An Open Book: To Those Who Help Us Speak

Los Alamos

One of my clearest memories of high school was watching Mr. Cipolla, a vigorous young social studies teacher, pacing back and forth across the blackboard in his tight pants popular in the 70s, the top of his shirt opened to reveal impressive amounts of chest hair. He would wave the chalk in his hand and prompt us to think deeper about the historical period we were learning that day or even current events. “Pay attention guys,” he scolded us during the Watergate era. “This stuff will be in the history books!”

He was colorful and loud and spirited, even outrageous at times, and he inspired me to speak up and contribute to his class. Mr. Cipolla was my favorite teacher, and I took every subject I could from him.

One of those provocative arguments came up during our study of WW II. “If the Nazis had won the war, we might all be reciting ‘Heil, Hitler’ instead of the Pledge of Allegiance,” he asserted as we digressed unto a “victors write history” lesson. “No I wouldn’t,” I said, raising my hand, “I wouldn’t be here.” His pacing abruptly stopped and he turned to me with suddenly serious, maybe solemn eyes. “Yes, David, I think you are right.” That was the first time I felt the Holocaust personally.

The recent passing of Holocaust survivor,  author and peace activist Elie Wiesel has prompted renewed discussion about this tragedy, and some debate some 70 years later whether that event was a step in a steady progression through history of ever more appalling tactics of war, or whether this particular instance deserves an asterisk  in that long list of atrocities. To me, it is the tragedy that delineates my family’s history.

My grandparents, who fortuitously left Europe 15 years before the war, never talked about the Holocaust, or the war at all. I learned that one great-uncle on my mother’s side made it to Israel, but the stories of those on both sides of my family were too painful a subject to bring up. My grandmother spoke often about growing up at the turn of the century, but as a child I knew never to ask, and they never offered, information about “The War.” In my ignorance and mixed up historical sequence of a 10-year-old living with my grandparents, I remember looking for a tattoo on my grandfather’s arm. When I was older and ready to break that barrier and finally query my parents, my grandparents were already gone, along with the remembrance of those the Holocaust took away. Or so I thought.

When his parents passed away, my father went through their records and made copies of their marriage certificate and other items, knowing that I would find them interesting. Eventually, like leaves blown across a wide canyon, I have learned bits and pieces. single name of a person or a village turned into clues that led me to records about  great-grandparents, great-uncles and great-aunts, to professions as tailors and shoe-makers, to birth, marriage and death certificates, to names of more villages and even street names. My favorite discovery was that one marriage was followed by the groom’s sister marrying the bride’s brother. How wonderful it would have been to know more about that complicated courtship!

This research also led me to the exact place and date of death of two sets of great- grandparents. The Nazis, as part of their efficiencies, kept excellent records of their murders. As far as I can tell, and I’ve looked for 20 years, my grandfather Aaron Izraelevitz, who left Lithuania for Uruguay in 1930 alone accompanying his bride’s family to Uruguay, was the only surviving member of his extended family. One of the papers my father found was a letter to my grandfather finding no information about a refugee named Chaim Izraelevitz. It was years later that I found out about Aaron’s younger sister, Sara, and two younger brothers, Wolf and Chaim.

I don’t know of another instance when a modern society sought to completely annihilate a people, even hunting out more members to kill as they conquered nations, shipping them to extermination camps that had been designed as methodically for maximum efficiency and capacity as one would design a manufacturing plant. To me, the Holocaust’s ultimate horror is not about numbers; it is about intent and a single-minded purpose to wipe out a culture. Stalin killed almost twice as many in his systematic famine of Ukraine in the 1930s, but his goal was not to exterminate the Ukrainian people, but to force obedience from them. The Nazis plan was not to stop until there were no more Jews.

First in his book “Night,” and in his subsequent writings and speeches, Eli Weisel was maybe the first to give voice to those who perished, but also to those burdened with survivor’s guilt. Initially, Wiesel refused to write or discuss his experiences as a 15 year old in the Buchenwald concentration camp where he was orphaned, but eventually, implored to do so by his friend Mauriac, a devout Christian and Nobel Prize winner, he wrote down what he saw and felt:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. (Elie Wiesel, excerpt from Night)

May Elie Wiesel’s memory be for a blessing. And may there also be a blessing in the memory of those lost to history, or burdened by it, on whose behalf Wiesel spoke in testimony.