In just over 40 minutes, an air-raid siren will sound all over Israel. It’s a sound that pierces the heart, a wailing that cuts the soul. My children will stand in silence and listen. My older ones may think of their grandparents, Holocaust survivors.
Last night, there was a moving ceremony at Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust Memorial in Israel. It was televised and I sat with my two youngest children and watched as six survivors told of their childhood memories. Some cried, even now, more than 60 years later. I wanted my youngest to go to sleep, even before the first survivor’s story was told. She refused and I didn’t force her. I told her she could wait through the first candle that survivor would light, in the end, she stayed through them all. They spoke in the voice of a child as they told of being separated from their parents, of the last time they saw a brother, a sister, a parent.
The radio is filled with stories today – of a child who was given to Polish neighbors and so survived but then when her family returned, they had to fight to get the child back. She knows her name only because on the back of one photograph of her mother holding her as an infant, her mother had written her name. Another knows nothing of her father.
My 9-year-old didn’t want to go to school today, didn’t want to hear any more. Stories of children are too close to her; she is a child herself and cannot imagine being separated from her family for more than a day. She doesn’t want to cry. I finally convinced her to go to school, though the single tear in one eye nearly broke me.
Next week, we commemorate Israel’s Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers and terror victims. It is an interesting and difficult custom we have here. We mourn the loss of more than 50,000 young lives, lost in our wars and terror attacks. As the evening draws to a close on Memorial Day, the nation does a sudden “switch” to celebrate Independence Day – we celebrate as deeply as we mourn; we mourn as deeply as we celebrate.
With Elie in the army, I thought this day would be hard for my little daughter and suggested that she go to school today and perhaps stay home next week.
“But Elie is fine,” she said. “Is something going to happen to him?”
I reassured her that he was fine and God willing would be fine. That being the case, she saw no reason to stay home next week and began again to focus on today. In the end, she went to school and I drove to work.
I spoke to Elie last night and asked him where he will be when the siren sounds. They will have a ceremony on his base. They will stand in honor, in memory. Elie won’t cry as his sister is likely to do; but he will remember his grandparents, as his younger sister cannot. She never knew them. She carries the name of a Holocaust survivor; Elie carries the name of a Holocaust victim.
In a few minutes, the siren will sound. I’m in my office, alone, as I prefer to be. I’ll stand and I’ll think of those, like Elie’s namesake, who were the victims of such hatred, such anger, such evil.
And somewhere in the wailing sound, I’ll take a few seconds and remember that Elie and his soldiers, standing there outside on a hill in the middle of Israel, are the reason why today, we all stand here.
I’ll think of my daughter’s tears and fears and have a little regret that yet another generation will be touched by the horrors of World War II. And I’ll remember the bravery of those who picked up the pieces of their lives and built new ones. I’ll think of my husband’s mother who was younger than Elie when she was separated from her parents and sent to Auschwitz.
She was put in a gas chamber, sent to die only because she was a Jew. What we consider a badge of honor, the Nazis considered a crime. They closed the door of that horrible little room, perhaps the one I stood in a few years ago with my older daughter and then, just before they dropped the gas in, they opened the door and pulled a few women out for a work detail, including my future mother-in-law.
There were so many horror stories she lived with, so many she took with her to the grave. She lived much of her life in fear, always wanting to avoid the spotlight, the attention that might have caused the Nazis to kill her or her sister. My children know no such fear, fear no such future.
Once, years ago, I spoke to a survivor. He told me that in Poland, he learned even before the war to step in the street when his non-Jewish neighbors came near. He learned to bow his head and, like my mother-in-law, to avoid getting attention. I listened to his description of pre- and post-WWII Poland and said without thinking that I would not have survived because I never learned to walk with my head bowed down. I never learned to fear the light.
My children have grown up this way and that is perhaps my greatest pride today. The siren wailed and Israel stopped today. We stopped and mourned and then, two minutes later, the cars began to move, the people began to walk, the phone rang, and somewhere, not very far away, Elie and his unit went back on patrol.