The first time I heard Holocaust survivors tell their story, I was 27 years old. Since my parents were American born, and their parents had emigrated to America in 1915, I’d had very little contact with anyone who’d experienced the horrors of the Final Solution. Then, in 1978, I wrote a Jewish children’s play which was selected to be produced at the Henry Street Settlement House on the Lower East Side of New York. A young woman director whom I’d never met was assigned to work with me and direct the show. Her name was also Susan and we were the same age, but other than that, we were extremely different. Susan was the daughter of Holocaust survivors and when she invited me to meet her parents and have dinner at their home, I finally began to understand what that meant.
At first, there were the obvious differences – her parents spoke with accents, they were a lot older than my parents, and were extremely formal in their manners. As we ate a delicious dinner of Jewish and Polish delicacies, I noticed a photograph of a beautiful little girl in a silver frame prominently displayed on an ornate wooden side table.
“That’s my sister,” Susan said, “from my mother’s first family. She died before I was born.” Not knowing what to say, I looked at everyone questioningly.
Susan continued. “My parents were both married to other people before the war. My father’s wife and four children were killed by the Nazis. My mother’s husband was also killed. My sister…”
At that point, Susan’s mother said emotionally. “It was my fault.” Susan shook her head and said, “Mom, let’s not do this….”
But for some reason, Susan’s mother felt compelled to tell me. “The Germans were rounding up the children and I didn’t know what to do. My husband had been shot in the street and I was afraid I would be next. So I paid a Polish neighbor a lot of money to say that she was their child and protect her until I could return. But her husband got drunk and boasted that he was rich because he had a Jewish girl and someone reported it to the SS. The next day they came and took her away!”
Susan’s mother burst into tears. “It was my fault, my fault!” At that point, I couldn’t help myself. Almost crying myself, I said, “It wasn’t your fault. It was their fault! Please don’t blame yourself. I am so sorry. What happened was so terrible.” Even though I had just met this woman, I went over and hugged her. She clung to me and cried.
In 1978, very few people had talked about the Holocaust. There were no movies, no television programs, very few books, not even many magazine or newspaper articles. That experience at the dinner table opened my eyes to the trauma and tragedies and suffering and loss that so many people had experienced and that most Jews, let alone non-Jews, knew nothing about.
As we are well aware, in the 45 years since then, the situation has radically changed as survivors and their children and grandchildren finally opened up and began to speak. There are now films, documentaries, books, classes, lectures, testimonies, museums and memorials dedicated to preserving the memory and the lessons of the Holocaust. And yes, while there are Holocaust deniers and Anti-Semites and a lot of ignorance still out there, we Jews now know the truth. We know what happened to our brothers and sisters and we grieve and we comfort and we remember and honor them as we did this past Tuesday evening on Yom HaShoah.
The first time I really heard about the suffering of Persian Jews -- not just in snippets, but in detail - was last week. This past Sunday, I cohosted an event with Sinai Temple to hear Dora Levy Mossanen, a Persian Jewish author, talk about her latest book, which took place in the Jewish Quarter of Teheran in the 1940’s.
Fifty women gathered in the beautiful home our Persian Jewish hostess – half from Wilshire Boulevard Temple and half from Sinai to learn about the lives and treatment of Jews in Iran not just after the Islamic Revolution, but also before. The indignities, the insults, the pervasive dislike and distaste for Jews, the discrimination, the belief that Jews were not only inferior but unclean was a daily fact of life. And then, after the Islamic revolution, came the arrests, the brutality, the loss of property and civil rights, the terror, the firing squads, the fleeing in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs.
I am in NO WAY comparing the Holocaust to what happened to our Persian brothers and sisters. The Holocaust is in its own category and always will be. And yet, the Jews of Iran have powerful, painful stories to tell. Stories that are an essential part of our Jewish history, similar to what happened during the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition or the Pogroms. Stories of pain and suffering and resilience and survival.
The big difference is that Persian Jewish experience is not in the past. It happened to our neighbors here in Los Angeles and even at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and most of us have no idea what they went through. Not only that. Persian Jews have a beautiful, colorful, spiritual, mystical Jewish heritage and culture that I, as an Ashkenazi Jew, a rabbi no less, know almost nothing about.
Why? Because I’ve never asked. I’ve never sat down with Jewish Iranian refugees or their children or grandchildren and said, “ Tell me about your life. Tell me what happened.”
People are not going to share their stories unless they know we care, that we are interested, that we want to learn and understand. Underneath the elegance and graciousness and friendliness of the event last Sunday, there was also a sense of sadness and loss that I felt from the Jewish Persian women who attended. As they listened to Dora talk about life in Iran, both good and bad, they nodded their heads in agreement. Yes, yes, that’s the way it was.
I’m ashamed that I don’t know more. I’m ashamed that never extended myself or reached out to a huge community of my fellow Jews whose history and traditions reach back 2500 years.
After that encounter with my friend Susan’s mother so many years ago, I decided I had to write something about what I didn’t know but felt compelled to understand. I spent years studying the Holocaust, meeting with survivors, traveling to Poland and Germany. Ultimately, I wrote a play, a feature film and a television movie about what I learned.
After last Sunday, I am determined to learn more about the Persian Jewish community. I owe it to myself and I owe it to them. Perhaps you will join me.