October 22, 2020
By Harry Markowicz
It’s Wednesday afternoon. As usual, Albert and I are sitting at the Donor and Membership Desk at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. As volunteers, we help visitors fill out membership applications, and we accept donations to the Museum. As survivors, our main responsibility is to hand out copies of our brief biographies and answer questions related to our Holocaust experiences.
An elegantly dressed young woman comes up the stairs from the lower level, and without a glance in our direction, walks determinedly past the desk, perhaps heading toward the cloak room or the exit. She stands out from the crowd, because the typical visitor to the Museum is a casually dressed tourist.
She must have changed her mind because suddenly, she is facing us across the desk. She smiles shyly and says, “I am Israeli. I could not leave without paying my respects to you.”
Albert invites her to sit down. I ask her what she is doing in the United States. She replies in fluent English, with only a trace of an Israeli accent, “I am at Virginia Tech, where I am an Israel Fellow at the Hillel.”
I tell her that every fall since I started volunteering, several Israeli students have had internships at the Museum: “All of them are of Ethiopian origin and several are currently Israel Fellows at other universities.” I am not at all surprised when she says, “I know them.”
We talk about national service in Israel, and she tells us she served in the navy.
Shortly after our Israeli visitor has taken a seat at the desk, a young man sits down on the other chair. He doesn’t say anything but follows our conversation closely.
After a while I ask, “Are you two together?”
“No,” both reply simultaneously. They then proceed to introduce themselves to each other.
His name is Ben. Hers is Leah.
Ben’s grandparents left Poland long before World War II and were pioneers in Palestine. His parents still live in Israel, but he lives in England, which accounts for his British accent.
For Passover, while Ben will be in Israel with his family, Leah will be far away in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Ben tells us that he came to Washington, DC, to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. Leah turns toward Ben and says, “I also attended AIPAC.”
Our lengthy conversation covers several topics, including a comparison of Yad Vashem with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum where we were having our conversation. Both Ben and Leah point out that in other Holocaust museums, there aren’t any survivors with whom visitors can talk. Leah says she is embarrassed by the way Holocaust survivors are treated in Israel: “Many live in poverty.”
I share an event that I didn’t witness but heard about from someone who was there. One day, a young Israeli walked up to an elderly volunteer who was on duty at the Museum’s Information Desk. He asked her, “Are you a survivor?” to which she replied in the affirmative. In an arrogant tone he then asked her, “Why didn’t you fight back?”
Albert states that Jews fought back against all odds in ghettos, concentration camps, in the forests, and wherever else they were. I add, “With the exception of the Soviet Union, almost all European countries with their armies, navies, and air forces were defeated by the Germans in a matter of days or weeks. Jews fought back in every way they could, including crossing borders illegally, hiding in the worst possible conditions, even giving away their children to strangers to increase their chances of survival, as Albert’s mother and my parents did, and so on.”
At some point, Albert leaves to give a talk to a school group in one of the theaters. Leah, Ben, and I continue our conversation. Our visitors are still there when Albert returns after his presentation.
Leah announces that she has to leave. Ben suggests that they keep in touch, at the very least on Facebook. She agrees and they exchange contact information.
Before she leaves, Leah offers her apologies for her ignorant young countryman. On a few occasions, young Germans have apologized to me for their forebears who were responsible for horrendous crimes against Jewish people all over Nazi-occupied Europe. This heartfelt apology from a young Israeli is completely unexpected.
After Leah and Albert are gone, Ben and I continue our conversation. At one point he asks me whether I have any advice for him. I’m not sure what kind of advice he is seeking. I tell him he seems well-grounded and doesn’t need any guidance from me.
Ben decides he should take a look around the Museum. He is flying back to England that evening. He missed his flight the day before, and he doesn’t want that to happen again. He asks me for my email address.
As we are bidding each other good-bye, Ben says he will let me know if I had made a successful shidduch. He didn’t promise to invite me to the wedding, but it’s not too late!
© 2020, Harry Markowicz. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.
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