For some people, hope is nothing but an airy dream. But for my parents, Elisabeth and George, it is a hard-won reality that they have lived every day of their lives. Their commitment is anything but naïve. They are both survivors of the Holocaust and have experienced anti-Semitism in all its forms. They’ve suffered more than most of us, God willing, will ever experience. And yet, their hope has been a source of redemption and new life.
By sharing their memories with me and by not letting the bad ones outweigh the positive, they taught me how to live with love and not hate. They saw the worst that we are capable of, and yet, they reject those who espouse ideologies of blame and hate. They taught me how to value our fellow man in spite of having endured the worst form of anti-Semitic hate that led to the extermination of 6 million Jews.
They inspire me every day for their courage and conviction that even after living through the darkest chapter in human history, it is possible to build a better future.
The truth is, in their 83 years, my parents have each lived not one, but three lives. Their first lives were warm and wonderful childhoods in little towns in Transylvania (Hungary/ Romania). Those idyllic chapters ended when they were sent to live in ghettos, and their childhoods were finally destroyed in the spring of 1944, when they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the time, my father was 13, my mother was just 12.
The nightmare they each endured is beyond imagining for those of us who did not share it. Toward the end of World War II, my father was in a notorious forced death march to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in 1945. By the time my mother was liberated near Mauthausen, she was near death. It was a long time before she regained her health. Their childhoods and most of their families were long gone.
Their separate journeys after liberation landed them on a ship bound for Palestine from Bulgaria in 1947. Yes, they were Jewish and yes they were young Zionist dreaming of finding a homeland and finding peace. Unfortunately, they only made it to Cyprus, where the British were imprisoning Jews on their way to Palestine. That’s where they met. They were just 16 years old.
In early 1948, they were among a group of Jewish children and adolescents the British decided to let into Palestine as part of the “orphan quota.” They arrived just in time to witness Israel’s declaration of independence, (a declaration that called for peace with all of its neighbors and an acceptance of the UN Partition Plan of 1947.
The fact that they emerged from that darkness with their souls intact is a miracle; that they had the spirit to move forward again into their third lives is a gift they’ve been sharing ever since; that they have been capable of love for any and all is exemplary.
That spirit shows itself in the three most important qualities that have shaped their lives: First, their hard work and perseverance; second, their unshakeable belief in liberty and the future. And third, their enormous compassion and humanity.
I don’t know anyone more hard-working and persistent than my parents. I’m in awe of what they accomplished during those early years in Israel, against such enormous odds … in the kibbutz, finishing high school, in the Israeli Defense Forces; then my father studying engineering and my mother becoming a nurse. After all they had been through, they began to build lives, but most of all, they contributed to the lives of others.
It didn’t get easier when they got to Sweden. They went there in 1956 for a visit to reunite with my mother’s father, Leopold, who had been liberated from Bergen-Belsen and arrived in Sweden in 1945.
But a six-month visit to Sweden turned into a 58-year stay, and counting. It was no picnic. Here they were - foreigners in a homogeneous, small town. They looked and sounded like outsiders. They struggled for years to make a life for themselves, and my father spent four decades struggling to build a small, prosperous business, creating livelihoods for his “neighbors.”
During those years, he not only showed me what hard work and perseverance look like, he taught me that success, in and of itself, isn’t the point. The point is getting there the right way. With honesty, caring, patience, faith and caring for all.
Of course, my mother worked just as hard as he did. Probably harder!
For years, she worked a triple shift -- wife and mother on the first shift, nurse and pillar of strength for people with disabilities on the second shift, and trusted business advisor on the third shift.
Of course you can work hard, be ambitious, and have a strong belief in the future, and still end up with a very small and self-centered life. You can allow whatever suffering or hatred you’ve experienced to fester and infect your whole life and the lives of those you touch. That’s the lesson they learned from being victims of such rabid anti-Semitism.
My parents chose not to follow that path. After the unspeakable horror they both endured and survived they refused to carry hate. Because they knew that if you hate those who hate you, you become like them. You become infected with hate. There is no future down that path. The only future we have lies along the path of compassion, friendship, and the ability to recognize our common humanity.
This is the most important lesson they have taught me. And like everything else, they have taught the lesson not just by saying it, but also by living it.