It is 1918. The first flurries of winter snow lie on the ground.
Along the streets of Kiev a battle between Reds and Whites has
raged for weeks. Into the Grand Synagogue in the city center are
herded groups of Jews. Whole families are pushed and shoved.
Children scream as they lose their parents in the crush. Men who
protest are beaten. Many are bloodied. Finally, 800 Jews who
have been gathered from the local neighborhoods are enclosed.
The great oak doors of the old synagogue clang shut as wood,
hay and kerosene is brought to be placed around the building's
From a second story window a man and woman gaze intently at
the street. Finally they see a young man appear below. The
woman turns to embrace the couple's five-year-old son. The
father raises the boy and looks into his eyes, extracting a pledge
to be a good Jew. Then in one sweep of his arm he sets him
outside the window ledge, dangling him by his hands. The boy
looks up at his father in terror. Suddenly he is released and
falling. He tumbles onto the body of the young man below. There
are shouts from the crowd, but the young man quickly recovers,
collecting the boy and spiriting him away. A minute later, giant
flames begin to lick the walls of the synagogue. Acrid fumes
consume the building. Within an hour, it is over.
The fate of my maternal great-grandparents, and that of the little
boy who became my grandfather has been buried beneath the
snowdrifts of history - a mere anecdote among the countless
other personal tragedies of the 20th Century. But the event has
been indelibly etched into my consciousness, casting a shadow
that cannot be removed. Even in distant Australia, where I was
raised largely ignorant of anti-Semitism, the dread of a dark and
malevolent force that could rise suddenly out of the night,
unexplained and unheralded, haunted my childhood. This I found
to be also true among many of my friends who were children and
grandchildren of survivors from Europe. Our lives were somehow
blended, overarched by a tragedy, the immensity of which we
could never fully comprehend. Edgy and discontented, we spent
our restless energies pouring over details of the Holocaust,
desperately seeking an answer to the question: Why?
On a cold autumn day in London in 1983, part of the answer was
revealed to me. Boarding a bus in the East End I heard an
argument between the conductor and an elderly Jewish man,
whom I had often seen before. The man wanted a ticket to a
station three stops distant. The conductor, heavy set with a thick
cockney accent refused him, declaring that the bus did not stop
there even though both I and everyone else on the bus knew that
it did. When the old man protested, the conductor grew
belligerent and then shoved the old man down the gangway.
Before the doors closed the conductor sneered at him, "It's really
too bad Hitler didn't finish the rest of you off."
I was too stunned to respond or even help the man, a fact I will
forever regret. But what shattered my composure more
completely was the absence of one word of protest or reprimand
from the people who knew the old man well and traveled with him
the same route each day. It was as if he had become a
non-person, a nuisance to be jettisoned without a second thought.
None of us is innocent of either indifference or hatred. But I have
to wonder if it doesn't take a special quality of hatred for people
to so callously turn away from their fellow man. Is this the hatred
experienced by German Jews who were so cruelly abandoned or
turned in by neighbors who had lived with them side by side for
centuries? Or the Jews of Hebron in 1929, who had lived at peace
with their Arab neighbors for 400 years, yet were massacred
despite assurances they would be protected? Or the sheer
abhorrence of Jews that drives a Palestinian suicide bomber to
murder innocent men, women and children who are sitting calmly
at a Passover Seder?
I am now exactly the age at which my great-grandfather was
murdered and once again synagogues are burning. Last week the
Or Aviv Synagogue in Marseilles was torched to the ground by
Muslim extremists. In Argentina, the plight of the Jewish
community has reached a point of desperation. In Israel one
hesitates to open a newspaper in fear of seeing photographs of
new massacres of Jews. The dark, malevolent force I sensed as a
child and that I hoped my own children would never know has
returned to our lives. It is anti-Semitism but it is something more.
History has shown that when synagogues burn the lights of
civilization begin to sputter. I therefore no longer fear for my
family or my people alone. I fear for all humanity.