In 1941, the 17,500 Jews who then made up almost half the population of Lutsk, Poland (now Ukraine), were ghettoized. Among them was my grandmother, along with her nieces, Ruchela and Shaindelah.
Shaindelah was dark-featured, but Ruchela was pale-skinned, golden-haired, and light-eyed; to my grandmother, she was the picture of Aryan beauty. It was this beauty that inspired the plan.
Since my grandmother was like a nanny to the girls anyway – the girls’ mother, my grandmother’s sister-in-law, had passed away years earlier, and their care had fallen to my grandmother – the plan they hatched to get my grandmother out of the ghetto was not farfetched. Ruchela would walk with my grandmother to the ghetto’s gate with the demeanor of a non-Jewish child, a child who didn’t belong in the ghetto’s walls, and she would tell the guard she had just been inside the ghetto to retrieve her nanny. The two would walk out together, with the expectation that the Jewish “nanny” would return by nightfall. Only instead, it would be Ruchela who would return to the ghetto, since, at 10 years old, it was presumed she was better off there than among the unknown dangers outside the ghetto with my grandmother.
Who knows if she would have survived had she not returned to the ghetto? Who knew what was to become of the inhabitants of the ghetto? Moving from barn to bush, from cellar to hollow tree trunk, my grandmother, along with my grandfather and his brother, hid for three years, until the war ended and they and the 140-odd other survivors emerged from the forest. And it was then that they discovered the fate of all of Lutsk’s other Jews: In the summer of 1942, shortly after my grandmother left the ghetto, every Jew inside, with hair dark or golden, with eyes brown or blue or green, was murdered.
What I wondered over the years was about that quick conversion of Ruchela, the girl who had to trade in lessons in baking challah and learning the aleph bet, as well as humility and loss, for an Aryan with anti-Semitic superiority. “Don’t act Jewish,” they must have whispered in her ear. “Don’t speak Yiddish. Pretend you are a regular Polish girl.” It was an imperative I could hardly imagine, growing up in Toronto’s Bathurst Bubble.
Yet I thought about this advice when we landed in Kuala Lumpur for a two-day layover on our family summer vacation in China earlier this month and were sitting in the lobby of our hotel, waiting for our room to be ready. Perhaps Ruchela’s story preyed on my mind because of the numerous invocations of the Holocaust as the lens being used by both sides to read the current war in Gaza, a war that seemed to be the only newsworthy event on our hotel lobby’s television, set to Al Jazeera. Trying to tune out the depressing and, no doubt, skewed reporting, I turned to the index of my Lonely Planet, as I always do, to look up the section on Judaism.
In Shanghai, we had seen great architecture of the city – the Children’s Palace in Jing’an, the Fairmont Peace Hotel in the Bund, the lane houses of the French Concession – built by the Kadoories, the Sassoons, the Hardoons, all Sephardi families who were influential business people in the early 20th century. We had visited the Jewish Refugees Museum and learned about the community that had formed from Jews escaping the Holocaust in the area that became known as Little Vienna. We had eaten a weekday meal at the Hongqiao Chabad and Shabbat dinner at the in-town Chabad, surrounded by French Jews for whom Shanghai, and not Paris, is the centre of the fashion industry. As far as my children are concerned, Shanghai, like most other places I’ve taken them to – Miami Beach, Hampstead and Côte-Saint-Luc in Montreal, the Marais in Paris, Israel – is principally Jewish. What would we discover in Kuala Lumpur?
I gathered my children around me to read to them from the book. What old, beautiful synagogues would we tour, imagining what it would be to face west during the amidah? Would we lay pebbles on the tombstones of a famous Malaysian Jew? Would we discover it was an Israeli architect behind the Petronas Towers?
Skimming ahead in the section in my travel guide, I found myself unable to read the words aloud. As Muslim countries go, Malaysia is moderate. Freedom of religion is enshrined in their constitution. Yet unlike every other place I’ve ever taken my kids, there are no Jews in Malaysia, and no synagogues or cemeteries or Israeli architects or anything else that suggests a Jewish presence ever existed. And this absence is no accident. Malaysia is a hotbed of anti-Semitism. Lonely Planet was full of fun facts, and a quick Google search pulled up a National Post article that added more. To wit: The New York Philharmonic couldn’t play in Malaysia in 1984 because they had included a song in their repertoire by a (dead American) Jewish composer. The Liverpool football team wasn’t allowed to bring one of their players in 1992 because he was Israeli, and like all Israelis, he was not permitted entry to the country. Schindler’s List, branded pro-Jewish propaganda, was banned.
In 2002, the prime minister denounced the United States as a tool of Jewish overlords. In 2003, the government translated Henry Ford’s classic anti-Semitic book, The International Jew, into Malay and distributed it to the United Malays National Organization. In 2011, the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department circulated official sermons to be read in all mosques declaring, “Jews are the main enemy.” The Protocols of the Elders of Zion can be found in many bookstores. Lonely Planet concluded its short section on Judaism in Malaysia with a chilling warning: “Very few local Muslims differentiate between Israelis and Jews generally – something worth noting if you’re Jewish and travelling in the region.”
I looked at my children, boys who range in age from nine to four, and in color from medium-toned to light. My youngest has golden hair and green eyes, features for which I was suddenly grateful. These boys who are used to speaking of their henties and keppies, and spontaneously bursting into niggunim, and travelling with kippot if not for daily wear, for those anywhere-in-the-world Chabads – I pulled them close, and I told them what must have been told to Ruchela over 70 years ago: “Don’t act Jewish.”
I know that Jews all over are worried about their safety right now. It’s not just Sarcelles and Brussels. where I live, in the United Kingdom, major grocery stores like Tesco and Sainsbury’s are clearing their shelves of kosher food, supposedly to avoid the posses of protesters creating havoc there (which is more problematic – the reaction of the stores or the behavior of the violent demonstrators – I’m not sure). Even in Canada, in the heavily Jewish suburb of Toronto where I grew up, at the bus shelter where I spent many an hour of my youth waiting for the bus, a swastika was spray-painted across the glass along with the words “DIE ISRAEL.”
“Not again!” my Facebook friends said when I posted the picture of the bus stop. “This is how it begins.”
Having been raised with the intimate details of my grandmother’s survival – and her family’s slaying – I believe it’s a corruption of history and disrespect to the dead to think that what we are witnessing today echoes 1941. And two days in Kuala Lumpur made me realize we need not only distance ourselves from our historical counterparts, but also our contemporary ones. Though there is reason to fear in the Western world, we have governments that support our religious rights, and that speak out against anti-Semitism. We are not being ghettoized, and we are not hiding in barns and hollow tree trunks while our families are being slaughtered. And while supporting Israel might make us unpopular in many circles, we will not find ourselves – as a boy in Malaysia did a few days after my stopover there – publicly humiliated by our teachers, and investigated for sedition, if we do.
In 2014, in Canada and the rest of the western world, we might have reason to protest the protests, to critique the blurred lines between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism, to demand justice when we are harmed, physically or emotionally. But no one, I think, has to look on a child’s golden tresses with gratefulness, has to pull that child close and whisper in his or her ear, “Don’t act Jewish.”
Karen E. H. Skinazi, PhD, is a literary and cultural critic and mother of three boys living in Birmingham, U.K.