The plane landed in Tel Aviv with a thud, olive trees and soldiers lining the runway. With the 14-hour journey complete, I was reminded of the reason we’d come to Israel. The body of my grandmother, who’d just passed away, traveled with us in the belly of the plane, ready to be transported to her final resting site in Jerusalem.
Inside the terminal, we were greeted by relatives I’d never met. My grandparents had requested to be buried in Israel rather than in random plots in New Jersey, where they’d lived their final years, because they wanted us to meet our relatives – descendants of aunts and uncles who had survived the Holocaust. It was a sad but special reunion.
At my grandmother’s gravesite atop a mountain outside of Jerusalem, we exchanged prayers, stories, and tears, and we took turns shoveling dirt over the grave. My grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, often said that having children and grandchildren was the greatest revenge against Hitler, and hearing their stories taught me just how precious it was for me to be alive. They managed to survive, and it’s my obligation to tell their story.
My grandma, Ilse, was born in Germany, where she had a happy childhood and met the love her life, Max, at age 17. When World War II struck, my grandparents hid in Holland with a family of righteous gentiles, Nick and Aag Schouten. My grandmother, who dyed her hair red and wore a cross, used false papers to change her name to Tina Smith and pretended to be a German maid. Considered a hero in the Dutch Underground, she found places for Jewish people to hide and helped smuggle food and medical supplies.
My grandfather, Max, couldn’t pass with false papers. Instead, he hid between the ceiling and attic, covering himself in soot from the fireplace to mask his scent when Nazi dogs came around trying to sniff out hidden Jews.
One day, a Nazi soldier came to the house and asked if there were any Jews around. My grandmother ran around the house throwing open every door, shouting, “There are no Jews here!” When the solider finished his inspection, he stuck out his hand, expecting “Tina Smith” to shake it, but she withdrew in horror – after all, these were the Nazis who had murdered her parents. My grandfather, listening from his hiding place, thought it was all over – but my grandmother recovered quickly, apologizing for her modest behavior and claiming she’d grown up in a nunnery. The soldier smiled, saluted Hitler, and left the house. It was just one of many narrow escapes.
It seems that my grandparents, who were together for 75 years, couldn’t part from one another: Just eight days after we arrived in Israel, we learned that Grandpa Max had passed away, too. After his funeral, we created a gravestone that connected their plots, inscribed with a quote from Isaiah 43:2: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
While visiting Jerusalem, I realized just how important Israel was to my grandparents. This place was free from the hatred and reign of the Nazis, becoming a safe haven for Jews after the war. When other countries turned their backs, Israel accepted them – and as I explored the country, it began to mean something more to me, too.
This wasn’t the violent, chaotic Israel I saw on the news at home; this was the City of Peace. All around us in the Old City of Jerusalem, still important to three major religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), people spoke in their native tongues. In the shuk (marketplace), I took in the smells, sounds, and sights of different cultures, evidence of many faiths cooperating in such a small space. They have to share their holy sites and live in peace and harmony. Where was this tolerance during the Holocaust?
My grandparents have been gone for three years, but their memory lives on. To honor them and all those who died in the Holocaust, my family has served as docents for Anne Frank exhibits. As part of my bat mitzvah project, I educated children about tolerance, both yesterday and today, telling the story of the Frank family and the heroic efforts of those who tried to save them.
Hitler rose to power in part by blaming Germany’s problems on the Jews. The people rallied behind him, and he was elected by a majority. Could it happen again? We see the same seeds of hatred resurfacing today, if in a subtler way.
But we can learn from the Holocaust, confronting hateful and bigoted ideas before they get out of hand. Judaism teaches us to do acts of tikkun olam, repair of our world, and with that comes remembering the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust. It’s our responsibility to make sure today’s world is a safe place for everyone – all religions, ethnicities, and genders.
Anne Frank once said, “I don’t think of all the misery, but of all the beauty that still remains.” Our ancestors faced injustice, just as we face it today – but it’s never too late to improve our understanding of the past and work to brighten the future of our world.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.