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Our “Greatest Generation”

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03/02/2010

My grandfather, who had celebrated his 100th birthday last November, died this February. I was asked to speak at his funeral.

In preparing my grandfather’s eulogy, I recalled what I knew of his life’s story: Born in the Old Country. Lost most of his family to the Holocaust, which he survived by escaping a labor camp and fleeing to the woods. Married, then moved to a displaced person’s camp, where my mother was born. Immigrated to America, worked as a carpenter while my grandmother took in boarders. Ultimately had four daughters, all of whom graduated college and started their own families.

A remarkable story, yet I had heard so many like it in my own lifetime that I wondered if I should even tell it at the funeral. Hasn’t a similar story— Holocaust survivor comes to America and starts a new life— already been the subject of endless movies, plays and memoirs?

Which is when it dawned on me— the reason we take that generation’s resiliency so for granted may be that it seems so typical. My grandfather’s story is all the more remarkable for being so common.

Sure. To us, now. But at the time, it could have gone either way.

At the time, there was no guarantee that the Holocaust survivors would be able to rebuild their lives. But today, we have heard story after story of Holocaust survivors thriving in their new country.

We hear, again and again, the tale of those who went to the nascent nation of Israel and “made the desert bloom.” We hear, over and over, the saga of those who got trapped behind the Iron Curtain and kept the sparks of Judaism alive under the smothering Soviet flag.

While we see these outcomes as inevitable now, none of them were guaranteed at the time… any more than there was a guarantee that America would have survived the Great Depression, or that Hitler would have lost.

The American generation— millions of whom are Jewish— who did endure the Depression and defeat Hitler is now known as the “Greatest Generation,” in part thanks to a book about them by Tom Brokaw. And their achievements are certainly remarkable. But my grandfather, while their contemporary, was not part of that story. He spent the 1930s in then-Czechoslovakia, and he did not arrive in America until after WWII was over.

But that only means that he is part of a different “Greatest Generation.” Millions of Jews fought for survival within the death camps, fought armies to establish Israel, and fought oppression in the Soviet Union. They were not necessarily American, but these astonishing people also found deep reservoirs of hope and resourcefulness in hellish situations.

Few of these Jews are known by name, but cumulatively, they form a generation worthy of reverence. The fact that there are so many Jews with these stories does not render them cliché at all. It elevates them to the level of historic significance.

Together, these are not stories of what some Jewish people did. This is the story of what The Jewish People did.

Certainly, the achievement of enduring the Depression to defeat the Nazis is equaled by that of enduring to the Holocaust to build new lives in America and a new country in Israel. Apologies to Mr. Brokaw, but Jews of non-American extraction also have a Greatest Generation.

A man comes to a new land with his new family… he does not speak the language… all of his children become self-sufficient. Within one generation, a regeneration.

Maybe the story is common. But there is no reason it had to be, and it is therefore a thousand times more awe-inspiring for being common. As often as this story is repeated, it never fails to impress.

I miss my grandfather. Maybe he was not an historic figure like JFK or Walter Cronkite, cited in Brokaw’s book. Or even Elie Wiesel or a David Ben-Gurion. But my grandfather’s efforts, alongside those of the millions of Jews like him, stand as an eternal inspiration. He was part of a Greatest Generation, too… parallel in time, equal in honor.

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