I once had a job that changed my life.
I was 22 years old, a recent graduate with a dual degree in political science and the Russian language. It was 1978.
I was hired by Jewish Family Services of Boston as an interpreter. The agency worked to resettle Soviet Jews who were beginning new lives in the Boston area.
My job was to interview the new families, and to interpret between the immigrants and their social workers. I also took them to the doctor. I was an interpreter of Russian at Boston’s Beth Israel and Children’s Hospitals.
At the innocent age of 22, this Italian Catholic had the opportunity to learn all about the lives of Jews who had lived through World War II. I had the honor of interpreting their stories to social workers, doctors, psychiatrists, landlords, dentists, eye doctors and obstetricians. I interpreted at a birth, and at a cardiac catheterization. I learned so much about medicine.
More importantly, I learned what it is to live history. I learned what it meant to have survived the Holocaust.
I knew a woman who had lost part of her eyesight from untreated diabetes. I took her to the eye doctor. I can still see her, her gray hair curling and thick, her sky blue eyes staring up toward the ceiling. As we waited for her turn to see the doctor, she told me about living through the siege of Leningrad. She talked about eating her shoes as a child, about her father going out onto the ice of the frozen Neva River to bring home meat from the horses that had died trying to drag supplies across the river.
I can still see her.
There was a woman who was very hard to understand. She had a badly scarred face and a poorly repaired cleft lip. She was old, overweight, always angry. She was hard to like. One day she wanted to cook for me and her social worker, as all of these immigrants did to show their gratitude. She made us a pile of Ukrainian dumplings called pelmeni. As we ate, she told us her story.
When she was a young wife, the war broke out. Her husband went off to fight against the Nazis. She was left at home, pregnant and raising a two year old girl. Her village was attacked by the invading Nazi army. Every house in the Jewish town was set on fire. The young mother ran into the woods, her two year old in her arms and her 7 month fetus safely under her heart. As she turned to look back at her burning home, a bullet hit her in the face, tearing through her upper lip, her palate and the back of her throat. The bullet fell back into her mouth, having failed to kill her. She spit it into the grass and kept running.
I will never forget her face as she told the story of sleeping in the woods with her terrified daughter, or of walking through the forest to find safety in another little town.
I saw the tattooed numbers on the forearms of many people. They were grandparents now, leaving behind everything they had ever known so that their children and grandchildren could live in a country where nothing so horrific could ever happen. They brought their scars, their fears, their illnesses, their terror. They brought their determination to become good Americans.
They brought their faith in the American dream and in the populism of American society.
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
And I vow to fight as hard as I possibly can against a repeat. I will fight with everything I have against labelling an entire religion as “terrorists”. I will fight as hard as I can against the demonization of an entire nationality and against the naming of “us” and “them.” I will not sit by while a giant wall is built between this country and its neighbor. I won’t stay quiet as people in my community are rounded up and thrown out.
It’s in our hands to make sure that when we say never again, that is what we truly mean.