As I was growing up, I was told by my parents that I was named for my father’s sister, Sarah Newberger, who had been killed in Auschwitz. I knew very little about her, except that she was the oldest of five children, was beautiful and was married to a very wealthy man who did not want to leave their town of Borszszow, pronounced as Borstchav, and known now as Melnice, Poland. At one point, a survivor had told my father that Sarah had given birth to infant twin daughters right before the war, and that one was named Raizal and the other Rachel, although we never were able to verify that fact.
When I was a freshman at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, one of the first trips I took was to Yad Vashem, determined to find her name among the 6 million. Her name and record were totally missing.
Quite a few years later, when the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was opened, I again searched for her name. Again: missing.
It was not until many years later, when my husband and I took a trip to Vienna, that I was able to find a trace of her identity. We had been fortunate enough to be able to hook up with a very talented guide named Barbara Timmermann of Vienna Walks. Barbara told me that, like most of her peers, she did not want to ever find out what her grandfather did during the war. She loved him and did not want to ask questions. She explained that was a sort of “tacit contract” between the generations never to discuss it.
Interestingly though, Barbara’s hobby was Jewish genealogy. When I told her about my aunt, the very next day, Barbara was able to not only come up with a computerized printout of what had become of Sarah, but she was able to name all of the facts about all the members of my father’s immediate family, and even the fact that my father, Bezalel Newberger, died in February 1980. (Obviously, the communists had been very good at keeping records.)
On the printout, Barbara had written, “Unfortunately this area, especially the town of Borsczczow and Melnice, first was chosen or … had to be chosen by Jews from smaller shtetls as a center of emigration, and then it was literally overrun, first by Stalin’s murderers and then Hitler’s. That’s why, probably, not a lot of information is left.”
What she did tell me verbally, however, was that she strongly suspected that this was one of the hundreds of sites where Jews were forced to strip down naked, dig a hole and be systematically mowed down by gunfire.
What could possibly have been going through my aunt’s mind when this happened? Were there actually twin daughters? I shiver to think what had become of them. How could any mother witness what I fear must have been their fate?
How many hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions more of the unaccounted exist in mass graves in Eastern Europe? How much human potential had been snuffed out by the Holocaust? How many memories? How many life stories were totally obliterated in this fashion?
For those who did make it to Auschwitz, one of the first things that the Nazis did to the Jews was to tattoo a number on their arms; to obliterate one’s identity is the first step to the obliteration of a memory, both in the collective sense and in the individual sense.
As the Czech author Milan Kundera writes in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of laughter against forgetting.”
That is one of the reasons why I and EMET work so incredibly hard to try to correct the one-sided biases that are endemic to the way our taxpayer funded Title VI Middle East Studies Programs teach about Israel and the Middle East. If one looks at the textbooks, as we have, and the handouts that are given to the legislatively-mandated teacher training workshops for teachers of kindergarten through 12th grade, they are replete with horrific anti-Israel biases, half-truths and untruths.
If you can, take a look online at Audrey Shabbas’ The World Studies Notebook and read the poem “Identity” by Mohamad Darwash, which young children are taught in schools all around our nation. Then you needn’t wonder why there is such a strong boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement throughout our nation’s campuses.
We recently emerged from the holiday of Pesach, when we are taught to teach the story of our national liberation as a people to our children. Indeed, it is the thread of our people’s narrative that we read each week on Shabbat that keeps our people alive. To obliterate our stories; to obliterate our collective memories; to obliterate the truth means to obliterate ourselves as a people.
We owe it to my namesake, Sarah Newberger, and to Rachel and Raizel, if in fact they did indeed exist, and to all of the other Jews murdered so brutally, either randomly or systematically, to keep our people’s memory alive. And we owe them to not allow the very same ancient virus of anti-Semitism to attack the moral clarity of our proud people’s story of going from the very depths of oppression and death to national liberation and life.
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington.