At the end of World War II, there were millions of refugees in Europe. Some, like the Italian Primo Levi, managed to find their way back home, pull themselves together, and pick up where they left off. At first my parents also had that idea, but their home was in Poland, not Italy. They returned to Sosnowiec, their hometown in Poland, with the intention of trying to pick up the pieces and start over again. But shortly after their return, they were persuaded to change their mind. In July 1946, the blood libel went out that the Jews had kidnapped a Christian child and used his blood to make matzo. This lie resulted in a pogrom in the town of Kielce. Forty-two Jews were killed. The Jews of that town whom the Nazis hadn’t managed to kill had now been murdered by the Poles. That shocked my parents so much that they decided to leave Poland forever.
They had to be smuggled out, actually, by an organization called the Brera, which was composed of Jewish partisans and Israelis — and, by the way, back then, before the establishment of the state of Israel, the latter were commonly known as Jewish Palestinians — and ended up in a refugee or displaced persons (DP) camp, as they were then called. There they awaited the opportunity to find a new home. The camp was a converted army barracks in Salzburg, Austria. They were safe there, but conditions were not great. Their quarters were in the former stables, where they were given a stall in which they camped with my older sister, who had also survived the war, and my father’s sister, who was the only other surviving member of my father’s immediate family. And that is where my twin sister and I were born and spent the first year and a half of our lives.
My father hated the Nazis, who had murdered most of his family, and, during our early years in Canada during our Passover seders, after we had recited the Ten Plagues, he would wish them on Hitler’s head. Latterly, he switched out Hitler for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who with other Arab allies had attempted a genocidal war against the nascent Jewish state. But that was all that his hatred ever amounted to, and eventually he gave up even on that.
Instead, from the moment we arrived in Toronto, all of his energy was devoted to moving on. He was a tailor by trade and went to work in a garment factory the day after our arrival, took on additional part-time work at the earliest opportunity, and eventually opened a store. Until he retired, his typical work week averaged about 70 hours. Outside of the DP camp, my family never received any assistance in carrying on. During the early years after our arrival, my father even had a percentage of his wages deducted every week to repay the tailors union that had sponsored our passage to Toronto.
Did my father consider himself to be a victim? Initially, of course, he did. But above all he considered himself to be a survivor. And the mentality of the survivor is utterly different than the mentality of the victim.
Today the Gazans under the leadership of Hamas continue to identify themselves as victims. We are told, for example, that the Gaza Strip is crowded. How crowded? More crowded than my family’s DP camp in Salzburg? More crowded than the Lower East Side tenements in New York that housed Jews fleeing the pogroms in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries? If they are motivated to rebuild their lives and do whatever it takes to do so, how much Lebensraum do a people actually need?
The survivor lives in the present and wants to move on, to rebuild and create a better future. In the DP camps, the Holocaust survivors — on their own initiative — established little makeshift schools and workshops and mounted various kinds of performances. If, as was common, they had lost spouses and children, they quickly remarried and started new families even before they had reestablished a proper foothold in the world. This is what survivors do; they move on.
Those who cling to their wounds and everlastingly identify as victims incessantly dwell on the past, on what once happened to them, no matter how long ago. Frozen in the past, they act as though they have lost all agency. They create a culture of grievance and resentment. That’s it. That’s how they define their lives. And if they turn to terrorism, they claim that they have been forced to do so. They are the great scapegoaters; they blame other people for making them do their dastardly deeds.
And they are indeed cowards. What could be more cowardly than shooting up a bunch of helpless, unarmed young people attending a peace rave? Or swarming in great numbers on little communities to murder, rape, pillage, and mutilate and desecrate the bodies of their victims — and then run off with innumerable hostages to use as human shields and bargaining chips to save themselves from retaliation? Cowardice is what defines the victim’s existence. Above all, they are unwilling and unable to face life. Everyone has defeats and disappointments, and it often takes a great deal of courage to pick up the pieces and move on. But that is what survivors — as opposed to those who make a career out of victimhood — do.
In contrast to the Hamas terrorists, the Israeli soldiers who will be participating in the ground offensive into Gaza are extraordinarily brave. No matter how well-prepared they are, they know that the risks of urban warfare in enemy territory are very great. People are wont to talk about the superior equipment and training of the Israeli soldier but seldom talk about their bravery. During the early days of the Yom Kippur War, small cadres of soldiers in the front engaged with overwhelming numbers of enemy combatants to hold back the invasion. They were like the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. That’s what real bravery looks like.
Aristotle taught us that bravery is the greatest of all virtues because it is the enabler of all others. Cowardice, on the other hand, has the opposite effect; it is the enabler of all the evil vices that have been on display in the actions and words of the Hamas terrorists.