How would you feel if you stopped at an end-of-year fair to buy some handmade souvenirs and saw a decorated Xmas-tree surrounded by children with decorated Stars of David in their hands?
Most likely, a feeling of disgust would prick your heart, while your brain came up with some justification: Chanukah and the New Year fall this year during the same week, and at least this way the children of mixed marriages are reminded of their Jewish origins. Perhaps, I would feel the same way if I were in the States. But I was in Latvia. The country with long and rich Jewish history, now after more than 90% of the Jewish population was killed during WWII and many Jews who did survive left the country later, has not many Jews; it is probably easier to find a piece of amber on the neighboring shore of the Baltic Sea — the biggest source of the world’s amber jewelry — than to find a Jewish child in Jurmala, a beach resort and my Latvian home for a part of the year, located about 30 miles from Riga, the capital, where indeed there are two Jewish schools and a functioning, marvelous, newly restored synagogue in the Old City.
I felt I was losing my mind when I realized that what the children were holding in their hands were undoubtedly Magen Davids; only because I could clearly see every detail – the people, mostly families with children; the huge stage; the performers singing and dancing as if they were robots; temporary kiosks along the path leading to the stage – was I assured that what I saw was real. Nevertheless, the entire picture made no sense; although, I must admit, I felt relief seeing the impassive faces of the adults; my previous life in the Soviet Union has made me sensitive to any sign of anti-Semitism.
Slowly, as if in a dense fog, I looked around. The children in front of each kiosk, instead of searching something to buy, were bending their heads over the counter while their parents stood apathetically behind them. “What is going on here?” I wondered and, full of curiosity, approached the closest kiosk. As if it was nothing out of the ordinary, the children were making decorations for the holyday’s elka – a fir-tree; holding in their hands the six-pointed stars, the symbol so dear to every Jew, they carefully glued different, colorful trimmings on them. My eyes at once perceived a tall pile of plain Magen Davids skillfully made from thin, wooden slats, four or five inches long. Still not believing my eyes, I picked up one Magen David from the pile, held it hesitantly for a long while, then decided to keep it. I stared at the adults; they, mostly women, were watching their children’s activity without any interest. “Could it be they are not aware their children were decorating a Jewish symbol?” I puzzled; I had an urge to ask the woman in charge of the workshop the same question, but was afraid to ruin the entire enterprise.
At a complete loss, not being able to understand my feelings, I walked away from the kiosk. I was, indeed, glad there was not any sign of repugnance even on the faces of people my age, who undoubtedly were familiar with the Jewish symbol. Still I felt something terribly wrong was going on there. I was not sure if a Magen David is inheritably holy or sacred, but does not the fact that millions of Jews went to their tragic deaths with a Star of David attached to their clothes call for a respectful use of the symbol in our days?
I felt desperate to be alone; yet I returned for a second Star to show to the rabbi in Riga. I noticed a container with little, dazzling blue and white balls on the table. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to decorate my Star for Chanukah with these balls?” I deliberated for a moment, and my brain replied, “It is a kids’ activity; do you want to be the center of attention?”
Latvia and Belarus, where I had lived before coming to the States, are close neighbors; both states were parts of the Soviet Union and have a lot of similarities. Thus, when in Latvia, I often catch myself feeling and behaving as if there were no America in my life at all, as if I were still in my previous life. Even in Belarus, where Jews lived peacefully for centuries and there were no pogroms, I would consider it positive to see a non-Jewish child holding a Magen David. How much more so in Latvia, where there is an official Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Genocide against the Jews, since the local Latvians rushed to kill many Jews before the Nazis were able to. The realization that the Magen Davids were used for decoration only because the Latvians hates Russia and were glad to find something new to replace the traditional five-pointed star, the emblem of the Soviet Union, almost convinced me that again I was too sensitive, too thin-skinned as my gentle friend back in Belarus used to say; perhaps I should accept such a use of our symbol.
Nevertheless, walking along the dark and empty street I felt lonely and insecure. In attempt to comfort myself I thought how the Magen Davids, I hold in my hand extremely carefully, would beautify my upcoming Chanukah if I attached them to the window in the kitchen where I usually light the candles. But all of a sudden, a shiver ran down my spine – I envisioned my apartment marked with a Magen David, as was done during the Hitler occupation…
The peacefulness of the empty town calmed me down; I realized fear always exaggerates; the Stars in my hand were too little to be noticeable from the outside.
But then, with deep regret, I confessed to myself that although in Latvia I did introduce myself by my obviously Jewish name, I’ll never forget the terrified face of the first woman I told, “My name is Sarra” (my parents and everyone in Belarus called me Sonya), I still had not been ready to publicly reveal that I am a Jew. I, for example, never wore my favorite T-shirt with a Yiddish imprint, because, as I tried to deceive myself, I did not want to give anyone grounds for speaking disdainfully about Jews.
I was so drained by all my emotions that the five-block walk home seemed endless. The idea to write about the event, since usually writing helps me see things clearly, put me at ease, and soon my Magen Davids were on the top of the stand in the little hall in my cozy apartment.
The next morning the entire event seemed to me rather favorable, I could continue with my daily routine. Yet, what I had witnessed was so extraordinary, so hard to believe that I decided to write about it anyway. I enthusiastically began to write starting from how I found the fair; I think subconsciously I was postponing describing things that hurt me. I, thus, wrote and wrote, periodically making breaks until I passed the stand, with the Magen Davids on it top, for the fifth or sixth time (in my tiny apartment I have to cross the hall wherever I go).
Suddenly I felt as if someone had stuck a knife in my heart; on the dark, unusually empty surface of the stand, the two unadorned, made of light, almost flesh-colored wood Magen Davids appeared to be naked and so humiliated, forlorn, defenseless, and isolated that I could not breathe. I have never been to Auschwitz or any concentration camp. I think I felt something similar to the people who visited those heartbreaking places; they, at least, were in a group and could comfort one another. I was completely alone, with nobody even to call. I felt so numb I could not even cry. When I could function again, my rational brain advised to put the Magen Davids away, and with deep reverence I placed them behind the heavy curtain in my bedroom.
When I was able to return to my desk, I was astonished to realize that now I could fathom and appreciate my late father who wore a beard and always covered his head to show his pride to be a Jew despite the strong, unconcealed anti-Semitism of the locals. Their hatred for Jews grew much stronger after the Belarus occupied by Nazi during three years of Nazi was liberated, and they have to vacate the houses of the few Jews which as my family were lucky to survive.
My next thought completely staggered me, as vividly pictured the children bringing the Magen Davids to their gentile families. What a lesson of anti-Semitism the children would receive! Perhaps not from their parents, born after the WWII, more likely, they did not have much interaction with Jews. Yet, the grandparents and great-grandparents, in Latvia people, especially women, have long lives, would tell the children terrifying stories about bad people, the children may know, portraying them as Jews. I am almost certain after these conversations with deep disgust and repulsion, the beautifully decorated Stars of David would be put in garbage.
The solution came to me immediately. I must to do everything possible to prevent the young generation from becoming anti-Semitic. I have to share with my fellow Jews what they are doing in Latvia. We must to put an end of the disrespectful practice of using Magen Davids as a decoration for the Xmas-trees. And I started to write about what I saw at the fair anew in hope to find people to join me in this mission.
Could you be one of them? Have you any idea how to achieve the goal?
In case you prefer to contact me personally, the email address is [email protected].
Sarra Liskovets lives in Silver Spring.