we expect and the unconscious manner in which we consume such a feast.
To meet a Holocaust survivor is to meet someone that at one point reached the limits of human starvation.
Another except from the Jewish Journal profile relates the last time that Eva saw her mother:
They were eventually taken to a brick factory on the outskirts of Budapest. They had only lightweight summer clothes, and Eva’s mother was wearing high heels. They had little food.
A short time later Eva and her mother were lined up and sent on a march with other prisoners. Most days Eva rode in a wagon with other children, meeting her mother at each night’s stopping place. One morning, Eva’s mother, whose feet ached from walking in high heels, begged to ride in the wagon. Instead, she was taken away. A short time later Eva heard gunshots.
A young woman was shot and killed because her high heels hurt her bruised feet so badly that she begged for help.
Our high heels, which we wear for everything from pool parties to Yom Kippur services, pinch our feet. We complain and moan, "My shoes are killing me." We bring a second pair of shoes. We wear them and we slip back into our place on the dance floor, in the synagogue seat, or in line at the buffet.
To meet a Holocaust survivor is to meet someone that may most likely never take even a pair of shoes for granted.
On Sunday, Eva looked out across the room and said, "I hope that you will be my future ambassadors."
I hope that we listen.
Tabby Davoodi serves as Executive Director of 30 YEARS AFTER, the nation's leading Iranian-American Jewish civic action organization.
On Sunday, April 7th, 2014, a Yom Ha'Shoah Community Remembrance event was held at Nessah Educational and Cultural Center and sponsored by 30 YEARS AFTER, JIMENA, Memorah Foundation, Nessah, LA Museum of the Holocaust, and the Righteous Conversations Project. Speakers included Mayor of Beverly Hills Lili Bosse, Holocaust survivor Eva Brettler, author and activist Dr. Ari Babaknia, Rabbi David Shofet, and filmmaker Ben-Hur Sepher.
For more information on how to connect with Holocaust survivors, please email firstname.lastname@example.org