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Survivors and Refugees

By Paula Stern
12/6/2011, 1:12 PM

Despite reality TV shows, the word "survivor" for me is almost always tied to those who walked out of the hell that was the Holocaust. Television is fiction, trying to survive the Holocaust was the reality for millions of Jews; more than six million didn't survive. My grandfather was born in Poland and fled in the early 1920s. He left behind his mother and two sisters - he was their hope for a better life in a place less filled with hatred and oppression. He went to America and worked very hard. 

My grandfather compromised the religion in which he was raised to earn the money he needed to bring his mother and sisters to safety. He continued to eat kosher food, but he worked on the Sabbath, as his job required him to do. Hitler's race to power defeated my grandfather's race to save his family. His mother and sisters died in Auschwitz. Once, he saw a movie - a news reel - of what was happening in Europe and when he saw the dead bodies piled up, he began to sob. My mother remembers him saying, "my mother, my mother." His mother and sisters were not survivors...they did not survive. 

When I stood beside the gas chambers and crematoria there, I whispered to my grandfather's family of the great-great grandchildren and great-great grand nieces and nephews of theirs who live in Israel. I spoke to my husband's grandparents - all four of them, who had been killed there, and I cried for them because they did not survive.

My grandfather suffered the loss of his beloved mother - but he was not a survivor. He was in no concentration camps, no ghetto, no forced labor camps. He was not a survivor, nor was my mother, his only daughter. You either survive something, or you don't. Either way, your children may be effected by what you endured, but that does not make them survivors too.

My mother-in-law and father-in-law were young when the Nazis stormed into Hungary. They survived the horrors of the Holocaust. My mother-in-law was in Auschwitz. She and her brother and sister survived; her parents, a  young sister, an older brother and his wife did not.

All their lives, my in-laws were remembered as survivors, scarred by what had been done to them, by their memories, their nightmares. All their lives, they looked behind them, wondering when the Nazis would come again. They and hundreds of thousands of others who managed to escape Hitler's final plan were the survivors who reminded us what the Nazis had done. But, the thing is...surviving is not "transferable." My husband's parents were survivors. He is not. Our children are not. The child of a survivor - is not a survivor. Like a stone thrown into a pond, the ripple effect goes on, long after the stone sinks to the bottom. But the stone did not hit   all the waves it produces; the children of survivors are not survivors themselves. 

What this means is that the number of survivors dwindles each day as more and more pass away. The last of the generation - most only children in those final days of World War II, are in their 70s and beyond. This is recognized throughout the world - by Germany, Israel, the United States, and Jews everywhere. Too soon, there will be no more survivors. What is the great truth of the Holocaust? That there are very few survivors left and the burden of remembering has already passed to my generation and beyond. My sons carry the names of  those who died in the Holocaust; my grandson carries the name of one who survived.

And now, another discussion of reality versus fiction.

In 1948, the Arab population of what was then called Palestine, chose war over statehood. They rejected the United Nations Partition Plan that ended the British Mandate over Palestine; a plan that would have seen an Arab and a Jewish state established. The Jews, including many survivors, agreed to the Plan and declared the re-establishment of the State of Israel after 2,000 years in exile. Five Arab armies promptly invaded - Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and units from far beyond. 

During the fighting, a bit before, and most definitely after, hundreds of thousands of people fled in many directions, from and to many countries. Some fled to get out of the way of the fighting (Arab armies broadcast to local Arab communities that they should get out of the way as the Arab armies came to "push the Jews into the sea"); others fled in the midst of battles; others, like hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Arab countries, fled an expected wave of persecution, arriving in Israel with little more than the clothes and the few packages they were allowed to take with them.

The Jews who came from Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and beyond, were refugees. They were put in tents until apartments were built or found for them. Within a short period of time, measured in months or perhaps even years, all were resettled and absorbed. Today in Israel, there are no Jewish refugees. In the house next to mine are Jews whose parents came from Yemen and Morocco. Across the street, from France and Russia. Some who are many generations in Israel, even one who can trace her roots back two thousand years - unbroken in this land.

The Arabs who fled the conflict settled in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and beyond. They were refugees. They were put in camps...and kept there. Their Arab brothers made no attempt to absorb them, to find them homes, to build them apartments. They reveled in their poverty. When these refugees had children, the Arabs proclaimed that their children were refugees as well. Their grandchilden, great-grandchildren, and beyond.

What is the great Palestinian refugee truth? There are very few Palestinian refugees who are still alive - and those that are alive, are in their late 60s, 70s and 80s. You cannot transfer the "title" of survivor; nor can you transfer the mantle of being a refugee. Those born in Jordan are Jordanians - even if the Kingdom of Jordan denies them the right to vote so that they can maintain the fiction of being a Hashemite kingdom - one whose population is actually more "Palestinian" than "Jordanian."

King Abdullah of Jordan was born in Amman - he says he is Jordanian. Queen Rania was born in Kuwait. She says she is Palestinian because her parents were born in Tulkarem, an Arab city in Israel. She is, in truth, Kuwaiti, as those born in Jordan are Jordanians, those born in Saudi Arabia are Saudis, even if they are denied the right to work or vote or purchase land. There was no government in Palestine - only the British Mandate and before that Ottoman control.

What you have is not a refugee problem - but hundreds of thousands of people who have been denied from birth the right to live as equals in the nation of their birth - no, not Palestine or Israel - but all the nations to which they fled - Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and beyond.

The Jews who came from Yemen are Israelis, as are their children. We are not a nation of Iranians, Lebanese,  Egyptians, Syrians, etc. - we are a nation of Jews and Israelis, many of whom have roots in these other countries. The Jews who live here do not have Yemenite citizenship, nor do their children or grandchildren.

What an amazing abuse of history to systematically lower the number of survivors of the Holocaust while hypocritically increasing the number of Palestinian refugees with each generation and each passing day. If a child born in Egypt is a Palestinian refugee, than my husband and my children are all Holocaust survivors.

Will Germany now pay reparations to each of these children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as victims of the Nazi regime? Will the United Nations create an organization to see to the needs of these new "survivors." Will the Poles return the land of my great-grandmother to me? Will the Czech republic return my husband's grandfather's shoe store and home to him?

No - only the Palestinians, it seems, get to wave their hypothetical flag of suffering before the nations of the world, and only Israel is expected to pay for it. How truly lame.