In recent weeks, the conversation has, unsurprisingly, turned towards the question of the safety of Jews. It manifests as both an individual anxiety and fear for the safety of Israelis and Diaspora communities.
It is a conversation that has been repeated in various forms around the world for generations, and it shows no signs of abating in the coming year. Rather, we seem to be revisiting concerns that some have said are reminiscent of anti-Semitic propaganda leading up to the Second World War. This is 2015. Let’s let that sink in.
There have been terror attacks in France, discrimination on social media, the simmering anti-Semitic protests in some European countries, and the world’s reaction to it all.
I have found members of Ottawa’s Jewish community to be very global citizens, well aware of the geopolitical tensions across the world, so it is no wonder that concern is well placed and intensifying.
At the International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Ottawa City Hall on January 27, I sat in a packed room full of Jewish community members and many non-Jews paying their respects.
On each seat, and gifted to each attendee, was a copy of As the Lilacs Bloomed by Hungary-born Anna Molnar Hegedus, a volume in the series of Holocaust memoirs published by the Azrieli Foundation. It was difficult for me to read through more than half a chapter in one sitting.
The book recounts the experiences of the author and her family from the time Hungary came under Nazi occupation to their deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I felt myself shivering as I read, bracing for what I was about to learn next. It is raw and powerful, even more so since those of us in attendance at the City Hall ceremony received the book on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
One passage in particular struck me early on in the memoir: When it becomes clear the family needs an escape plan, a friend of Molnar Hegedus’ daughter, Agnes, gives her a travel document that would allow her to escape and become a teacher for young children.
Molnar Hegedus’s response is heartbreaking: “I warned this friend, a teacher, that this could lead to grave consequences for her,” she writes. “Nonetheless, shaking with sobs, she assured us that did not matter. She was fond of us, having spent months in our house as Agnes’s Romanian language instructor, and couldn’t stand what was happening to us. She said that she didn’t care if she got killed on our account.”
Such allies are created, cultivated and nurtured by others who have had to take on leadership roles, especially in times of great stress, sorrow or fear.
I recently spoke with Ben Sherman, an active member of the emerging generation who – like many of his Jewish peers – has many non-Jewish friends. These are friendships built upon common interests and genuine caring, as is the way with relationships of all kinds.
“The emerging generation will need to carry the torch that will be passed on by their grandparents’ and parents’ generations,” he said. “In order for that torch to continue to burn as brightly as it has to this point, our generation will have to adapt to new realities and look to new opportunities.
“The Jewish people have had to deal with the effects of exclusivity [for] our entire existence and, now that we are more secure in our freedom, we have a responsibility to lead by example and through inclusiveness.”
I have heard rabbis and community leaders remark upon the idea that no one is born “good or bad,” that human beings have the capacity for both good and evil.
The emerging generation, whether knowingly or not, has been cultivating the future generations of allies, those who, like Agnes’s friend, would sacrifice anything for their loved ones.
In doing so, the emerging generation carries on the torch that has been passed on for generations. It is a responsibility that Sherman and those like him, do not take lightly.
“This will create a stronger Jewish community for the generations to come,” he said.