Down the block from my Hebrew school, bisecting the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Glenwood Road in Brooklyn in the late 1960s, was a candy store/soda fountain.
Though it was a typical Mom and Pop shop like countless others throughout the borough at that time, it was special to me; its doors were gates to paradise. The shop was the site of sweet rewards, the place where my Mom would take me for a job well done in cheder. The owner, who also worked the counter, was a grandfatherly man, short and burly, with suspenders and a fedora.
He was genuinely kind, but I think he liked me especially because he knew I went to the local Hebrew school, and I was a chubby kid. I liked him too. I always felt he gave me an extra-large serving of whatever I asked for, and it came with an even bigger smile.
A particular visit to the shop is seared in my memory. It was a hot and humid June day in Brooklyn and I relentlessly tormented Mom for an ice cream soda. We entered the candy store, sat on the chrome stools at the counter, and Mom ordered. As the man was making my ice cream soda, with his sleeves rolled up, I noticed bluish figures on his arm.
I asked Mom what the figures were and she told me they were numbers given to certain Jews in Europe during World War II. I didn’t understand and I asked Mom to explain further.
What could she tell me? How could she package the incomprehensible in such a way that a seven-year-old could gain some understanding?
Mom continued, delicately, trying to explain that the man had spent time in Auschwitz, a concentration camp.
I asked Mom if Auschwitz was like my summer day camp. She gently attempted to explain Nazi hatred through concepts I had learned from the Haggadah. She then mentioned a number to me, the number of Jews killed by the Nazis during the war.
I couldn’t comprehend the number then; I can’t comprehend the number now.
As I grew older, I attempted to reduce this number, greater than infinity itself, from the abstract into something more concrete. With my eyes closed I imagined my beloved Brooklyn empty of ALL its inhabitants. That left me nearly 2 million people short.
I moved onto the other boroughs, removing all the people in the Bronx and Queens as well. I now had 6 million people, the full number. New York seemed rather desolate now, in my mind’s eye.
This past Sunday, January 27, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Throughout the international community official statements were issued against anti-Semitism. The remarks included the requisite “Never Again” and then often broadened, diluting the initial intent of International Holocaust Remembrance Day into generic condemnations of all forms of racism, nationalism and even idealism.
Because not all hatreds are created equal, this extrapolation from anti-Semitism, while producing a necessary condemnation of all prejudices, trivializes the unique horror our people suffered.
Though World War II may have ended in 1945 with the Allies and the forces of good winning, there was no ultimate victory over anti-Semitism. In fact, it thrives today throughout the world. The irony of International Holocaust Remembrance Day is that in many corners of the world it has mutated from a day remembering and honoring the Jews martyred in the Holocaust to a tool misappropriated by enemies of the Jewish people to slander both Jews and Israel as being the “New Nazis.”
Open a map and pin it to the wall. Take darts and start throwing them, randomly, at the map. Or, using the same map, play a version of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” and, blindfolded, proceed to stick the pin in the map. In either game you’re bound to hit a country where anti-Semitism is alive and thriving.
Proving this point, a report submitted by Israel’s Public Diplomacy and Affairs Ministry to Prime Minister Netanyahu and intended to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day noted a distinct rise in anti-Semitic violence.
MK Yuli Edelstein, who prepared the report, attributed this spike in attacks on Jews as a confluence of trends within both the European extreme right-wing and radical Islam. Geographically, the greatest increase in anti-Semitic incidents occurred in Western Europe. Debunking a popular misconception that violence against Jews is a statement against Israel and her policies, Edelstein noted that Israeli policy “does not constitute the main incentive for anti-Semitic acts against Jews.”
On January 27, 1945, the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz. The international community annually recognizes this day as International Holocaust Remembrance Day offering official statements condemning anti-Semitism and prejudice while at the same time tolerating a viral growth of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel attacks throughout the world.
I choose instead to commemorate the day by remembering a sweet man in his sweets shop not defined by the blue numbers on his arm but by the smile on his face.
I wish you would have met him; you would have liked each other.
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com.