Erased identities, erased memories, an erased people

As I was growing up, I was told by my parents that I was named for my father’s sister, Sarah Newberger, who had been killed in Auschwitz. I knew very little about her, except that she was the oldest of 5 children, was beautiful and married to a very wealthy man who did not want to leave their town of Borszszow, (pronounced as Borstchav, and known now as Melnice), Poland. At one point, a survivor had told my father that Sarah had given birth to infant twin daughters right before the war, and that one was named Raizal and the other Rachel, (although we never were able to verify that fact.)

When I was a freshman at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, one of the first trips I took was to Yad Vashem, determined to find her name among the six million. Her name and record were totally missing.

Quite a few years later, when the Holocaust Museum was opened, I again searched for her name. Again: missing.

It was not until many years later, when my husband and I took a trip to Vienna, that I was able to find a trace of her identity. We had been fortunate enough to be able to hook up with a very talented guide, named Barbara Timmermann of Vienna Walks. Barbara had told me that, like most of her peers, she did not want to ever find out what her grandfather did during the war.  She loved him and did not want to ask questions. She explained that was a sort of “tacit contract” between the generations never to discuss it.

Interestingly though, Barbara’s hobby was Jewish genealogy. When I told her about my aunt,the very next day, Barbara was able to not only come up with a computerized print out of what had become of Sarah, but she  was able to  name all of the facts about  all the members of my father’s immediate family, and even the fact that my father  Bezalel Newberger, died in February 1980. (Obviously, the communists had been very good at keeping records.)

On the print out, Barbara had written, “Unfortunately this area, especially the town of Borsczczow and Melnice, first was chosen or better had to be chosen by Jews from smaller shtetls as a center of emigration, and then it was literally overrun first by Stalin’s murderers and then Hitler’s. That’s why, probably, not a lot of information is left.”

What she did tell me verbally, however,  was that she strongly suspected that this was one of the hundreds of sites where Jews were forced to strip down naked, dig a hole and then they were systematically mowed down.

What could possibly be going through my aunt’s mind when this happened? Were there  actually twin daughters? I shiver to think what had become of them. How could any mother witness what I fear  must have been their fate.

How many hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions more of the unaccounted for exist in mass graves in Eastern Europe? How much human potential had been snuffed out by the Holocaust? How many memories? How many life stories were totally obliterated in this fashion?

For those who did make it to Auschwitz, one of the first things that the Nazis did to the Jews was to tattoo a number onto their arms; to obliterate one’s identity is the first step to the obliteration of a memory, both in the collective sense and in the individual sense.

As the Czech author, Milan Kundera had written in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

That is one of the reasons why, I, and my organization, EMET, work so incredibly hard to try to correct the one-sided  biases that are endemic to the way our taxpayer funded  Title VI Middle East Studies Programs teach about Israel and the Middle East.

If one looks at the text books, as we have, and the handouts that are given to the legislatively mandated teacher training workshops for teachers of kindergarten through twelfth grade,  that these Title VI programs must teach, they are replete with horrific anti-Israel biases, half-truths and  untruths, totally conjured up in the air. Please, if you can, take a look online at Audrey Shabbas’”The World Studies Notebook”, and just  read the poem, “Identity” by Mohamad Darwash that young children are taught in schools all around our nation.

Then you needn’t wonder why there is such a strong BDS movement throughout our nation’s campuses.

This is also what the Palestinian authority tries to do when they excavate the precious remnants of our ancient people’s presence in the land, and literally cast them out to the trash bin of history.

We just emerged from the holiday of Pesach, where we are taught to teach the story of our national liberation as a people, to our children. Indeed, it is the thread of our people’s narrative that we read each week on Shabbat that keeps our people alive. To obliterate our stories; to obliterate our collective memories; to obliterate the emet-the truth-means to obliterate ourselves as a people.

We owe it to my namesake, Sarah Newberger, and to Rachel and Raizel, if in fact they did indeed exist, and to all of the other Jews murdered so brutally, either randomly or systematically, to keep our people’s memory alive.

And to not allow the very same ancient virus of anti-Semitism to attack the moral clarity of our proud people’s story of going from the very depths of oppression and death to national liberation and life.

Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.

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