In Memory of Elie Wiesel


“Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.” ~ Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016)

 When, in 1990, at the age of 39, I emigrated from the USSR to the United States, I did not know about Ellie Wiesel, Anne Frank and other victims — or survivors — of the Holocaust. In fact, I didn’t even know the term “Holocaust.” And not because I was a bad student who failed to learn it in school, but because the anti-Semitic politics of the Third Reich were not covered in our school curriculum and our mass media — not before nor during WWII, nor afterwards. As a result, the atrocities that were well known in the West were hardly mentioned in the East. There, coverage of WWII was dedicated to the bravery and suffering of Soviet troops, and, until 1956, to Stalin’s military genius. So the mass killings of Jews – in Europe and Ukraine — did not qualify.

(Reproduction of the photo depicting Babi Yar ravine near Kiev, Ukraine, the place where 100,000 people, overwhelmingly Jews, were murdered in September 1941.)

This is not to say that the Russian population had it easy. The war was devastating for the USSR. Overall, more than 26 million Russian citizens died during the war, not to mention those who came back as invalids and hopeless alcoholics. Still, the fact that the Jews were systematically exterminated was not revealed in Russia (where casual anti-Semitism was the norm) for a very long time. Well, we knew about concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Treblinka and Buchenwald. In fact, there was a popular song written about the latter, which went like this:

“People of the world stand up a moment

Listen, listen. It buzzes from all sides

It can be heard in Buchenwald ringing off the bells

It’s innocent blood reborn and strengthened in a brazen roar.

Victims are resurrected from the ashes …”

Yet again, we were never told that the main goal of a camp like Auschwitz was the implementation of “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Historians estimate that among the people sent to Auschwitz there were at least 1,100,000 Jews from all the countries of occupied Europe, over 140,000 Poles, approximately 20,000 Gypsies from several European countries, over 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and over 10,000 prisoners of other nationalities.

When I found myself in Columbia, MO, and I had learned enough English to start reading, books about the Holocaust were not high on my list. First, I needed to learn about my adoptive country, its history, culture and customs. So, when one day (I was already working at the Reference Desk of the Columbia Public Library) a teenage girl came to me and asked about “The Diary of a Young Girl,” I had no idea what that book was about. I just looked it up in the library catalog.  And later, when another patron was looking for “Night” by Ellie Wiesel, I didn’t know anything about that book either.  In fact, I had trouble spelling “Wiesel.”

Time went by and I learned about the Holocaust, about Anne Frank and Ellie Wiesel and others. I saw a collection of victims shoes in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (the Nazis confiscated their victims’ belongings and sent valuables back to Germany; the shoes were to be repaired by the camps’ prisoners and reused).

And I heard a reading of names of the Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust (1.5 million names in all) in the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem, which is housed in an underground cave and lit by candles that, reflected in a system of mirrors, create the impression of millions of little stars. (The complex was built with donations from a family whose two-and-a-half old son was killed in Auschwitz.) And when I was read “Night,” I could hardly keep from screaming; for the way I felt, it all could have happened to me, my parents and my daughter.

(Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial, Jerusalem, Israel)

There are some events so cruel and traumatic that people don’t want to talk about them, even less read about them. In fact, when Wiesel’s “Night” first appeared in print (in Yiddish) in 1954, its publication was hardly noticed. In America, when the book was published in 1960, it wasn’t an overnight success either. Gradually, though, it began attracting more attention, and when, in 2006, Oprah Winfrey presented “Night” to her book club, it became a New York Times bestseller.

Wiesel went on to write many more books and to become a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Above all, he remained a voice for Holocaust victims and survivors – the mission he considered the most important in his life.

“If I survived,” Wiesel said in 1981, “It must be for some reason. I must do something with my life… because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”

 

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©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

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Volunteers: A Study in Contrasts


April 10-16 is observed in the United States and Canada as National Volunteer Week.

 

“Volunteer: a person who willingly does work without getting paid to do it”

IMG_1657-003Where I came from (Moscow, Russia), we never volunteered — at least not in the American way.  The thing was that we didn’t have to — authorities “volunteered” us when and where they desired. The “without getting paid” part (see definition above) worked the same way as it does in America. As for the willingness, nobody ever cared to ask.

The most common cases of Russian “volunteering” during my time there included sending citizens to express their (fake) enthusiasm at state parades, and sending city dwellers to collective farms to help with harvesting.

I still remember spending long weeks (even months) picking cabbages and potatoes, hours away from my home in Moscow — living in military-style barracks, wearing oversized black rain boots and ugly telogreikas (black, shapeless quilted jackets), and drinking vodka — the only entertainment available in the provinces.

I also remember “voluntarily” greeting foreign dignitaries, including Gerald Ford, who visited Russia (then The Soviet Union) in November 1974. My whole college was positioned along Moscow’s wide Leninsky Prospect (Lenin’s Avenue) for about 2 hours, bored and cold, waiting for the black limousines and leather-clad motorcyclists to drive quickly past us, while we waved at them and smiled forced smiles under the command of our superiors.

This is not to say that nobody in Russia would take to the streets voluntarily. There were a few — some protesting against the injustice of the regime and some trying to force the authorities to allow them to leave the country. Yet they were called “dissidents,” and the country had appropriate places for them — mostly the state prisons. All in all, “altruism” was not a common word in our vocabulary – “mandate” was.

Of course, I haven’t been in the country of my birth for a very long time, and things are different there now.  These days Russia, too, has volunteers.  One example is Russian soldiers — sorry, I meant to say “volunteers” — who fought against the Ukranian Army in 2014-15 (in Ukrainian territory, mind you).  Unlike my days of digging in the mud in Russian potato/cabbage/carrots/ etc. fields, those guys weren’t wearing telograikas and rain boots, but military style clothing. They were better equipped, too.  Instead of sacks for gathering veggies, they carried automatic rifles, drove tanks, and used Russian-made rockets. Yet small differences aside, it’s clear that volunteering has finally made its way to Russia. In fact, some Russian volunteers are fighting in Syria right now.

Coming to America in 1990 was disorienting for me in a number of ways — mentally, linguistically and culturally; and one of things that amazed me was this American “volunteering streak.” I remember asking people, “Do you mean that nobody forces (or pays) volunteers to travel to different states to help victims of natural disasters or to support a cause?! That some people would spend their time and money to feed the poor or organize and attend fundraisers?” And when I heard, “yes,” I just shook my head in disbelief.

I’m not saying everybody in this country is an altruist. Of course not. I am saying, though, that I know many people here who have done – and will do again – all of the above and more. And let me tell you, volunteering is contagious.  These days, I volunteer, too.  I’ve participated in a number of fundraisers, and I’ve donated things to my congregation and my library.  It’s not much, but it’s a beginning. For I finally understood that John Donne’s famous quote is not just poetic.  It is a truth of the human condition:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

 

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved