“You don’t know anything about your own people.”
My mind is blank. What just happened?
One hour before this exchange occurs my mind is full — full of the history of my people and the suffering they endured. My mind is engulfed by a range of emotion — pride and devastation, clarity and confusion, happiness and despair. I walk the hall, scanning the panels with my eyes and my fingertips. I have been to countless holocaust museums and memorials, but Cape Town’s is starkly different. The museum not only presents the history of the Holocaust, but it also compares it to apartheid and the legacy of Jews in South Africa.
The comparison is fascinating, but perhaps what is even more shocking is reading about the Jews who either escaped or were liberated from concentration camps and chose to immigrate to South Africa. It’s impossible to reconcile. How in the blink of eye someone could go from being horribly oppressed to being on the side of the oppressor. That’s the history of Jews in South Africa. They escaped one atrocity and entered another, but to the outsiders they were perceived as white, and therefore safe from persecution.
She told me to “never forget about what happened to our people.” She grabbed my hand and looked deep into my eyes and said: “They took me to Auschwitz and put me in the gas chamber…”
The end of the exhibit features a film about Jews who came to South Africa after surviving the holocaust and how they grappled with the extremity of this transition. Shortly after watching this film I was brought to a waiting room to access wifi in order to call an uber home. Within seconds of being in the room, I realized I was standing next to one of the women from the video.
My heart stopped. I had never met a holocaust survivor before and considering how few there are left in the world, I never thought I would. None of my family members survived to my knowledge and despite having visited Auschwitz this past fall, I had never met a survivor in person. I nodded politely as the woman introduced me to her son, granddaughter, and great grandchildren.
“Four generations,” she said with a beaming smile. I was instantly flooded with emotion. She took us over to the exhibition board that the museum had designed for her as a tribute to her survival story. She showed me the remains of the tattooed identification number on her arm. She told me to “never forget about what happened to our people.” She grabbed my hand and looked deep into my eyes and said: “They took me to Auschwitz and put me in the gas chamber…”
Tears flooded down my face. It was all too much, too surreal. Hearing her say those words made my heart ache, an intensity of emotion I had never felt before when learning about the holocaust. All I could think about was my family, and my faith, and all the Jews who lost their lives. Six million people. Six million people who died for having the same beliefs as me.
I was extremely moved by her presence and honored to be standing next to her. I felt so connected to my Jewish identity and proud of my heritage. That’s when everything changed. I was so overwhelmed by her presence that I didn’t hear the question she asked me. Instead of repeating the question or asking me another, she became angry with me. She said I didn’t know anything about Judaism and had so much to learn about the holocaust.
I was crushed. I was living in my nightmare and was so hurt by her comments, even though I knew in my heart they weren’t true. The gravity of the situation was impossible to fully grasp. A holocaust survivor said I didn’t know anything about my own faith. I was furious, and then flooded with guilt. Who was I to be upset when this woman had lived through one of the worst atrocities in history?
I left the museum and played the conversation over and over in my head. It was agonizing. Why did she say that? How could she say I knew nothing when she didn’t even give me a chance? And didn’t she realize I was at the museum to do exactly the opposite of what she accused me of? I was there to learn even more about my faith and instead it was called into question.
When I got back to my room, I FaceTimed my dad and told him what happened. His words calmed me down and put the encounter into perspective, but it was still hard to fully dismiss. However, through talking to him a silver lining emerged. Yes, I was hurt, but the encounter gave me a great opportunity to tell my dad I loved him and how proud I was of our family and our faith. It was in that moment that I realized why I was really hurt by her comments. I didn’t feel an obligation to her; rather I felt one to my dad and his side of the family. I felt like I disappointed them and it crushed me.
My faith has always been more about the cultural implications than the religious components. I will be the first to admit that I’m not the most knowledgeable Jew, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a core part of identity. Judaism is my family, my community, and my soul. And it was terrifying to have that called into question.
Since coming to Duke, my Judaism has often faded into the background. I don’t attend services and rarely go to the freeman center. However, throughout my college experience I have noticed that my convictions about my faith are stronger than ever. Although this experience was slightly traumatizing, I am so grateful for it because it reaffirmed what my faith means to me. I am not a conventional Jew. In fact, I’ve realized that there is not a “right” way to be Jewish. It’s about family, traditions, and my relationship with God. Judaism is a core part of my identity. And from now on I’m never going to let anyone take that away from me.