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The Number of Jews

My Turn

The Number of Jews – Marlis Beier, MD

A recent European Union poll that a majority of EU citizens consider Israel more of a world threat than Iran, Iraq or North Korea outraged Israel, which feels it documents pervasive anti-Semitism in Europe. Swastikas are painted on Jewish graves in Germany yet denial surrounded me on my recent trip to Germany, a place I have spent much of my life. That my mother is Jewish would have sent me to the camps. My father grew up in Germany, was drafted at nineteen into Hitler’s army and fought on the Russian front. My parents met after the war at a Quaker seminar on peace and married shortly thereafter. My upbringing was a little Quaker, Jewish and Christian. I live as a Jew.

My first visit to Dachau was at age thirteen with my family. We drove our rental car up to the barbed wire fence with guard towers and a grass zone where any prisoner touching it was shot. The museum had pictures of piles of emaciated corpses found at liberation and survivors with gaunt faces and hollow eyes. I walked barren barracks where humans slept wedged too many to a bunk without enough toilets. The crematorium and gas chamber haunted me for years. I identified with Anne Frank, who died one month before liberation in Bergen-Belsen. I decided I could have stolen food and clothing from other prisoners or sacrificed morals at the brothel to survive “them”.

This fall I returned to Dachau with my eighteen-year-old daughter at her request. I met her traveling Europe while she waited to start Middlebury winter term. The day was rainy, windy and cold despite layers and gortex. Thoughts that I might have survived ended at forty-nine and my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The guide told us, prisoners worked in automotive and manufacturing factories next to local workers. They walked to the factories and to the fields on local roads. Starving bodies were there for Germany to see. The camp opened in 1933 increasing until the end of the war. The barracks and the gas chamber profoundly affected my daughter. She said she never would have survived because she couldn’t work in a brothel and would have frozen to death.

I have struggled to reconcile the two sides of my family. One of my friends in middle school, a New York Jew, refused to ride in German cars. She did not know what to do with my Dad. When my Dad faced his Bet Din, the “court” of questions at his conversion three years ago, they asked him about his involvement in the Holocaust. He gave a favorite German answer. “I didn’t know.” His first cousin, Rosemarie is one of my favorite people. Beautiful now at eighty, she radiates unconditional love, warmth and gave me my favorite doll, Mimi. During the war, she lived next door to a concentration camp and saw the prisoners walk by daily. She says she “didn’t know.” Another cousin told me Germany saw the huge department store Kaufhof lose its Jewish owners name during the war when he was sent to the concentration camp and killed.

I met several European Jews, none believers. Martine lived in Amsterdam, a distant relative whose aunt was on the same train as Anne Frank. When her father died, she found our family in her search to increase living relatives other than her sister. Her upbringing had no religion but much of what she loved about her father came from his Judaism. In long discussions, she could not forgive my God that could have allowed the Holocaust. I saw her skepticism as she listened about my conversations with God, prayer, community and the power of forgiveness.

I met Vladimir from Prague. His father was at Dachau as a communist and his mother in another concentration camp as a Jew. I thought we could discuss Judaism in Europe after the Holocaust. His two children were the same age as mine and he too was a physician. A recently published German book claimed America orchestrated September 11 and Jews stayed home from work that day. Vladimir said Jews brought anti-Semitism onto themselves. When I continued on about the ever decreasing number of Jews in the world, he responded with, “Isn’t that how it should be?”

After Kristallnacht, when Jews lost their synagogues and businesses, disappeared from schools and were put in train cars, Germany knew. My relatives and my father knew. To do something meant risking your life… I can only love my family. I choose to forgive and understand. And I know the importance of speaking out against denial in the culture and in those in power. The prime minister of Malaysia recently said even though Europeans had reduced the Jewish population from twelve million to six million, Israel rules the world by proxy – a stunning statement of anti-Semitism. How do we deal with this? President Bush pulled him aside to object, confronting and not denying the anti-Semitism, but staying in relationship. This is what I have learned from growing up with both sides. Whether it’s my father, the Nazis or the Prime Minister of Malaysia, one cannot remain silent in the face of denial, but without love and forgiveness, they won’t listen.