A few years ago I was visiting Lodz, Poland with my father and I had asked him about his
childhood. He spoke of going to see Hollywood cowboy movies, winter skiing holidays in the
southern mountains, summers at their country villa, his private school, his family’s
newspaper, and then he told me the tale of the grand piano. He said that one day, after the
Germans had occupied Poland, a Nazi came to visit. He looked all around the apartment,
finally settling on a beautiful black lacquered grand piano.
“Anyone here play piano?” he had asked.
“My sister plays” my father, who was 11 years old at the time, had answered helpfully.
“Bring her here” said the Nazi.
He went and got his big sister, a 16 year old.
“Play something,” the Nazi commanded.
She played a song. The Nazi left. The next day a couple of strong men came to the
apartment, picked up the piano and carried it away. So the Nazi had in effect been
‘shopping’, only without having to use money. He simply picked out whatever the Jews had
that he wanted and took it. Nice trick.
The next day I went to an antique shop on Lodz’s main street Piotrokowska, just down from
the Grand Hotel where we were staying. I looked around the large dusty room loaded with
‘Judaica’ and wondered what I could buy to symbolically reclaim some little object of my
heritage, when suddenly I became acutely aware that all the Jewish things had at some point
been stolen. While theft seems a relatively small thing to contemplate compared to the fact
that the rightful owners were murdered, at that moment, surrounded by things on top of
things in an antique shop, the theft of it all became overwhelming. I realized that there must
have been millions and millions and millions of things that they had stolen from the Jews.
Let’s see, if there were six million Jews who died and they took say a hundred things from
each one that would be, oh my goodness… small things - like silver candlesticks and
kiddush cups, jewelry, china, crystal, furs - large things - like pianos, carpets, armoires,
homes, even villas. They took my father’s family’s villa and five families are now living in it. All
those beautiful things - it must have been like one huge candy store for the thieves. Was it all
A chill went up my spine; the sort of chill you get when you are in a discussion with someone
and you come upon an absolute truth, which suddenly illuminates many seemingly disparate
things that now crystallize brilliantly into parts of the same whole. In a flash it hit me: for the
perpetrators it wasn’t really about the ‘Jewish character’ or anti-Semitism or ideology or
religion or scapegoating or anything grand, philosophical, theosophical or principled (albeit
wrongly so). It was about theft. Small, petty, banal, common theft. Theft on a scale so grand
and outrageous as to be mind boggling. A theft so greedy that it searched the teeth of the
dead for bits of gold, a theft so meticulous that it turned churches into warehouse sorting
spaces for shoes and clothes of the dead, a theft so insatiable that it drained the last bit of
labor out of each Jew on the minimum of rations and experimented with barely alive
skin-and-bone children with pleading eyes when they were too sick to work (why waste
anything?). I stood in horror with my hand over my mouth at the thought. I had seen into the
heart of darkness and it was filled not with great philosophical sins, just theft, and an
absence of morality that allowed this smallness to reign. The ‘root cause’ of evil is lack of
morality. It seems circular, but it is in fact a great truth.
So it is with anti-Semites. It’s futile to look for the grand reasons why they do things. Look for
the small reasons. They do them because they are evil and smallness reigns. It is said that
every generation of Jews has their anti-Semites to deal with. My father’s generation had the
Nazis and we have the assorted Muslims and Arabs who have declared open season on
Jews the world over. Daniel Pearl was killed simply for being a Jew. Who can doubt that we
are witnessing the vilest form of anti-Semitism since the Nazis? Decades ago Jews were
run out of Arab countries, their belongings stolen. Barely a protest was heard. Now the Arabs
are trying to run Jews out of their own country, to steal their land, land Jews have lived in for
thousands of years, historically and biblically meaningful land, barren uninhabited land they
reclaimed from swamps and built up into a thriving Israel. Land that only attracted any
interest whatsoever from the Arabs once the Jews began reclaiming it. It’s the same old
The difference is that the Jews of this generation, unlike those of my father’s, are armed. At
least they are in Israel. The question is will they use those arms to vanquish Amalek in this
Charlotte West is an Arizona-based columnist