My refrigerator died on me on Friday at lunch time. I opened the freezer section and noticed that the items in front were soft and definitely not frozen. I put my hand in the refrigerator section – it wasn’t really cold. My neighbors were all away and even if I would have been able to contact them and ask permission to use their refrigerators for a day, I didn’t have a key to their homes.
Oh, and did I mention that I was expecting 12 guests for Shabbos?
And yet, I wasn’t in a panic, not even tearing my hair out – and I didn’t have to psycho-analyze myself too much to understand why I wasn’t in a total frazzle.
I was in the middle of reading To Vanquish the Dragon, Pearl Benisch’s memoir of her experiences during the Holocaust.
How is it even possible to get upset about a broken refrigerator when you read what it was like to be forced to watch your family being beaten unconscious and stuffed into an airless train to be taken to their death – and you can do nothing about it?
How can my problem compare to her forcing herself to work even harder than the taskmaster Nazis insisted, in the sewing factory, so she could produce one extra jacket a day and hide it day after day. In this way, on Shabbos she could “pretend” to work (risking being shot for lying) and produce the required number of jackets at the end of the day from the pile she had been hiding. And she was able to keep Shabbos.
When your yardstick for measuring pain and discomfort is the Holocaust, it’s difficult to get too upset about life’s minor problems – and that’s what they are.
I never heard much about the Holocaust first-hand. Although my parents were both born in Germany, my mother escaped on the Kindertransport to England and my father somehow got out via Holland to the U.K. on a short-term visa. I still have his German passport with a swastika stamped on it. It says that he is not allowed to stay in the United Kingdom longer than two months.
Thank G-d he ignored that and remained there until he passed away over 30 years later.
I was one of the few people who actually grew up with two sets of German grandparents, which I didn’t appreciate. I never discovered how my father’s parents managed to escape. My mother’s parents had managed to acquire a “certificate” to enter Palestine, but once they arrived in England where their children were, they decided to stay. They sent the certificate back to Germany and hopefully saved some more Jewish lives.
To be perfectly honest, I was barely aware of the Holocaust until I was a teenager. The generation that lived through it and survived didn’t talk about it all that much. It was only after I made aliyah that I began to learn about the Holocaust and how it had affected my family.
An elderly widow whom we befriended and invited for Shabbos meals in our new Ramot community turned out to have been a young teenager in my grandfather’s shul in Hamburg, Germany before the war. She told me about my grandfather’s bravery when Nazi storm-troopers were stationed outside his shul listening in on his Shabbos drasha waiting to see if he criticized the Nazi regime. He did – and vehemently – but for some reason they never arrested him. His congregants, especially the young ones, considered him a hero. When he was finally arrested after Kristallnacht and incarcerated in Sachsenhausen Camp, his life was saved by a fellow prisoner who kept him from admitting to the guards that he was a rav.
This anecdote was mind-boggling. To me, my grandfather was an elderly man with a very strict yekkish demeanor. I assumed he loved me, as I was his granddaughter, but neither he nor my other grandfather were demonstrative. The thought of him being such a heroic firebrand against the Nazis was such an eye-opener I could barely get my mind around it.
This set me off in search of stories and memories of others who had suffered through this terrible time. My grandparents and my father were already in the Olam HaEmes. I understood that my mother didn’t want to talk about her life in Germany. She only started to talk about the London blitz when she was in her 70s. She had been evacuated to Shefford with the rest of the Jewish Secondary School under the tutelage of Rebbetzin Dr. Judith Grunfeld. I didn’t want to upset her by attempting to drag other memories out of her.
So I frequently read about the many thousands, in fact million, who suffered. I certainly don’t enjoy these books, but I feel it’s the least that we, the next generation and the ones after us, can do to understand and empathize in any small way with what our grandparents and great-grandparents went through.
And when my refrigerator breaks down on a summer erev Shabbos, the minor discomfort is immediately put into perspective. If we have to eat a different menu than I had planned, and drive some of my intended courses to someone else’s refrigerator some distance away, so be it. It doesn’t compare with the real difficulties that life can throw at you.