Marty and Shirley Aaron have the type of romance Disney wants you to believe in.
Both in their 80’s, they hold hands at the grocery store, call each other sickly adorable names, and look like they were just drawn for each other in a story book.
One time I served them lunch and Marty, in his thick Romanian accent, told me he was having lunch with “a fine young lady” that he thought was “very cute.” Marty’s health has been declining in the past few years. It is harder for him to get to synagogue on Saturdays. He walks with a cane which only makes him even more endearing. Marty has been the gabbai (the person who assists with the Torah reading) at Knesseth Israel in Birmingham for decades and when he reads from the Torah, it is the sweetest melody your ears will ever be graced with. His voice now shakes a bit when he speaks, but not when he sings. Meeting the man is a true blessing. He is warm. He is lively. Even when he’s seen me in my kitchen clothes, splattered with 20 different sauces and mascara melted down my face, he tells me I look very beautiful and I believe that he means it. He is also a narrative that exists so quietly all around me. All around most Jews who live in sizable communities. He is the life that continued boldly and without a lack of tenderness after the Nazis tried to murder him.
As a child, a Jew knows three things for certain: Hebrew makes your throat tingle, don’t eat the gefilte fish if it came from a jar, and 6 million of our people were murdered not that long ago. Your Holocaust education starts young, some argue too young, others say not young enough. My nightmares about being pursued by Gestapo started after the librarian read us a picture book about celebrating Chanukah in the Warsaw Ghetto when we were in 2nd grade. They never stopped. We covered the American education Holocaust essentials like Anne Frank, Number the Stars, and Night. We learned about Kristallnacht, the pogroms, the ghettos, and the antisemitism in the Soviet Union. We would break for fruit roll ups and juice boxes, then dive back into images of striped uniforms and forearm tattoos. For many of my Jewish peers, this was just flat-out boring. We heard these stories around the Shabbos table, at coffee with our aunts, during speeches given by the old men on Shabbat where we would listen from the sanctuary floors with the other kids where most of the wrestling matches took place.
When I moved to Alabama, I was the only Jew in the school. Our Holocaust unit lasted one week. We learned mostly about the Righteous Goyim, watched a PBS production about a neo-Nazi who learns about Anne Frank, and read a chapter out of our textbook that could be summed up by saying, “Hitler did some bad stuff, some non-Jewish people fought against him, then the war ended and everything was fine.” People were very uncomfortable around me that week, but for that one week, no one asked me if I had planned on getting a nose job. It is hard to say if the motive was guilt or pity. And as a college student at a school where we have an average of 12 Jewish students per semester, I have been utterly horrified by lack of knowledge my peers have about the Holocaust. Comments have ranged from insensitive to dumb. I took a class on the legacy of the Holocaust with Matt Levey. Of 20-something students, the only ones with prior knowledge of the class material, particularly the material involving the Soviet Union, consisted of me and a student from Belarus. And what people know, they know from Anne Frank stories. They know from History Channel specials that appeal to the morbid curiosities about Nazi doctors and Hitler’s drug use. They know Schindler’s List, maybe. They don’t hear Jewish voices. They don’t hear Rroma voices. They don’t hear Soviet voices. They hear their own. They hear good Christian Germans who didn’t agree with Hitler and treat human decency like heroics. They get their hands held and they get told they aren’t responsible. They aren’t antisemites. They are good, thinking, feeling people. It’s a lovely, nice idea.
This is the Holocaust narrative that leads to “Never Again” being drained of all meaning. What do we mean by that? Never again will an entire army be dressed in Hugo Boss and speaking German? Or never again will labor camps be so inhumane? Never again will we let our prejudices lead to state-sponsored violence? Some promises are easier to keep. Some slogans are easier to teach. Remember, The Diary of Anne Frank was banned in America for being too depressing and too sexual. There are people who marvel at me like a museum piece when I tell them I’m Jewish. Our voices are not heard.
In the past few weeks, I have written about bomb threats on my community. I have been told my attitude toward anti-semites has shown my lack of humanity. I have been told my focus on the increasing hostility toward my community shows that I am blind to other minority communities. I can be an ally, but other communities are speaking. Hell, other communities are screaming. This is me, screaming now for my people.
Today, two days after Holocaust Remembrance Day, I was given instructions on how to evacuate children from the synagogue where I teach in case of a threat. If we are unable to leave, our written instructions were the to “FIGHT.” Please, please, let me scream. Jews are seen as passive, too weak and submissive to fight. But we have always been fighting. Jacob wrestled with the angel, and since then, Jews have been wearing their spiritual bruises and battle scars like medals. Punch us and we bleed history. We bleed the blood of our forefathers and our foremothers and it fills rivers and stains door posts. Abraham did not have to use his son as a sheep. His nation should not be remembered by history as such. During the Holocaust, there was Jewish resistance. There was was Jewish self-advocacy. There were Jewish organizations helping Jews leave the Soviet Union up until it collapsed in the 1990’s. And now, Jews are the educators. This is the last generation of elementary school kids who will hear incredible tales of survival first-hand from the people who can describe the scent of an SS officer’s breath. These are our grandparents. Our Hebrew school teachers. Our gabbais. They are not just the black-and-white photographs from our textbooks or the ghosts of stories we were told that we would have rather not heard. They are in Publix, buying milk with their spouses.
Marty Aaron sat me down one day and pulled out some pictures from his wallet. “I want to tell you my story,” he said. He showed a sepia picture of a man in a suit that was cropped below the knees, looking proud into the camera. Two little boys lounged at his feet. He pointed to the boy on the left. “That is me as a little boy. I was very active. That other little boy is my brother. And this,” he put his finger on the man’s chest, “is my father.” Marty showed me a different picture. There was a young boy with a smirk and a black cap. “This is me around the time of bar mitzvah. When I was 11, the Nazis took me to Bergen-Belsen. My father died, my uncle died, and my brother died. I was liberated when I was 12 years old. The army doctors told me if they had arrived two days later, I would have died. I was 60 pounds.” He pulled out another picture of a young man in a United States army uniform blowing a shofar as two men salute him. “Here I am during the Korean War. I didn’t speak hardly any English. In this picture, I was stationed in Anniston, Alabama. It was Rosh Hashanah, so I had a rabbi from Huntsville come down with a shofar. No one in my unit had ever seen or heard a shofar. But we blew it and they listened.” Marty put the picture stack down for a moment. “When I was in Anniston, I met a nice, young, beautiful Jewish girl and I married her. And when I got out of the army, we moved to Birmingham.”
“Who was the nice Jewish girl, Marty?” I asked.
“My Wife! Of Course!” He laughed a bit and then took out a color photo of a family in front of a fence surrounded by azaleas. “These are my grandchildren. Four grandchildren! And the youngest, Phoebe, is about to have her bat mitzvah!” And before Marty became less mobile and more sensitive to the weather, the only shabbat I can remember him missing was to go to Phoebe’s bat mitzvah.
Birmingham history, much like Jewish history, is the story of struggle. It has been a battle ground, it has staged some of the most gruesome scenes in American history, it has survived, and it is living with challenge and passion. Friday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. Perhaps bringing up politics is dangerous. There are so many ways to get in trouble that seem new to me. They are not new to my family, and it is not what my family left the Soviet Union for. But on Holocaust Remembrance Day, our new president failed to mention Jews during his address. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the tragedies of the MS St. Louis and the xenophobia that led to catastrophic Jewish refugee policies in the 30’s and 40’s still directly affecting the world’s Jewish population, refugees were left banned and stranded at American airports. As I Jew, I am angry. As an educator, I am angry. Did the lessons I learned sitting with my great-aunt as she told me about the boat ride to a strange new country not reach enough of the people I have met? Is this my fault? I am human, this is the way we think. And I can talk until my tongue falls out, but unless the realities of what fear can do to the world becomes just that, a reality, and not a film you can only handle watching once every decade, we will continue to struggle and to fight.
And, dearest Birmingham, the community I serve, the faces I see each day, all of you, Jew and non-Jew, there is so much fight in us. There is so much spirit. Around 5,000 people showed up to the Women’s March here. Our city has pulled together to breathe life back into places like the Lyric Theater and do small miracles, like position the children’s hospital just right so patients can watch baseball games from their rooms. This is the Birmingham I love. So let’s fight. Fight for love. Fight for justice. Fight for history. Fight for Marty. Fight for our kids. There are so many causes right here, right now. Go to the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center’s website. Go to their galleries. Book their speakers at your schools. Hear from a survivor while they are still here with us to share. See the films the BHEC show at a library near you. You can also take a virtual tour of Yad Vashem, which I strongly encourage. But there are passionate people in this city who are dedicated to spreading messages of horror and hope. They are here. Use them. Learn. Do not let “Never Again” become right now. Do not let the victims of the Nazis die in vain. Do not let Birmingham become one of the countless cities where Jewish students wake up to swastikas on their dorm doors. Please, please, please.
And there will be nasty comments on this piece. I will be accused of forgetting about other genocides that have occurred in recent memory. Someone will bring up Israel. All of these things have a time and place for discussion. All of these things are valid. But They are not what I am talking about right now. They are not what Holocaust Remembrance Day is about. For information on genocide, please visit the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity’s website. Thank you for your understanding.
And here, of course, is a baby koala.