On February 11th, the anniversary of my father’s open heart surgery, I leaned against the kitchen counter and scrolled through my father’s photo library on his phone while my mother formed ground turkey into burger patties.
There we were at Tahoe for Thanksgiving a few years ago… There were pictures of my parents wandering around Wales in the fog… There were Emily and me on the beach by Tim and Kathy’s house in Ventura, our home away from home.
Then, a photograph caught my eye. It was an old one, taken long before I was born–long before my dad was born for that matter.
The photograph, a scratched black and white image photocopied and emailed from dad’s cousin Lisa. In the image, two beautiful smiling young people, obviously in love, stand in a field of wildflowers. It was taken in the old country. Austria. Or Russia. I’m not sure which. Neither is my father.
As their eyes stare into mine, I start thinking… what made them leave? Why did they come to America when so many other Jews chose to stay?
Whatever their reason, it gave me life. I have no doubt that if they had not come, I would not be here today. The Glasners and Zorns who did not leave, those who chose to stay in their lovely bourgeois flats in Vienna… their lives were cut short mercilessly in a camp somewhere. I don’t know which one. Their names are listed in Yad Vashem.
So what made the ones looking back at me, the ones who gave my grandparents life, who gave my father life, who gave me life, what made them leave?
I’ll never know. Bertha held me as baby. She was in her late 80s. I’ll never get to ask her. No one else thought to while she was alive. But one day, I plan to thank her. All of them. Both Berthas (both my Jewish great-Grandmas were Berthas) and Harry and Eddy. I’ll thank them for making the courageous decision to come to America. To give me life in a time when many did not choose life, when many closed their eyes and their ears to reality as anti-Semitism increased to devastating proportions and insanity ruled the day. A time when the deaf were deemed not worthy to have children and those with disabilities were euthanized.
And then, I began to wonder, what choices will I have to make to give my future great-grandchildren life? What will I have to look at? To hear? To recognize? What lines will I have to draw, what borders will I be forced to cross? I don’t know, but I have no doubt they exist. Every generation is faced with choices to ensure life for their descendants. Every person is faced with choices that will determine whether they live their allotted days or die early. It will look different for me than it did for them. I’ve no Tsar, no Hitler to contend with. But that does not mean I’ve no enemies.
“Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.”1 Peter 5:8
A million things always seem to be pulling at my attention, trying to distract me from my purpose, to keep me apathetic and powerless. Media lulls me to sleep or weakens me with anxiety. Unforgiveness, selfishness, and cynicism nip at my heels and weigh me down like chains. And then again, there was the man on the corner near target who held up a sign saying that Jews are taking over our government. New York allows full term abortions of perfect babies. Maybe times have not changed as much as I would like to think…
These thoughts, whirl through my mind in the seconds I stare at the broken and bruised photograph, the faces of those four of whom half my genetic makeup is made. And I am suddenly overcome with the desire to honor them somehow, for making that brave decision to leave the Fatherland.
“Mom,” she looks up from the burgers, “When is Holocaust Remembrance Day?”
She asks Siri.
Siri answers, “Monday, February 11, 2019.”
“That’s today, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” She looked surprised. “How did you know?”
I don’t know how I knew. I looked at the photograph once more.