From a young age, I was taught the morals and foundation of Judaism. I attended a Jewish preschool, where I recited the prayers over the challah, wine (or grape juice for us 4-year-olds), snack and Shabbat. I earned the most mitzvah leaves in my class- each mitzvah leaf would be pinned up on our tree labeled with our name to keep track of all the good deeds we did. Being Jewish is giving back to the community and our families, providing support and prayers for those who need it, cooking delicious meals and using every opportunity to turn a Jewish holiday into a feast. Also adding a few comical Yiddish words into everyday conversation. The Jewish culture is rich in traditions, values, flavors and compassion. Coming from a reformed family mostly focusing on the familial element of Judaism and growing up in New Jersey, I imagined the whole world was favorable towards this seemingly peaceful religion. So when I found out my grandma is a Holocaust survivor and suffered through such a hatred, I had many questions.
I was fully aware that Israel and the Jewish population itself was very small, but I could never understand why someone would not want to create a country to support its people. I was taught that we, the Jewish people, are equal in the image and eyes of God. Then why should the term Jew, Juif, Jude, Judio, Jood, denote something so nasty, so vile, so exterminable? These are the thoughts that popped into my head when my father sat me down and told me that my grandma is a living victim of the Holocaust. My fourth grade teacher sent out a memo saying that she will be reading The Book in the Striped Pajamas to our class. My parents later shared with me that they were hesitant on telling me the story of my family’s past so young. They were worried I would be afraid, that I would not understand, that I would see the bad in the world before I should have. Yet they also saw the maturity in me at a young age and decided I was ready to brave our history and the legacy planted by our people.
In my area, being Jewish in New Jersey is not uncommon. In fact, many of my friends in high school were Jewish; we shared common experiences of bar and bat mitzvahs, High Holy Days and Passovers, crazy Jewish grandma and of course, the best food possible. Holidays were spent with all my cousins, aunts, uncles, and family friends (plus my friends that were deemed family and honorary Jews). I attended Hebrew school for years, learning to chant my Torah portion, some of which I can still sing today on command. I spent my weekends in 7th and 8th grade bat mitzvah hopping in order to appear at all of my friends and try and find a balance. My bat mitzvah phase was great, don’t get me wrong, but I would never choose to go back to the days of painful high heels, penne alla vodka, Shirley temples, organized line dances, and of course, candle lightings and montages. Every Hanukkah my living room is decorated with homemade signs, cherished family menorahs and blue and white dreidels all around. I really could never understand why the Jewish population was so hated.
One puzzling thought has always been how such a small fraction of the population could be wrapped up in so much hate. I decided to dig into some numbers to get a real scope on the population of Jews and their association with the rest of the world. In 1939, the Jewish population reached 16.6 million. At the beginning of 2018, the world estimate of the Jewish population was 14.606 million. Is it possible for the population to reach its pre-Holocaust peak? Almost three quarters of a century later after the war ended, speculation has it that the global Jewish population could reach 16.1 million in 2050. However, keep in mind the world population today is 7.6 billion, making the Jewish population 0.2% of the total. There are, as of 2018, 6,925,475 Jews living in the United States. New York has the largest Jewish population in the United States, totaling 1,768,700. Professor Sergio DellaPergola, an expert in modern Jewish demographics, conducted research that suggested that if the Holocaust had not happened, the global Jewish population would have reached at least 26 million today. Can our world fully rebound or surpass the numbers it reached pre-1939? Can we curb this hate to let the Jewish people thrive?
When my dad first told me that my grandma and our family were the ones that were hated by the Nazis, and they had to hide in order to survive, that they were lucky to survive, I immediately knew it was my responsibility as the granddaughter of a survivor and a young Jewish woman to never let these stories die. I was fascinated yet heartbroken to learn of these events. To me, my grandma was the one who has been teaching me French ever since I started to speak. Her hands were tough and strong, always fixing things. She is the woman who could cook dinner, play with my cousin, give my sister a piggyback ride, talk to her siblings on Skype and still manage to laugh with me all at the same time. Her house smelled of home-cooked food and Jarlsberg cheese, or Grandma Cheese as I called it. She unconditionally loved my grandpa from the day she met him until the day he died- she taught me the meaning of what a soulmate really is. So, it was hard for me to fathom the fact that first, my grandma was once a child and second, she was one of those targeted for immediate extermination, despite the fact that she did nothing wrong. Ever since fourth grade, I have continuously tried to gain more knowledge about this period in time and, more importantly, the experience of my grandma. That's why I've found it my obligation to document these stories, creating a fictional narrative of my grandma's experience as a French Holocaust survivor. Stay tuned for the hopeful release of my book in the next few years.