Pittsburgh massacre: I’m glad my Holocaust survivor parents weren’t alive to see this

Watching the TV coverage of the slow-rolling horror in Pittsburgh, I thought:

I’m glad my mother is not alive to see this.

My mother was 92 when she died, a year ago. She was 15 when the Nazis marched into Paris. Her brother was turned in by a neighbor and died in Auschwitz and she barely escaped a transport to the same concentration camp.

The rest of her life was shadowed by the loss of her family and of the world she knew as a child. Even 65 years of relative comfort and safety in the United States could not clear the low-hanging cloud of dread that shaped her. To my mother, the world was a dangerous place, trust was for fools, the future didn’t beacon so much as loom. For my mother, Trump was an outrage, a monster, and proof of the evil that lurked just beneath the surface of the American promise where anti-Semites lay in wait.

My mother would have seen shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh as a bitter confirmation of her worst fears.

I’m glad my father is not alive to see this.

He, too, survived the war in Europe. He lost many friends and relatives. His health was broken, but not his faith in people. He was 72 when he died 20 years ago, and I wish he could have witnessed Barack Obama’s election, which would have vindicated his faith in humanity and his hope for America.

My father would have been horrified by Trump; concerned and even frightened by the sanction he’s given to xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism. My father would have been horrified by the carnage at the Tree of Life Synagogue — and at the church in Charleston, S.C., and at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He would have wept over the degradation of the American dream of fairness, and the rule of law. And then he would have written letters to the editor, made phone calls to voters, and, had he been able, he would have marched in the street.

As I watched the news, I wondered how many degrees of separation I was from the families and friends of the people inside the synagogue.

The next morning, I got an email from an elementary school friend, the subject line: “We lost Jerry in Pittsburgh.” That was Jerry Rabinowitz, a classmate, whose name is almost the only thing I remember about him. Jerry grew up to be a doctor. He had lived in Pittsburgh since 1980 and was a member of the Dor Hadash Congregation that was housed in the Tree of Life Synagogue. The email included two photographs of a man with one of those smiles that light up a room.

My mother was right: the anti-Semites were lying in wait all along, and we didn’t lock the doors against them.

My father was right: Americans of all descriptions are out on the streets, expressing sadness, solidarity and outrage.

For the moment, I am trying to sit with the awful knowledge that Jerry is among the dead.

According to the Talmud, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is as if they destroyed an entire world.”

Jerry was one of 11 in Pittsburgh and one of the hundreds of people who have been murdered in mass shootings in the U.S. this year.

I am trying to sit with the fact that each one of those people left spouses, parents and children whose worlds are now shattered.

I am thinking about the young Parkland shooting survivors, who are still on the road trying to keep us from forgetting the bewilderment and agony that comes of seeing your world destroyed by a man with an automatic rifle and a heart full of hate.

What to do? The Talmud also says, “Whoever saves a life, it is as if they saved an entire world.” In other words, and just for starters, I will work to ban assault weapons and to ensure health care for all.


Published 10/29/18 on WBUR’s Cognoscenti

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