Auschwitz in Banana Republic

Women in the newly liberated Auschwitz concentration camp, February 1945.

“The Holocaust is so popular we had to commemorate it twice,” my father quipped, as we attended a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day) event in Jerusalem with relatives visiting from the United States. One of them stared at my father with a look of shock and horror.

I elbowed my dad and gestured in their direction. He nodded and reached out. “The last time we saw Joel, it was in Milan, on the European Holocaust day, in January,” he told them, sounding a bit embarrassed. “God forbid I only see my son on such occasions.”

Still, Elie’s irony was a welcome relief, on a day not known for its levity. Particularly in Israel, where Holocaust commemoration is so strongly interwoven with official justification for Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, and discrimination against non-Jewish Israelis and migrants.

For as long as I can remember, Yom HaShoah has always been this way, politicised to the point that the victims of the Nazi genocide were an afterthought. As a day of remembrance, it ritually codified our use of the Holocaust as a prism through which we understood our peoplehood.

The religious element of the exercise is what I always found most profound, because of the sense of mortality it instilled in you, as though your existence was somehow contingent on the state and how vulnerable it made you feel to imagine what would happen if Israel weren’t there.

For secular Jewish families like mine, this is what we imagined Judaism to be. It was a civil religion, for lack of a better term, in which the state was the object of worship and the beginning and end of our existence. Nationalism was our transcendence and Zionism our theology.

That’s exactly why my father’s remark about commemorating the Holocaust “twice” was so charged. It wasn’t intended to trivialise the act of commemoration as much as decry its abuse, by emptying it of any sense of holiness. He was, in fact, appealing to something higher.

This is not to say Elie was a leftist, appealing to a newfound family consensus that Zionism is passé. Amongst these relatives, that was definitely not the case. But for my father, it definitely was. I could sense that, and on the drive home from Jerusalem that day, I pressed him on it.

“I don’t know if everyone was ready for that,” I remarked, referring to his earlier statement. “The Shoah is still too important to their Judaism.” Elie understood what I was getting at and replied, “Zionism is no longer useful. It causes more problems than it solves. They’ll catch up eventually.”

It was a rare moment of candour for my dad. He was an incredibly guarded person, but as he aged, his tongue began to loosen, and Elie would share his ideas more willingly. The declining political environment in Israel, particularly after the disastrous 2006 Lebanon War, and the return of Benjamin Netanyahu to government had an especially depressing effect on his morale.

The fact that he shared backyards with the prime minister, who had a weekend home behind him, in Caesarea, didn’t exactly inspire Elie. “You’ve been having to pass through too many security cordons to get home,” I joked, to lighten the conversation. Elie laughed and said, “We get along fine, but as you can imagine, it’s difficult living next door to our American premier.”

His comment was especially poignant, as the sort of Zionist piety he was criticising was something Elie often blamed on American Jews, epitomised by the holier than thou rhetoric indulged by Netanyahu. His rightist ideas and phraseology, particularly when speaking in English, screamed America – Tristate area, in particular, in all of its paranoid us-vs-them clothing.

My father’s desire to distance himself wasn’t just a consequence of his alienation. It was also part of my family culture, particularly on the Israeli side, because it had left for Palestine in the 19th century, and had avoided the Nazi genocide. Though European relatives perished in the camps, we still weren’t impacted the same way as Jews of more recent immigration had been.

This was, of course, not an uncommon consequence of leaving Europe before the war but it’s mostly associated with immigrants in the United States who, not only became more secular but developed no proclivity for Zionism either. It was less common to discern in Palestine, but it wasn’t entirely absent. It had everything to do with how we related to the Holocaust.

Though I knew my father’s opinions were shared by other members of his immediate family,  I first came to terms with this growing up with Mizrahi relatives, who we became related to when my father remarried, when I was nine. Tel Avivim of Moroccan and Tunisian origin, whose family had immigrated in the early 20th Century, they had no relationship to the Holocaust at all.

They were decidedly unpolitical people. Business persons, who were of privileged background, who focused on work and family, who spoke little of politics or war. I can’t remember any conversations or talk about current events of any consequence, except when my stepmother would caution us kids – myself and her own children – from disparaging Arabs unfairly. That was it.

I had also lived with a Yemenite family for a while, who could barely speak a word of Hebrew. Yet they were Jewish, but lived out their lives in a completely different cultural context, struggling with such basic things as using electrical appliances, not WWII. Even at my young age, it was refreshing, albeit alien. It made transitioning to my new family not long thereafter less difficult.

But with my father, there was always something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, that still tied him to Mitteleuropa and its culture of apartheid and anti-Semitism. Throughout my childhood, he’d make mention of the death camps in passing. Particularly Auschwitz, and the smell of dead bodies.  And his German, when he did speak it, was practically native – as good as his Arabic.

I never took the Holocaust references seriously and assumed he was just projecting, as many Israeli Jews of his age group were wont to do if only to work through the stress of the stories he may have heard second hand. He probably feels guilty for surviving, I’d conjecture, and file it away, unable to connect the dots. That is, until he returned to Milano, again, two years later.

My wife was working in Torino at the time. My parents took the opportunity to visit nearly once a year, as it is a short flight from Tel Aviv. They could undergo a little retail therapy in Milan, and inhale risotto. My father had spent nearly two decades working in Italy and knew the city well. Coming back was coming home, and he was grateful for the excuse seeing us gave him to visit.

Elie had lived in the country during the 1960s and 1970s when the country rebuilt itself from the ashes of World War II and experienced unparalleled economic growth. Like many from the greater Mediterranean region, he gravitated towards Italy’s wealthy north, eager to get his share of the pie, working in the ship construction business in Genoa and Trieste, with frequent stays in Milan.

Many of his work contacts were people he’d met in the aftermath of the war. Some of them were Jewish partisans, others connected to the Italian smuggling networks through which helped move refugees and weaponry into Palestine between 1945 and 1948. Get him in the right mood, and Elie would dispense with some remarkable anecdotes about what he did there at the time.

Sitting in the waiting area of the Banana Republic store, behind the Duomo, while my second stepmother, Ana, tried on clothes, I saw a huge advert for Liberation Day which is celebrated every 25 April. Pointing towards it, I asked my father what he was doing that glorious day, in 1945. “I was at Auschwitz,” he blurted out. “Working as a translator, interviewing survivors.”

Nothing I had heard until that point about my father’s vaunted military career could match that. I was completely taken aback. “You’d had the good fortune of being a second generation Palestinian Jew, assigned to a Canadian maritime patrol squadron that never saw any combat during the war. How on earth did you end up doing this? Help me out here. I don’t get it.”

“The Allied high command had been offered a deal by the Russians,” Elie replied. “They wanted to empty the camp but didn’t want to take responsibility for the survivors. They couldn’t go home because fighting was still going on in the West, and were unwelcome in the East. So they told the British they could take them to Palestine through Odessa, where they could send transports.”

Elie explained that he got recruited because he spoke a number of languages – French, German and Russian, in particular. Together with a dozen other Palestinian and expat British soldiers from Eastern European countries, he was dispatched to Auschwitz, where they spent two weeks interviewing survivors to see if they wanted to go. The experience, he said, was transformative.

“The pits weren’t closed yet, and the bodies were thawing out from the winter. The smell grew unbearable over time, until the Russians decided to finally place some earth over them, or burn the bodies. The women were unbelievably distraught, some half-naked. They were bereft, and the soldiers did little to care for them. They just wanted them out, and we were there to expedite.”

Looking around the store, taking in my father’s story, I could hear my heart pounding. As my father continued talking, I wondered what he would have turned out like if he hadn’t been there. Just three weeks from the end of the war, still relatively unscathed, he got to see something that would change every fibre of his being, and how he thought about humanity. It explained a lot.

“The worst part about it,” he said, “was watching the Russians pull these women out of the queue, as they waited to talk to us about Palestine, and shoot them. We were shocked at the killings, as they seemed entirely random, and without cause. It was only later that the Russians would inform us they’d been kapos and had been tipped off by other women survivors.”

The idea that these soldiers would take it upon themselves to execute these women was deeply troubling, Elie said. “How could they be sure they’d been told the truth? They had to assume the information they were being given was reliable. I think their commanders let them go ahead, as they saw these women as dead anyway. Their loved ones were gone. No one would miss them.”

The callousness exhibited by the Russians is one that has stuck with me. The Red Army, after all, were the ones who liberated Auschwitz and bore the brunt of defeating the Germans. What does it say about them that they’d permit such barbarity? The possibilities brush up against all kinds of sentimental attachments leftists have to Russia’s defeat of the Nazis, and the sacrifices it made.

“Every army is brutal,” my father commented over dinner that evening after I raised the issue with him. “Stalin’s troops were especially harsh. Let’s not forget how many fellow Russians they killed during his tenure. But for me, personally, I lost any sense that there was any ideology I could be loyal to. So I would tell people when I was asked which way I swung, that I was general Zionist left.”

“That’s kind of a cop-out, dad,” I replied. My father cast a sharp look in my direction and responded “Politics is a cop-out, Joel. There are only two moral obligations in life: Survival and looking after your loved ones. The rest you have no control over. Look how many leftists ended up in the Irgun and the national camp later. It shouldn’t have been so easy.”

Photograph courtesy of Raymund Flandez. Published under a Creative Commons license.