The role of Ethiopian Jews in commemoration of the Holocaust
For three weeks that I am in Berlin, looking forward for a meaningful year ahead. I arrived to Germany to participate in a year long program of ASF – Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (Action Reconciliation Service for Peace) to work in a Holocaust memorial site – The House of Wannsee Conference.
ASF was first established in order to acknowledge Germany’s guilt for Nazi crimes and has developed through the years into a program that sets the ground to volunteers from all around the world to develop their understanding of history and other cultures and societies, while experiencing and accepting different patterns of thoughts and behaviors.
Obviously, as an Israeli and a Jew, I have experienced the Memory of the Holocaust and the impact of the Second World War slightly different than the other participants of this program. The commemoration of the Holocaust in the Israeli society is embedded in our daily lives and shapes our behavior as individuals and as a nation. As from a very young age we learn about the greatest disaster that mankind has ever known. We often hear and learn about the horror, loss and heroism. We grew up learning about connection between the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, we learned to stand up in silence to the memorial siren, to cry out against the Holocaust survivor’s pensions, and often we were horrified to hear about a young man who robbed an elderly Holocaust survivor.
I came here to Germany, to learn, to explore, to enrich my knowledge, to develop dialogue, to hear and to be heard, but mostly to try to approach this huge issue that has always been a part of me but I never felt completely part of it.
At the first week when we arrived to Berlin, we had a one-week seminar discussing personal identity and collective memory of the nations after World War II.
I have engaged this topic of defining my identity more than once in my life; my black/Ethiopian identity versus my Jewish identity. It is definitely not a simple issue for me. As a Jewish-Israeli of Ethiopian descent, I am always facing my black identity, I always feel like I am carrying a baggage of different color, different culture and sometimes – different kind of Judaism; old fashion, non modern, non relevant. However, abroad – it is completely something else; I often feel like I represent the ideal Jew. I proudly wave the flags of Judaism and Zionism, calls all nations to Never Forget, calls out for assistance to the last generation of Holocaust survivors / Heroes and preaches to the danger of anti-Semitism that is growing in the Western world.
But then, during on of the seminar activities, we were asked to choose a character within our families, someone that is close to us or someone that we would like to know better, who represents for us, on one way or another, the time of the war.
All the participants were telling some exciting and emotional stories; one was telling about a grandfather who was a soldier in the Red Army, another was telling about a grandmother who hid Jews from the Nazis, the other Israeli guy in the group told a story about his Holocaust survivor’s grandparents, and more. when my turn arrive, I had no idea who to talk about, because I had no one to choose. My family is not from European descent, I don’t have anyone in my family that represents the war. However, the only thing I could say was: “I am sorry to ruin the sequence, though I belong to the Jewish people, but my family does not have any direct connection to the Jewish European Holocaust. Therefore I choose to tell you a story about different kind of heroism, a story that might be not quite related. It is a story about my mother, and she is my hero.”
I opened with a brief review of the history of Ethiopian Jewry, the journey of my parents Aliyah story, and my mother in particular. Everybody looked at me confused and did not quite understand the relevance.
In internal discussions, I tried to explain that “for me, the story of the holocaust is far as Exodus, but close as the 2000 Intifada”, I said. “This is the story of my people, but not a story that shaped my identity” I added. The thing is that this story is a big part of the Jewish people identity; I own this story and I am obligated to this story as an Israeli and as a Jew, but this is not my only story, and I wish that my non Ethiopian friends would feel the same about the Ethiopian story”, I said.
It was important to me that they understand that Jews come in all colors, and not necessarily share a unified historical narrative.
At the end of the day I was thinking again about what happened earlier. I realized that every time we worry about the generation of national heroes, we talk about Holocaust survivors and / or other groups of heroes, intellectuals, journalists and founders of the Jewish state. We never talk about our grandparents, that may have not established this country, and according to the hierarchy of suffer levels in the Jewish world, probably suffered the least, but they are not less Zionist or less heroes and deserve to enter this exclusive list of the generation that today we cherish so much and concerned that will be soon gone. I began thinking about the Jews in Ethiopia who where forever persecuted as a result of anti-Semitism, and how at the times of the Second World War the Italian regime showed a hostile attitude toward them, when the fascists applied the Nazi racial laws in the occupied areas of east Africa. My father told us the story about the 44 Ethiopian Jewish leaders that were eliminated in 1940, accused of treason, some of them were his family members. Another group of victims of the Nazi regime came to my mind, a group which was also completely excluded from the discourse and collective memory in Israel, Jews that according to all the criteria of the European world, not only did not have the right color, but also lived in the wrong continent; the Jews of north Africa.
The story of anti-Semitism is not unique to Europe; it goes far back and unfortunately does not seem to end. Our grandparent’s story is excluded from the Zionist national narrative; it is hidden very well underneath the story of great history of European Jewry, and therefore no one consider them to be a part of the great nation’s older generation or includes them as part of the collective story of heroism. I was wondering what could have been the right thing for them in order to be a great part of this nation’s history. In fact, the more I was thinking of that, the more it was hard for me to imagine it.
If a man needs to be a hero in order to be included in the history of the nation, then the question is “who is a hero?” A man who achieve all he wishes for or simply a man who tried his very best and fight against all chances?
As far as I know, Jewish history is all about both.
Suddenly my thoughts started wondering. I wondered what would have happened if in 1862 the Ethiopian Jewish leader, Abba Mahri and his crew, were successful in their attempt to get to Israel. Sailing In my thoughts I saw a group of people, motivated and inspired by faith, traveling to Israel, crossing the Red Sea and building a state, in their bare hands. A group of people that acknowledge the fact that “Am Israel” is made up of a mosaic of cultures and colors, people who know that they are not “a part of the Jewish people” – but they are the Jewish people. These people that I saw in my mind are the finest. They are willing to accept Jews with open arms, Jews of all colors, ethnic background and genders. I saw them in my mind, hanging banners and sending postcards to the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, announcing the establishment of a Jewish homeland. I saw them happy and excited for finally achieving the dream.
By the end of the day I realized it was one of the most significant days in my life.
There is no doubt that at this day I got answers. I came here to learn and teach. Learn and teach about identity, about being a foreigner, about emissions, hatred and unconditional love.
I realized what I wish for; I wish to see Am Israel as one nation, a nation that acknowledge all historic narratives, a nation that respect all traditions and sectors.