Well, at least we thought they were. My grandfather “found escaped Nazi’s” all over the world on his vacations with my grandmother. He specifically had suspicions about the piano player at the hotel in Aruba. My grandmother’s Nazi hunting intuition would kick in at a particular accent, a lilt in the way a person’s tone would shift when they found out she was a Jew- she trusted her sensitive gut. It was very important for my survivor grandparents to be hyper aware of the enemy- it was a protective mechanism- a safety check.
As a third generation survivor, that sense of realistic paranoia, was certainly branded into my own psyche. I’ve been anticipating the violence that Jews all over the world have been experiencing in increasing levels the last years. I shout “wake up!” everytime I read the news about anti semitic attacks or rhetoric- anxiously wondering when the full tide of Jew-hating will crest again. Unlike many, I was not surprised at all by Charlottesville's anti-Jew tirade. Didn’t my grandparents warn me that it would come again? Yet it does not stem the rising waters of fear within me now. Perhaps now that we definitively know that there are bands of Nazi’s all over America, a memory that isn't mine, one that was given to me as a scar and a birthright, is being triggered.
At the very least, one could argue, what feels new about this time of our lives, is that people’s anti-semitic sentiments are looser on their tongues. Those that hate us are freer to say it aloud.
So when two polish sisters answered my call for new cleaning help, I was biased from the beginning. When someone is cleaning your house, it’s pretty obvious that you are Orthodox and Jewish. Our beds sometimes are separated, our kitchens are overloaded with stuff and crazy rules. The artwork on our walls is obviously Jewish in nature.
The three of us were in the kitchen. I was washing the dishes from the night before, they scrubbing the oven and refrigerator. We were making polite conversation, and they were asking me about my overt Jewishness. They were very curious. Overly curious. Afraid of what they would respond, I asked, “Where are you originally from?” “Poland,” they replied. “Where is your family originally from?”
Taking a deep breath in, I answered, “We are Ashkenazi Jews- from all over. Russia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and also, Poland.” And there it was. That awkward moment where two sides of an old war come face to face, in the most domestic circumstances. That pain lies between you. I felt my body tense with the discomfort of anticipating that old protective mechanism.
Then they said something that I never anticipated. “Our grandmother saved many Jews in the war.”
The glass I was washing almost slipped out of my hands. My head whipped around and I practically shouted, “Your grandmother saved Jews??” Their faces were lined in passion, “Oh yes, many. She hid them in her basement. Her neighbor trained their dog to bark every time the Nazis would come near the house. She saved many lives during the war.”
I turned back around and all I could hear was the running water from the sink, and their continued scrubbing. My eyes welled up with tears that I quickly tried to blink away. They could not know how humbled I was, in the presence of these two women cleaning my kitchen. I quietly murmured to them, “I have never met anyone who saved Jews in the war.” They seemed very confused, “Of course she did! How could she not? She knew many people who saved Jews during the war. The Nazis were our enemy too. She was afraid for her life, but it was more important to save her neighbors. Our people suffered during the war, too.”
I shook my head and said, “Your grandmother is a righteous woman.” I usually have much to say, but it was literally the only thing I could think of to say. We continued to clean alongside each other, discussing the things we’d seen. Majdanek, Belcez, Lublin, Warsaw, Auschwitz.
In a time when everything seems so catastrophic and dismal, it does not help us to take people at face value for their ethnicity, religion or geography. If I had, I would have missed out on connecting with two women of compassion, who lacked prejudice, from righteous ancestors.
In a time of so much wrongdoing, it gave me tremendous comfort to hear people talk about doing the right thing, as if it was the only natural course of action. The issue that is so grey and blended today, was black and white to them.
It was a moment of sanity in season that has challenged the humanity of our societal values.