I came on this trip unsure of whether I belonged, because I don’t have the same Jewish backgrounds as many of the other women. There were no Shabbat dinners in my house, no traditions passed from generation to generation, and no Hebrew was spoken. But after visiting Yad Vashem (World Holocaust Remembrance Center), there is no doubt in my mind that I am in the right place, and that I am part of the sisterhood of Jews.
At the beginning of the Yad Vashem tour, in front of images depicting European Jews before 1933, our guide, David Sussman, said that even if you were one-quarter Jewish, that was enough for the Nazis to want to have you killed. If I’d been alive and in Europe during World War II, I’d have been sent to a camp, and quite possibly, to the gas chamber. I recalled JWRP speaker, Nili Couzens’ words, earlier this week, when she heard about my grandmother, a Russian Jew, and told me I was “as Jewish as Moses.”
We continued through Yad Vashem, a concrete, triangular building with a shaft of natural light overhead, a muted brightness in an otherwise somber interior. My stomach clenched with nausea as photos and remnants from the Holocaust unfolded in front of me, and I was particularly affected by two areas: Kristallnacht, the largest state-sponsored pogrom (massacre) ever, in 1938, and by photos of Einsatzgruppen, death squads that shot Jews while standing naked, in pits. My grandmother fled a pogrom in Russia, with her family, more than twenty years earlier, and many of her aunts, uncles and cousins were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, in Riga, Latvia, during the Holocaust.
My family’s history is part of the Jewish story. My relatives are in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem. My grandmother may have severed her connection to Judaism, by hiding her faith, but she couldn’t destroy her connection with Israel.
“The only thing that is the same about all Jews, is we can trace our ancestors back to Israel,” said David Sussman, near the end of our tour.
His words were like a seed, planted within me. And it’s my responsibility, my obligation, to make sure it grows and thrives, by sharing what I’ve learned with my children and grandchildren, by adding Jewish traditions to my family’s life, and by ensuring future generations know about their ancestry.
My story may be different, but that doesn’t matter. I’m still Jewish, and I belong as much as a woman raised in the culture. Reclaiming my roots is just the beginning, and I can’t wait to grow spiritually and culturally.