Collective Identity and the Holocaust: Thoughts on a Survivor’s Tale

- Jordan Singer, Excel Business 2017

2017 Excel Fellows with Dov, an Israeli Holocaust Survivor, who shared his story with the group.

“You are my granddaughter,” Dov said as he gripped my hand firmly and pulled me into his embrace.

His words left me dumbfounded. My family emigrated to the United States from eastern Europe in the early twentieth century and has since epitomized the assimilated diaspora: secular, progressive, but above all, comfortable. Unlike many friends whose relatives were subject to this atrocity, until Dov’s talk that evening I had never met a Holocaust survivor.

This archetype which my family embodies has always troubled me. In his essay “What is a Nation?” French philosopher Ernest Renan defines a nation as a group of people with a shared history of suffering. If my family never experienced antisemitism and related adversity, at least to an existential degree, are we missing a part of the Jewish narrative that precludes us from belonging to the Jewish nation?

I found myself thinking about this while listening to Dov recount his experience in the ghettos and concentration camps of the Holocaust. Comparing a photo of his sunken face taken upon liberation by American troops to the man who stood in front of me, seeing his tattered pajama-like uniform in which he bore the freezing death march between camps, I experienced a deep feeling of sorrow that seemed to emanate from and be directed toward something larger than myself. Perhaps this is the shared suffering that Renan refers to, I thought.

However, one can only empathize with another’s pain to a certain point before this empathy becomes self-destructive. Indeed, looking around the room as Dov spoke, I saw blank, somber faces — not tears. We could not identify with Dov’s experience as it was too extreme to imagine and too painful to bear. In this way, Renan’s vision of a nation is unsustainable or even unattainable.

The mood in Room D shifted as Dov wrapped up his talk. In a warm, laughing manner, he entreated us to stay in Israel. We could visit his house and he would make us omelets like he does for all his grandkids. Despite his jovial manner, one could tell that he was absolutely serious: he wants us to share in the country he loves with us and nurture her while she nurtures us.

I couldn’t help but beam from happiness. “I smile, you smile,” Dov said to me in recognition. In that moment, I understood that identifying with a Jewish nation, whether as a state or as a people, must come from shared joy rather than shared suffering. I am privileged to have found that joy in the amazing friends I have made within Birthright Israel Excel and the experiences we have shared together.

Jordan (second from right) with Excel friends in Israel.

Jordan Singer is a member of the Birthright Israel Excel 2017 Cohort, who interned at Thomson Reuters. She studies at Columbia University (c/o 2019) where she is earning her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a special concentration in Business Management. Jordan is from New York, NY.

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