Remembering what you never knew

Remembering what you never knew

Abraham Foxman talks about the Holocaust from his vantage point as a child survivor

Left, young Henryk Stanislaw Kurpi, ne Abraham Henoch Fuksman, now Abraham Foxman, with his nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi, in Vilna; right, Abe with his parents, Helen and Joseph, at a DP camp in Austria in 1947.
Left, young Henryk Stanislaw Kurpi, ne Abraham Henoch Fuksman, now Abraham Foxman, with his nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi, in Vilna; right, Abe with his parents, Helen and Joseph, at a DP camp in Austria in 1947.

The book must have been easy to typeset.

It includes just one word. Jew.

The word appears six million times. The math works out to 40 columns and 120 rows on 1,250 pages, according to the preface. (There are three pages in this massive, heavy volume, that are not simply Jew; the title page, the copyright page, and the preface.) Although the paper it’s printed on is thin, the book is heavy.

Six million is a lot of Jews.

The book is called “And Every Single One Was Someone,” copyrighted by Phil Chernofsky, who came up with the concept, and published by Gefen. It’s a stark reminder that Abraham Foxman of Bergen County gives people as he talks about the Holocaust, the monstrous, planned, partially successful murder of all of Europe’s Jews (as well as Romany, gay men and lesbians, people born with handicaps, and other perceived undesirables).

Mr. Foxman, of course and by definition, is not a Holocaust victim but a survivor. The victims were robbed of their voices as well as their lives, so many of the survivors, who were in Europe but able to escape, or who even were in the camps but somehow didn’t die on schedule or demand, speak for them.

Mr. Foxman’s own story is fairly well-known. He was born in Poland in 1940, and his mother was able to give him to his nanny, who brought him up as hers. His parents, miraculously, survived the war and were reunited; they found him, by then the devoutly Catholic child of a doting single mother, took him away from her, to a DP camp and then to America, where he grew up on an egg farm in south Jersey. They maintained contact with the nanny, who sued them to get the child she thought of hers back, and lost. They offered to take her to the United States with them, and she refused; they supported her until they lost touch with her, something for which they blamed Poland’s communist government.

There are many traumas in that story to which Mr. Foxman alludes but on which he does not dwell. There are seeds for academic work in history, sociology, and psychology; there are themes for novelists and playwrights. It’s about love and trauma and attachment and loss, about heroism and self-sacrifice and how emotion makes people at times smaller, at times larger than themselves, but in highly specific, particular ways; it’s a story that turns on both huge historic movements and minutely calculated human actions. How does an older single woman keep a baby safe when his parents are forced to leave him and might never return? How does that woman deal with having that child, whom she loves dearly, taken from her? How does a child change the focus of his affection without having his capacity to love be affected? What happens to trust? What happens to faith? How do you — do you? — retain optimism?

All these theoretical and specific questions are as far from the stark word Jew repeated six million times, Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew, all those rows and columns of Jew.

And that’s the point.

This is one of the 1,250 stark, identical pages of “And Every Single One Was Someone.”

Every single one of those Jews was not only an individual but truly individual. As Jewish tradition tells us, each one contained a world, and every single one of those worlds was demolished by men-turned-monsters who saw all those individual people just as Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew. It’s harder to kill people when you see them as human beings; dehumanization is a first step toward mass murder.

There used to be many Holocaust survivors and escapees in the United States, but the war ended 78 years ago, and only those survivors who were children or in their early teens then are still alive. They could talk about the Holocaust firsthand; fewer and fewer of them can undertake that emotionally heavy task now.

That’s a truth weighing heavily on Mr. Foxman, who will talk about the Holocaust for the Yom HaShoah commemoration in Teaneck this year. (See below.)

“When we talk about the Holocaust today, we talk about remembrance,” he said. “There is something that the survivors and now the second generation have in common — the fear that there will be no remembrance.

“When I was in college, I wrote an undergraduate honors thesis on the Vilna ghetto,” he continued; he graduated from City College. “I had access to diaries from the ghetto, and I remember asking my father about something I didn’t understand. I saw and didn’t understand how people living in the shadow of death would barter a piece of bread for a piece of paper, or a bowl of soup for ink, when the bread or the soup could mean the difference between life and death.

“He told me that they wanted so badly to write because of the fear that if they did not, nobody would know that they had lived. Nobody would know the difference.

“Fast forward 50 years,” he continued. “I was part of the original group, with Elie Wiesel, trying to decide whether or not we should have a museum about the Holocaust in Washington.” That group was studying the possible creation of what became the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “At the time, the majority of people on the board were survivors, and I was the youngest survivor there.

“Some of the survivors said that maybe we shouldn’t do this, because what if we do build a museum, and yes, all the Jews come, but after that it would remain empty?” What, in other words, if they built a museum and nobody came? “That would be an insult to the victims,” the survivor said.

“And they were so wrong!” Mr. Foxman said. “Until recently, the Holocaust museum was the number two most-visited site, after the Smithsonian.” Today it’s in third place, with the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in second.

“I was there a few weeks ago,” he continued. “I had to wait to be picked up, so I sat in the lobby, watching hundreds of high school kids there. Some were in Catholic school uniforms. I had tears in my eyes just watching them.

Henryk in Vilna in 1947.

“I approached some of them. At first they were hesitant about talking to me. I said, ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m a survivor, and I want to know how the museum impacted you.’ I told them my story, and I said that if the victims had known that you could come there to visit the museum, 80 or so years later, they would not have died so all alone.

“And then two of them embraced me. High school kids, in Catholic school uniforms.”

But most high school students are not able to get to the Holocaust museum in DC, or even to the smaller ones that many communities around the country have hosted. “Now we are concerned because there are polls that show that people don’t know about the Holocaust,” Mr. Foxman said. “Americans are so ignorant of history. We don’t teach it. I’m not shocked that 50 percent of Americans don’t know about the Holocaust. They don’t know much about World War II or the Civil War. We don’t teach history or geography.”

But Mr. Foxman is an eternal optimist, and there always is hope. “Despite that, today there are more books, more documentaries, more films, more museums about the Holocaust than we could have imagined 50 years ago. So the story continues to be told. So I don’t think that we should worry too much. The museums will be there, and the testimonies will be there even after we lose all the survivors.”

But survivors, their children, and the rest of us “have to be creative when we tell the story,” he said. “Survivors are going on TikTok, and some of them have millions of people following them. If you google TikTok and the Holocaust, you’ll find some of it.

“The Shoah Foundation came up with the virtual survivor. The hologram. When I first heard about it, I thought that it would be kitsch, but when I watched kids — and adults! — ask it questions, I realized that it works.

“We have to be creative and courageous. Look at films like ‘Life is Beautiful’ and ‘JoJo Rabbit’” — “Life is Beautiful,” a 1997 movie by Roberto Benigni, and “JoJo Rabbit,” a 2019 film by Taika Waititi, both were controversial; critics said that they defanged and whitewashed the grotesque horror of the Holocaust. “And there are other, newer films like that. They don’t tell the documentary story that we’re used to, and a lot of survivors look at them and say, ‘Oh my God!’ but they seem to be a way to communicate with the younger generation.”

The situation around the world is changing, Mr. Foxman said. “The UAE now marks Holocaust Commemoration Day, and they instituted a study program. Can you imagine that?

“So I am optimistic about memory. I’m involved with a project that tries to honor the diplomats who rescued Jews. We have to focus on the good. On the righteous. Not only on the hate, the evil, the bestiality.

“Even though there weren’t that many righteous people, we have to focus on the potential of people to be good.”

Elie Wiesel and Abe Foxman.

He went back to the subject of bad people, or perhaps the simple ones, or the people who didn’t know enough to ask the right questions, and so were swayed by the wrong answers.

“First there was denial about the Holocaust, and then there was trivialization.

“There are four main forms of denial. Holocaust denial was primarily politically motivated. It started in Germany right after the war. The Germans tried to deny what happened.” Yes, he added, once they acknowledged it, they did teach about it, but denial came first. “Next, the Soviet Union wanted to protect World War II as the classic war between communism on one side and Nazism and fascism on the other, so they obliterated Jewishness from the Holocaust. For many years, the Soviet Union was the major proponent of Holocaust denial.

“They were followed by the Arab world, which first started to say that Israel was a gift to the Jews from the West, to make up for the Holocaust, and then pivoted to say that the Holocaust wasn’t true, and therefore the Jews shouldn’t have a homeland.

“Iran is still saying that,” he added.

“The last groups is the antisemites, who just say that Jews are lying.

“And those four levels are still there, but they’re no longer as potent or as meaningful,” Mr. Foxman said. “The trivialization is more troubling. When someone denies Auschwitz happened, you can show that it’s there. But when you trivialize what happened, that undermines memory.”

Much of that comes from pop culture, Mr. Foxman said. He traces it back to Jerry Seinfeld and the soup Nazi. “That was the beginning of it,” he said. “Some would say that Mel Brooks started it with ‘The Producers,’ but he and I had a conversation about it, and we agreed that it’s different to make fun of Hitler. Not of the Holocaust, but of Hitler.

“Charlie Chaplin did it too,” he said, in “The Great Dictator,” in 1940.

“But now, if you don’t like what a policeman does, you call him the Gestapo. You call the government Nazi. Whatever Trump might be, he’s not Hitler, but that’s what some people call him. During the pandemic, we saw people who didn’t want to be vaccinated wear a yellow star. The anti-abortion movement calls abortion a holocaust.

“There are two elements at work here. One is ignorance, and the other is people who know very well what the Holocaust was and want to use it to distort history.”

Mr. Foxman is doing what he can to keep the memory alive. “I speak about it whenever I can,” he said. “It gives me the opportunity to talk about my nanny, to embrace her and what she did.

“I never got to say thank you to her. I never got to say goodbye. So in a way, it’s a little bit of closure.”

Who: Abraham Foxman will be keynote speaker

What: At the 2023 Annual Yom HaShoah Holocaust Commemoration

When: On Tuesday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: At Bergenfield High School

What else: The Bronkesh family represents Jewish continuity after the Holocaust; student artwork from the Na’aleh High School for Girls will be on display at the Bergenfield public library in April, and the Teaneck public library in May, and there will be music by Jonathan Rimberg and Stephanie Kurtzman.

read more: