Being the only Jew in a Christian community is not easy. When I was younger, I always wondered why I was different. Why didn't Santa ever come to my house, and how come I never got my own Chanukah bush? But as I grew up, I began to realize the importance of Judaism.
In September of 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. By the end of the war, there were no words to describe what had happened. Millions of lives had been taken but there was one group that had been especially targeted by the Nazis for death: the Jews. As the Nazis expanded beyond Germany, they were determined to rid the world of every Jew. Six million Jews, over two-thirds of the European Jewish population, were killed. They were snuffed out like candles over the one thing they had in common ... their religion. [Editor's Note: It's estimated that five million people belonging to other groups targeted by the Nazis were also killed.]
For me, this is more than a history lesson. The Holocaust has impacted my life in many ways, and because of it, I have become the person I am today.
My grandma, along with her nine brothers and sisters, was forced into a concentration camp before she had even turned 17. When the war finally ended after five long years of starvation and slave labor, she was alone. Not a single family member had survived. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins - they were all dead. At 21, she had no one but herself. As a result, my family is small. We have to stick together and be there for each other. Even second and third cousins are important to me. Sometimes they even feel like siblings. This ultimately has strengthened the role of Judaism in my life.
Growing up with the legacy of the Holocaust has impacted me in other ways. It has given me a sensitivity - a realization - of what injustice can do and the importance of being kind to others. It has helped me appreciate life, and be grateful for being alive.
And every morning, it gives me a push to make a difference. Not just my religion, and not just the Holocaust, but all of their effects on my life make me appreciate just how fragile life is and how everyone's actions can make a difference. That is something that can't be taught from a book.
Judaism isn't easy. Sometimes when you're the odd man out, you just want to fit in. You want to forget your past, lose your present, join a new future. Sadly though, that doesn't always work, and isn't right. My grandmother's family was slaughtered for no reason except that they were Jews. Converting would have been easier, but it would have been an insult to their names. I have to stand up for what I believe and be proud of my heritage. If I don't, who will?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.