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In my last blog post, I recounted the background of Yiddish linguist Dovid Katz, who has been reporting on troubling manifestations of neo-fascism in Lithuania today. In my talk with him via Skype from Vilnius, I began to better grasp that the key to the understanding of the Shoah in Lithuania lay in the year-long Soviet occupation that preceded it, in 1940-41.
Essentially the genocide of Lithuania’s Jews was powered by an explosion of nationalist anti-Semitism that fatally conflated all Jews with the hated communists. The killing began as soon as the Soviets withdrew, when hundreds of brutal pogroms broke out. Lithuanian militia units, wearing white armbands, also started to round up and massacre the Jews, to enact anti-Jewish edicts on behalf of the new Lithuanian authority that quickly took control. As Timonthy Snyder, history professor at Yale, put it, in a 2012 New York Review of Books article, “A provisional Lithuanian government, composed of the Lithuanian extreme right, introduced its own anti-Semitic legislation and carried out its own policies of murdering Jews, explaining to Lithuanians that Bolshevik rule had been the fault of local Jews, and that destroying them would restore Lithuanian authority.”
The Nazis were popularly welcomed as rescuers, often with flowers; within weeks they had dissolved the Lithuanian’s provisional government and taken full control. Under German authority, Lithuanian volunteers continued to carry out the genocide. The Germans were so impressed with the enthusiasm of their Lithuanian killers that they used some of them to murder Jews in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.
It must be said there were also hundreds of heroic individual Lithuanians who risked their lives to save Jews; but in general, Lithuania was about as bad a place as it could possibly get for a Jew in the latter half of 1941.
Since the accusation that “the Jews” sided with the Soviet occupiers in 1940 and somehow deserved their fate still surfaces when wading into the historical literature, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Lithuanian Jews were in fact not communists, and that they too suffered, even disproportionately so, under the Soviets. In any case, if Soviet crimes were the real issue, than those individual Lithuanian citizens who collaborated in them, Jewish or otherwise, could have been arrested for trial by the provisional government. But that was obviously not the intent – the dispossession and elimination of an entire ethnic minority, long viewed with suspicion, clearly was, with probably a quarter of the victims being children.
What Katz has drawn my attention to, is how post-communist Lithuanian governments have not only failed to seriously prosecute their own war criminals, but have in some cases heaped honours on the very men responsible for the slaughter. Their names grace streets and parks and monuments; these days the white armbanders are often lionized as fighters for Lithuanian independence. In mid-2012 the then-government even flew the remains of the provisional government’s leader – a rabid anti-Semite whose signature helped lay the groundwork for the genocide – back to Lithuania, to give him a state funeral, complete with honour guard and archbishop in tow.
The reason behind this, as Katz sees it, is the nation’s need for symbols of resistance, especially to the Russians. The fact these so-called heroes who fought for independence also have hands dripping with innocent Jewish blood is an inconvenience that needs to be glossed over.
On the website he edits, Katz has steadily documented this move to whitewash the ugly side of the country’s past. “I regard this work to be sacred,” he said. “I believe, maybe naively, not as a Don Quixote, but in a very serious way that . . . these guys should not get away with rewriting history without opposition.”
For me, the influence of history is often an uncomfortable one. It brings the burden of old hatreds, of an upwelling of profound sadness. But for Katz, history is a kind of life force for which he is the conduit. His father was a Yiddish poet. At fifty-six now, he has spent his life working to keep the Yiddish language alive. In a way this new task of what he calls defending history, is the same process: he is speaking up for those who have no mouths, for the heaped skulls buried in the silent forests. Don’t let them forget what happened to us. Doing what he can to make sure there is a place in the record for the ghosts of the murderers to have their say, no matter how tiny and breathless their faint cries may be now to our distant living ears.
I first came across the writings of Dovid Katz while researching what happened to my relatives in Lithuania in the summer of 1941. Though my novel The Lion Seeker is set in South Africa, it tells the story of Jewish emigrants from Lithuania, still bound to that blood-soaked land during the horrors of that time. I had learned the details of how, following the withdrawal of Stalin’s forces, Lithuanians had turned on their Jewish neighbours in an orgy of mass murder that began weeks before the Germans took control, then continued under Nazi direction till over ninety-five percent of the country’s ancient Jewish community was wiped out, mostly in a matter of months. In grainy black-and-white I saw the Lithuanian death squads with their white armbands; on Katz’s website I saw the same white armbands but in full colour, the photos recent and sadly real.
Katz is an American linguist who taught at Oxford. In 1999 he took a position at the University of Vilnius and began to travel all over the region, interviewing the last surviving Yiddish speakers. Ten years later he became aware of a change, something troubling in the young democracy. Fascists were again marching through the centre of the Lithuanian capital. It started with skinheads chanting the old cries of death to the Jews, but became larger and more diverse with each passing year. Sitting members of parliament and ordinary middle-class citizens have joined these parades, conferring authenticity. Other groups are routinely banned from marching, Katz says, but the neo-fascists always seem to get a permit, and have received police protection and centre stage for Lithuania’s independence day celebration. Above all, Katz says he’s seen little opposition, no popular outcry against these marches, even as they have spread to other cities.
When I talked with Katz earlier this year – an animated, amusing presence through the videolink from Vilnius, with a Rasputin-like beard and a persisting Brooklyn melody to his accent – he began by insisting that today’s Lithuania is not an intrinsically anti-Semitic society. “After living here happily all these years I don’t regard the Lithuanian people as anti-Semitic. The majority of people here, and especially the younger generation, are open-minded, non-prejudiced, interested in a better life, in travelling.”
Rather, he sees the burgeoning ultra-nationalism as the result of how Lithuanian institutions are dealing with their history, or failing to. In Lithuania, unlike in, say, Germany, there has been little honest soul searching and public scrutiny of the unusually extensive role that Lithuanians themselves played in the genocide of the 200,000-plus Jewish Lithuanians.
Lithuania was proportionately the worst country for the Jews during the Holocaust, with the lowest percentage of survivors out of any country with a large Jewish community. It was a high-speed genocide carried out in the open, mostly. People - children and infants, women – were shot en masse and dumped into pits. Lithuanian volunteers did almost all the killing, Lithuanians rounded up the Jews, who were usually killed not far from their homes. A Lithuanian term zydsaudys or “Jew shooters” still endures, testament to how commonly well-known the activity was. The Jews “screamed like geese,” as they were shot, said one participant, Jonas Pukas, who died in New Zealand in 1994. Survivor testimonies, like those in the recently-published Kuniuchowsky archives, detail how the perpetrators included Lithuanians from all strata of society such as the clergy and intellectuals. The writings of various historians (like Timothy Snyder, Alfred Senn, Alfonsus Eidintas, Solomonas Atamukas, Milan Chersonski), all helped to outline for me how widespread Lithuanian collaboration with, and approval for, the genocide was. Part of my research into my late grandmother’s village also included watching video clips of witness testimony from elderly Lithuanians, and this too, for me, was confirmation on a micro level of what had happened more generally.
In short, if there was a polar opposite to Denmark (where virtually every Jew was saved by their fellow citizens), then Lithuania unfortunately stands out as prime candidate for that shameful distinction.
In part two of my discussion with Katz, we delve a little more into the reasons behind this.
This year Jewish Americans will participate in an extraordinary Hanukkah celebration—they will light the first menorah candle on the evening before Thanksgiving. This has never happened before, but we came very close to it in 1888. Then, the first Hanukkah light and Thanksgiving occurred on the same day. That year, the national Jewish newspaper, the American Hebrew, dedicated its November 30 issue to the “twofold feasts.” The issue was as much “a tribute to the historic significance of Chanuka” as to “the traditions entwined about Thanksgiving Day.” The editors hoped readers would find the newspaper to be “a stimulus to the joyousness and gladness upon the observance of both.” In previous years they had described Hanukkah as a festival to thank God for the Maccabean victory, and, seeing both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as occasions for giving thanks to God, they easily encouraged American Jews to enthusiastically celebrate both events.
But most of the time, as we know, Hanukkah occurs at a time closer to Christmas. Most years, the American Hebrew’s Hanukkah message urged its readers not to join their fellow Americans in the national festivities because it was the celebration of Jesus’ birth that enchanted their gentile neighbors. Instead, that newspaper echoed the December messages of most other Jewish publications. Jewish newspapers, synagogue bulletins, women’s and men’s club letters, rabbinical sermons, and the urgings of educators and self-styled community leaders alike urged America’s Jews to make their Hanukkah celebrations as festive as possible.
Again and again, in the years since that early American Hebrew message, American Jews wove Hanukkah’s story into their own contemporary lives in ways that reflected their changing circumstances. Those retellings kept Hanukkah’s meaning alive and relevant. They turned the simple holiday rite into an event which, like other well-loved Jewish festivals, drew families together in their own homes where they could tailor the celebration to fit their own tastes in food and décor, and to reflect their own ideas about the holiday’s significance. They could indulge their children, and be joyous.
Will we ever celebrate Hanukkah and Thanksgiving together this way again? Almost. In 2070 Thanksgiving will fall on November 27th and Hanukkah will begin the following day. In 2165, we will light the first Hanukkah candle on November 28—Thanksgiving Day. But for Hanukkah’s first light to occur the evening before Thanksgiving, as it does this year, is truly an anomaly we won’t see again.
The reissuing of my novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Red Love, as an e-book this month is a joyful moment for me. When the book came out, the Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, a month before she died, wrote that “This is a novel that represents life and is true to history, combining imagination with the documentary record, written with bite and black humor, tempered by compassion for the betrayed sacrifices, the lives lost.” Elie Wiesel wrote that my book has “fascinating events and amazing perception.”
I remember as a small boy in Queens how the sky seemed to darken for me when I heard of the Rosenbergs’ execution. It was an event I could not get out of my memory. Soon I would be drawn to the American Communist Party. I felt a kinship for these well-read, cultured and passionate souls who yearned for a kinder, more compassionate world. As I learned more about Stalin’s crimes and anti-Semitism, it was inconceivable to me that these people who I so admired, who had so much humanity and love for their fellow man, revered a system that even Nikita Khrushchev admitted in 1956 was bathed in the blood of tens of millions of people. The USSR allied itself with Hitler during the Hitler-Stalin pact, murdered millions in the Gulag, destroyed Jewish life in the Soviet Union and murdered the major writers and artists who comprised the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Yet I came to understand that for these American true believers, the Soviet Union had once symbolized paradise, where there were no such things as anti-Semitism, economic exploitation, poverty and racism. The contradiction between the sincere goodness of the people I met in the Communist Party and the justifications they presented for a totalitarian regime became for me a personal and professional puzzle to resolve.
In the 1980s I set out to write about the Rosenberg case and returned to the Communist Party milieu. I met and interviewed the living person closest to the Rosenbergs, Morton Sobell, who was tried with them in 1951 of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. I interviewed his wife, the late Helen Sobell, Ethel Appel, the sister of Julius Rosenberg, historian Nathan Glazer, who’d written about the case, scores of Communist Party activists, Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader and a former member of the Young Communist League, Herbert Aptheker, historian and Communist Party leader, and almost a hundred others. Since I had not lived through the Depression and the rise of Nazism in Germany and neo-fascist American movements personified by Father Coughlin and America First, I needed to understand the mindset of people like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg by searching out those who believed as they did, who had felt, like Communist leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, that Stalin “was the new Moses.”
I did not want to echo the viewpoint of far right writers who concluded that the Rosenbergs and their comrades were solely motivated by loyalty to the Soviet Union, not opposition to fascism. Being anti-fascist for the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell was inseparable from being pro-Soviet at that time. I came to understand that the utopian view of the USSR deeply appealed to Jews growing up in the Depression, frightened by the seeming collapse of capitalism, gradually learning of the existence of concentration camps and of Hitler’s plans for the Final Solution. The only hope seemed to be the Soviet Union, which bore the brunt of the fighting against fascism.
During the same period, I worked as a writer/researcher for the Anti-Defamation League focusing on far right and far left organizations. That experience further consolidated my understanding of the ways in which totalitarian visions interconnected. And with the help of the ADL, I traveled to Israel and Switzerland to interview the family of Peretz Markish, the great Yiddish poet and a Communist true believer murdered by Stalin and beaten to death in the prisons of the NKVD. For me the reality of Markish’s fate underscored the sad paradox and irony of what Communist true believers were enduring in the Soviet Union at the same time their American counterparts were devoting their lives to celebrating “Soviet justice.”
And so I set out on a journey of understanding. I concluded that I would not deny the guilt of the Rosenbergs or Morton Sobell, but I would not deny their humanity either, the facts of how American Communists put themselves on the front lines in the struggle for civil rights in the South and for better working conditions. Nor would I ignore the forces of the anti-Semitic far right on American soil that were the other side of the coin during those terrible years. And far from American shores, I would document a twentieth century that gave us both the Final Solution and the Gulag. We needed a more nuanced understanding of the Rosenbergs within the context of those terrifying times. The Rosenbergs were not the saints their supporters imagined them to be, but they did not deserve to be executed or demonized either.
When Morton Sobell confessed in 2008 that he had, indeed, spied for the Soviets and admitted that so had Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, I was not at all surprised. I knew from my meetings with Sobell in 1982 that, in the silences between his words, (and some of his actual words as well) that he was guilty. I wrote of him with compassion and affection in Red Love, and felt very fortunate that the insights I brought to my book came partly from the understanding he gave me.
I believe that Red Love is saturated with a love and understanding of my characters—even if laced with humor and irreverence—an understanding that came from immersing myself for ten years in the lives of the American Communists who experienced events and times that I never went through and who conveyed that history to me. As a result, as Lucy Dawidowicz wrote, the reader of Red Love “grieves for the many thousands whose years were squandered on false hopes, betrayed ideals, messianic delusions.”
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (or “JDS” as it was fondly known), the school my three brothers and I all attended from grades 6-12, had no football team and no swim team. Neither my brothers nor I cared about football; the absence of a swim team, however, we found frustrating. We couldn’t understand why JDS couldn’t rent pool-time from the JCC across the street. Fortunately, all of us were deep into our summer-league swim team, probably our collective favorite athletic venture of the year. We grew up in Northern Virginia, home of the illustrious Northern Virginia Swim League (NVSL), one of the largest public swimming leagues in the country. With over 100 neighborhood recreation centers fielding teams in 18 divisions, the NVSL presides over a 6-week competitive swimming season every summer, from mid-June through the end of July. The B-meets, which did not count for league standing and thus were markedly less competitive and more fun, were all on Monday nights. The A-meets, which did count, were on Saturday mornings.
Our first years in swimming, my brothers and I only did B-meets; my parents insisted that we attend synagogue on Saturday mornings. We were the only Jews on the team—my parents’ home is in the heart of the St. James Parish, featuring a large community church within a well-connected and active Northern Virginia Diocese—and our absence to the A-meets caused some raised eyebrows. I’m not sure I’d have had the impetus to question my parents’ edict alone, but Haskell, my middle brother, got feisty. He was by far the best swimmer of the four of us, and the coaches wanted him especially for Saturday meets; they knew he’d bring in points. One of them pulled us both aside. “Maybe you guys could have a talk with your parents?” they asked pointedly.
Haskell and I begged our Mom, who was the main stickler on the subject. Eventually we struck a compromise; as long as Mom didn’t have to serve as a timer or work the concession stand at Saturday meets (no problem, because they needed timers and concession workers on Mondays as well), and as long as we attended Saturday services with minimal complaining in the weekends before and after swim season, then we could attend meets during those six Saturdays. I’m sure, looking back, that it was a difficult compromise for Mom to make; I believe she understood that not only did we love swimming, but we yearned to be a part of our neighborhood community in Falls Church, VA, as well as our school community in Rockville, MD.
The memories of those summer swim meets are some of my happiest: I remember heading off to the pool just after sunrise with my brothers, having been too nervous to eat more than a granola bar for breakfast. The team would warm up together, each of us jittery in anticipation of our races. Then, when it was time to race, I remember the initial shock of diving into the cold pool again, sprinting as fast as I possibly could (NVSL races are never more than 100 meters), then anxiously slapping the edge of the pool and looking up to see how well I’d finished. Sometimes, that would result in tears; other times, in elation.
But there was a longer-lasting lesson in our summer swim team experience, which I don’t think even my mother foresaw. Many of our school friends, I realized, did not have friendships outside of the Jewish community. My brothers and I did, though—from swim team. Despite the initial hurdle of the Saturday meets, our mostly Catholic swim team friends, who all lived nearby, never made us feel any outsider status. I remember one Saturday night in particular, when I was set to drive a bunch of kids from swim team around in our family van—I believe we were going to make a series of “hits” in team’s yearly game of Super Soaker “assassination.” Mom had told us we couldn’t leave until after Havdalah. And so, when three stars were out, my brothers and I emerged from our house to find several team-members on our lawn, patiently waiting for us to fulfill our religious obligations so that we could all drive off into the Virginia twilight together.
My brothers and I together attended various Jewish day schools in France, then in Northern Virginia, and in Southern Maryland throughout our respective primary and secondary school years. The middle/high school we all attended, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (known as “JDS”), boasted a reasonably well-developed athletic program: They offered three seasons of sports, including soccer, basketball, track and cross-country, volleyball, softball, baseball, and briefly a lacrosse team. We competed against various other small schools, mostly parochial, in the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference.
Our most heated rivalries (i.e., the ones wherein we’d actually have some spectators at the games) were against two other Jewish schools: Beth T’Filoh, in Baltimore, and Hebrew Academy, also in the Rockville/Silver Spring area. Whenever we played either of these teams, our gym would be plastered with signs saying, “Let the Jews win!” or “Jews are the best athletes!” The rivalries were traditional, but good humored, and lacking in ferocity. Losing a basketball game, even to one of our “rival” teams, was no biggie—everyone would be over it in a day. Getting a low grade in Talmud—then you had a problem!
Looking back, I recognize and very much appreciate our school’s healthy attitude towards athletics: It was implicitly understood that sports were fun, but not the be-all-end-all of existence. If you wanted to be on a really competitive team, you played outside of school. (A lot of kids were on teams outside of school, either to have access to a more challenging program and possible “scouting,” or because our school didn’t offer a particular sport, as was the case with my brothers and me, who all participated in a neighborhood swim team.)
Nevertheless, despite the lack an obsessive sports culture, students—even ones without natural athleticism—were very much encouraged to try new sports and join teams. “Try out for basketball! We need people, and you might like it,” one of our gym teachers once told me, after seeing me shoot baskets (poorly) in the gym during a free period. I was predictably awful; I have no eye-hand coordination, and spent most of my time during games warming the bench. But I learned a lot from basketball—not only about the sport, but about being part of a team, and the value of keeping in shape year-round. When spring track season came along, I was glad I’d been running laps of the gym all winter long.
Judaism has traditionally held an ambivalent view of sports, dating from Hellenic times, and the “heathen” worship of the body implied by building enormous gymnasiums and participating in nude Olympics. Up to the rise of Zionism and the Maccabiah games, which have gone far to legitimize athleticism within our ranks, Jews have been more comfortable identifying as brainy than brawny. I remain grateful to JDS for embracing a modern and enlightened approach to sports, both for girls and guys (which might have been an issue in some religious schools), and fostering—if not Olympic-level skills—an appreciation for exercising the body as well as the mind.
I was born in Baltimore in 1954, nine years after the Shoah, one of signature events of the 20th—or any—century. That I recall, throughout my early childhood no one in my community spoke much about it.
During the Israeli Bond drives of those years, the rabbi would sometimes invoke a gruesome image or two—but nothing approaching a coherent account of continent-wide anti-Semitism or the camps. We had no discussions at the dinner table or in Hebrew School and certainly none in the public school classroom. At the Jewish Community Center where I played basketball, I saw men with numbers tattooed on their forearms. I couldn’t approach these men: there was no context for that and certainly no invitation.
I was only six years old when the English translations of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1959) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) became available in America. Later, having read them, I didn’t understand why they hadn’t moved my parents and teachers to a frank conversation of the war. Perhaps the memories were too near and raw; perhaps adults through their silence believed they were protecting us. Not even the survivors I knew, the parents of my friends, would speak. “Why remember bad times?” they’d say when the children asked.
Popular culture filled the void, and not particularly well. The Guns of Navarone (1961) pitted allied commandos against generic bad guys who happened to wear German uniforms. The Great Escape (1963) offered a mostly benign account of a POW camp. True, German soldiers gunned down the majority of those who attempted escape, but the story was about soldiers killing other soldiers who wouldn’t sit still and listen—wouldn’t play by the rules of war. In a sense, the never-say-quit attitude of the British and Yank prisoners invited the killing. There was a grim logic to that and a certain decorum and courtesy in the camp, call it a baseline respect for the human that was never shown to the prisoners of labor camps or death factories. Why didn’t the movies portray that? In 1965, Hogan’s Heroes gave us a comedy (!) set in a POW camp, its storylines variations on the mischievous play that duped the ever-clumsy German command. No one, it seemed, neither the entertainment industry nor educators, dared to take on the horror of industrial-scale murder.
All I had to work with in my struggle for understanding was the silence of adults and quasi-entertaining military action/adventure accounts of the war. What I sorely missed were innovative curricula like Facing History and Ourselves (founded in 1976) that addressed the calamity head on in public school settings. At last, by my mid-twenties, more histories and more survivor accounts were being published and televised series like Holocaust (1978) brought realism to the subject. By that point my war-related anxieties were already established. I had filled in blanks not with information but with nightmares of snarling dogs and men in jackboots hauling people off into the night.
Little wonder that these anxieties surfaced decades later in my writing. Many Jewish artists find themselves reckoning with the events in Europe seventy years ago, whether or not they lived through them. My reckoning came in The Tenth Witness, a novel set in 1978 about the legacy of national socialism. I follow a character who falls in love with the daughter of a man who made steel for the Reich. Why? I suppose I wanted to get as close to the beast as I could to study it—in a context I understood, the 70s, when there were still plenty of former Nazis walking the streets of Munich and Buenos Aires. The woman fascinated me. She was innocent, though her father wasn’t. Still, did she need forgiving for merely having been born German, or born to parents implicated in war crimes? What does forgiveness look like in the context of the Shoah? How do the sins of parents weigh on children? What does a child learn from a father who used slave labor? Is that child somehow tainted? These questions confused my teenage years, and only decades later did I gain perspective enough to wrestle with them.
Doubtless, my parents and teachers thought they were doing right by sparing children details of the Shoah. We take another view these days, and that’s a good thing because their silence proved a burden.
No one counted on that.
Last weekend I ran the ING New York City Marathon, which was an amazing experience—essentially, a 26.2-mile long party celebrating running, community, and Gatorade. Running the marathon was a real “bucket-list” check-off for me, and the culmination (though certainly not the conclusion) of a love affair with running that began for me when I was 10 or 11, in the Jewish day school I attended in Northern Virginia.
Gesher Jewish Day School, where I was a student through 6th grade, was formerly housed in Agudas Achim Congregation (before it got a building of its own, the year after I graduated—I found it terribly unfair that the moment I was no longer a student there, Gesher suddenly had a swank new facility, including access to the local JCC’s swimming pool). Having to teach gym classes in what was, on Saturdays, the synagogue’s social hall, forced our P.E. teacher Mr. Slover to be creative. In an effort to get us motivated and excited about running as a sport in its own right (as opposed to a part of some other sport, like soccer or dodge-ball), he set up a competition called “The Big Cheese,” and put flyers for it all over the school. For my age group, the 6th graders, it involved running 18 laps around the social hall-cum-“gym”, on a “track” demarcated by carefully placed orange cones, in four minutes or less. The total distance was probably a third of a mile. If you achieved The Big Cheese, you got a prize—the nature of which Mr. Slover left intentionally mysterious, but promised would be “awesome.”
Each student had three tries to make it before a certain deadline. I remember that I failed the first two times, collapsing dramatically at lap 16 or 17 when Mr. Slover blew his whistle to signal “time’s up,” and in one case, crying in disappointment. I was all set to try again for my 3rd and final attempt (I had even been running laps around our courtyard on weekends, trying to improve my time) when the unthinkable happened—a blizzard struck the DC-area, and school was closed for an entire week.
After the initial elation at receiving another (unplanned) winter break, I realized with horror that my 3rdattempt at The Big Cheese would be cancelled along with school. There was no way I could make it by the deadline, now. I tried consoling myself with bitter thoughts that Mr. Slover’s prize was probably not that awesome, that The Big Cheese was a stupid competition anyway, and that getting a week off from school was the best thing that could ever happen.
When the snow melted and we returned to school, Mr. Slover showed yet again his gift for outside-the-box thinking, by unexpectedly pushing back the deadline for The Big Cheese. Third time was the charm, and come Wednesday (my next P.E. day after the return to school) I made my 18 laps in under four minutes, fair and square. I was overwhelmed by how incredible I felt—the satisfaction at having completed a race against the clock, beating my own time (and those of everyone who hadn’t taken The Big Cheese seriously) to achieve a goal. And, when Mr. Slover presented the prizes after morning minyan several days later—shiny copper medals on red, white, and blue ribbon (indeed, an “awesome” prize)—I knew I was hooked.
What followed was a middling career in middle and high school Track & Field, followed by the belated discovery (in senior year, three months before graduation) that long-distance running was “my thing,” and I should’ve been running Cross Country instead. Better late than never, I suppose. I took a break from running in college, then focused on swimming in my early 20s. I occasionally ran casually, for exercise or with friends. But nearly two decades after Mr. Slover and The Big Cheese, in 2011, I participated New York Road Runners’ “Israel Day 4-Miler” and was once again ensnared by that unbeatable thrill of competition against the clock.
That time, it stuck. I kept running, and I haven’t looked back since.
In radio and newspaper interviews I’ve done recently, a singular question has been asked more than any other: if your wife was the one injured in a terrorist attack, why are you the one telling your story?
It’s a similar question I asked myself when, in the wake of the 2002 Hebrew University bombing, I began suffering from PTSD-like symptoms. Hyperventilating in public and unable to sleep at night, I’d ask myself, Why are you not okay? You weren’t injured, your body wasn’t pierced by shrapnel, you’re not a victim. Why must you behave as one?
And it was this thought – you’re not a victim – that prevented me from seeking help, even after my wife had gained a remarkable measure of psychological healing after the attack. It wasn’t until years later, researching secondary victimhood as I prepared to reconcile with the family of the Palestinian bomber who tried to kill my wife, that I came to understand just how wrong I was.
For in trying to understand myself and my motivations for such a reconciliation quest, I came to understand that secondary trauma is not just real. It can be just as powerful and debilitating as the primary trauma itself. I came to learn that secondary victimhood exists not just in the victim’s imagination, but in clinical research as well.
This is something I explore in my memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? For in the book, I examine psychological studies which show that journalists who cover traumatic events often exhibit the exact same psychological distresses as the primary victims they cover. And sometimes, remarkably, spouses of war veterans will not only exhibit identical PTSD symptoms as their partners, but will sometimes respond to the exact same stimuli – the blades of a helicopter overhead, fireworks erupting – despite never having set foot on a battlefield.
For many years after the Hebrew University attack, I refused to view myself as a victim – refused to give myself such license – even as I struggled to breathe and sleep.
Today, when asked by journalists why I’ve written a memoir, and not my wife, I breathe deeply and say: because we were both victims, and this is my story.
My recently-published memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, chronicles the story of my reconciliation with the family of the bomber who perpetrated the 2002 Hebrew University terror attack – an attack which injured my wife and killed the two friends with whom she was sitting.
It is the story of how, suffering from PTSD-like symptoms in the attack’s wake, I sought a meeting with the Hamas bomber upon learning that he had unprecedentedly expressed remorse to Israeli authorities upon his capture.
It was a meeting I sought not out of revenge, but out of desperation.
To some, my story is a dangerous one – that is, if you view stories of peace and reconciliation, stories that humanize both Palestinians and Jews, as existential threats to Israel’s survival. Apparently, some do. Which is why, when the New York Post recently named my memoir as a “must-read,” a blogger for The Times of Israel penned an article entitled, “Is the New York Post Supporting the End of Israel?”
Within the article, I am characterized as an anti-Semite whose writing could come from “Hamas’ Editorial Team” because, apparently, any writing that critiques Israel and humanizes Palestinians is championing Israel’s destruction.
For those who view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a zero-sum game, in which only one side can emerge victorious, my book is indeed dangerous. It’s threatening. Even terrifying. Which is why it has inspired writers like the one at TOI to levy the ‘anti-Semitism’ charge against me – a charge meant to shut down political dialogue and debate on a most important issue.
Unfortunately, when the ‘anti-Semitism’ charge is employed in this way, it means little more than this: I disagree with your politics. And this usage, which is nothing more than a scare tactic, actually dilutes what is a very real and dangerous prejudice which continues to persist globally.
In truth, it’s not so different from what the Tea Party did recently during the government shutdown. In that case, you had politicians willing to leverage damaging the United States in order to promote their extremist, unsustainable demands. It was nothing but a destructive tantrum which, in the end, cost the U.S. economy $24 billion and .5 percent GDP in projected growth.
So too are misplaced charges of anti-Semitism by American Jews who stand outside the mainstream. They are nothing more than political tantrums intended to destroy reputations and silence debate on an issue that needs to be discussed: how to peacefully resolve a conflict which must end so that each side emerges ‘victorious.’
How to bring resolution so that each people, both deserving self-determination, can live in a country of their own?
An anti-Semitic notion, no?