During the first 50 years of my life, I never thought that being Jewish differentiated me from others.
In order to be admitted as immigrants to Argentina in 1947, my family ominously arrived under the pretense of being Catholic. During those first years, we avoided speaking about Judaism or being Jewish in our daily interactions, both within and outside of our family. We did not belong to any Jewish organizations. We did not deny our identity, but we did not broadcast it either.
“Forgive me,” I heard my mother's trembling voice over the telephone that Monday morning. Now decades later, it was the 18th of July, 1994. “It’s happening again, forgive me for bringing you to this country–I did not know.” After catching her breath, she explained herself, referring to that day’s deadly terrorist attack on the building of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in Buenos Aires: “AMIA was bombed! They want to kill us! Again!”
Us?… Us? What did she mean by us? They wanted to kill me? Here, in Argentina? And what was her “again” for? My mother’s “us” and “again” were the catalysts that thrust me suddenly, at age 50, into the roles of being both an heir to the legacy of the Holocaust and a Jew. Puzzled and surprised, I had to understand. In my quest for answers, I met children of survivors and we began to disclose to each other information about who we were. After so many years, I felt as though I had finally begun my journey home.
Our identity is not a static, monolithic condition—bestowed at birth, once and for all. It is an ongoing construct, forged from our gender, ethnicity, nationality, profession or vocation, ideology, age, hobbies, skills, and the myriad other aspects of our ever evolving lives. The Jewish identity I have cultivated for myself ever since that fateful Monday morning—is intertwined with the knowledge that I am a daughter of Holocaust survivors. This merger of my previously concealed identities brought to light some lost pieces of the puzzle of who I was – or who I thought I was – based on what had been meaningful to me earlier in life. But, to my surprise, this “new” Jewish identity had, in reality, always been there. Lying dormant, waiting patiently for me, it fit as snugly a second skin. Bewildered, I had discovered just how Jewish we were, despite the fact that we had never spoken of it growing up.
I live in Buenos Aires in a secular Jewish microcosm of people who do not base their identity upon religion. For most religious Jews—as for the Israelis—there is no need to contemplate their Jewish identity. But for the secular diaspora, the question of identity thirsts for answers. As the old joke goes, “if you have two Jews, you’ll have three synagogues,” and so arriving at a consensus regarding identity will always be an uphill battle. Now that the world is more welcoming to Jews than ever before, the temptations of assimilation, intermarriage, and secularism have put the feeling of a common Jewish identity at stake. If not religion, what binds us together to give us a sense of community within this heterogeneous, individualistic, and highly opinionated collective?
For many, the Holocaust seems to fill that void. The Nazis defined very specifically what it was to be a Jew—proud or self-hating, converted or not, in acceptance or denial. For them a Jew was a Jew. There was no debate. And as every Jew was targeted for extermination, Judaism equaled victimhood. Jewish identity was unambiguously imposed not only by the Nuremberg Laws, but also by the common prospect of death.
With religion no longer a common denominator among secular Diaspora Jews, identifying ourselves as heirs to the Holocaust is a tempting alternative. It was our worst suffering ever, and—in an absurd way— this low-hanging fruit is now subconsciously ready to be used to homogenize us into a common identity. But while being a victim then was not a choice, it is today.
After decades of silence, hundreds—if not thousands—of papers, dissertations, books, museums, exhibitions, films, and survivors’ testimonies have sprung to life and thrust the Holocaust onto the world stage. Society has finally opened its ears, shut for so many years. For us, the Holocaust family, justice has been accomplished and our painful past can now be re-contextualized in a meaningful way.
Anti-Semitism still exists today and overlaps with anti-Zionism. Highlighting anti-Jewish attacks is important to keep us alert, our eyes open. But I sometimes find people deriving an almost perverse pleasure from hearing that there has “again” been an anti-Jewish attack—the Holocaust has become the lens, the central pillar of identity that beckons to be mentioned at every possible occasion.
This “Holocaust identity” directly links being Jewish with being a victim; so by definition there is an imperative need to be attacked regularly in order for this identity to be justified and validated. This attitude is, in my opinion, counterproductive. How can we free ourselves from the shackles of victimhood if we insist on using that very victimhood as the primary means by which we define ourselves?
I am Jewish, and I refuse to let myself be defined as a victim. As the daughter of survivors, I believe that we must place ourselves in the positive context of Jewish values and that we must continue teaching not only about not succumbing to being a perpetrator of evil, but also how to affirmatively choose not to become a victim. As historian Yehuda Bauer said in his January 27, 1998, address to the German Bundestag, we should add three new commandments to the original ten: not to be a perpetrator, not to be a bystander, and not to be a victim -- again.
Published in "God, Faith and Identity in the Ashes. Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors" (2014) Menachem Rosensaft (editor). Jewish Lights Publishing.