We have to do everything we can to try and make a difference.
“When can I come on one of your tours at the Holocaust Center?” my then 10-year-old granddaughter Annie asked after she heard me talk to her older brother about what I do as a docent there. “I hope soon,” I said, evading a direct answer because Annie is the girl who cries at movies even when there’s a happy ending. I didn’t think she was emotionally ready to hear the story of the Holocaust.
Annie reminds me of a young visitor, a girl, who once asked me where Anne Frank is buried. I was lost for words then, too. I knew the likely answer, but, as a mother and grandmother, I hesitated. “I’m not quite sure,” I hedged, as I looked at the freckle-faced questioner. Wearing a Girl Scout uniform with double rows of badges, she couldn’t have been older than 11. She looked back and smiled. Should I have spared her from the reality? I am still not sure of the correct answer.
Before COVID-19 put a stop to in-person visits at the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus in Farmington Hills, Michigan, my docent colleagues and I were giving several tours a week to groups of school kids, college students, and adults of all ages and backgrounds.
Becoming a docent was never part of my plan. Yet, I realize now that the seeds were planted early by my grandmother, Esther Civins Wittenberg, who was born in Lithuania. One day, while watching the news on our new black-and-white RCA television, my grandmother, whom I called Nanny, said to me, “Don’t ever think it can’t happen here.” I was 8, too young to fully grasp what she meant, but I had a child’s instinct to understand that her words were something I should remember.
Nanny was born in 1886, just as a fresh wave of pogroms tore through Lithuania’s Jewish communities. As a young woman, she and her husband sought religious freedom in America. While she loved her adopted country, she never forgot where she came from, and she never failed to remind me that the liberties she found in the United States were not to be taken for granted.
In many respects her America was like my America — imperfect but buoyed by its underlying ideals of freedom, equality and dignity. Esther Civins Wittenberg believed in the promise of those ideals. After all, in the midst of the Great Depression, one son made it through medical school. Another became a successful politician in the Midwest when Jews were rarely elected to public office. And, in 1935, her youngest, my mother, married an attorney — arguably not an achievement in 2021 when half of all law students are women, but that was 1935.
By the time World War I began, Nanny was a young mother with three children under the age of 10. She and her husband had established a successful produce business in Ohio. But with the onset of the Depression, they lost everything. Still, they started over. Then came the Second World War and the reality that money they had sent to help get their endangered family out of Eastern Europe either arrived too late, or not at all.
Confrontations with Antisemitism
While growing up in Toledo, Ohio, and throughout my life, I would recall my grandmother’s words whenever I was confronted with antisemitism. Don’t think it can’t happen here. Sometimes I would feel compelled to act, but other times I would look away.
Toledo was not the county seat of tolerance. Graves were routinely vandalized in the area’s two Jewish cemeteries. I remember how my stomach ached when I was sent home from Hebrew school because swastikas and other Nazi slogans had been spray-painted on our synagogue’s windows. As an 11-year-old, I was confused. What had we done? Was this the antisemitism that had fueled my grandmother’s veiled warning?
When I was 30 years old, shopping for my son, I discovered a costume kiosk at my local mall selling Hitler masks for Halloween. It was 1983. “We have to do something. I am going to call every media outlet in town to see this,” I yelled over the phone to the city’s sole Orthodox rabbi. “If we go to the media, it will only draw more attention to the issue,” he answered. “How had our silence ever served us?” I asked him.
I vehemently objected. They removed them.
My Judaism provoked other incidents of prejudice and reaction. There was the time a college friend told me I wasn’t welcome to join their spring break trip. It wasn’t her choice, she said. One of the mothers of another girl forbade her daughter to go if I went. I didn’t want to spoil it for the rest of the group. I stayed home.
In 1991, on an assignment to interview tennis great Billie Jean King, I mentioned that the club where we were about to attend a sponsor’s lunch had historically barred Jews from joining. I am still ashamed that I backed down when King indicated that if that was the case she would leave. “I don’t think they do that anymore,” I murmured. My moral compass was broken.
But it was when my then-teenage son, the only child of a Jewish mother and Catholic father, was taunted by members of his hockey team for his heritage that I felt most betrayed. Who were these kids I’d adored? Until then I saw them as my son’s talented teammates. Now I saw them as anti-Semites. How could they use the ethnic slur, kike? Did they even know what it meant? I should not have been happy when my son jumped on top of the kid who started the war of words, but I was.
Still, weren’t we lucky? A two-day suspension for fighting on the hockey bus wasn’t a death sentence for my child. Unlike our European Jewish brothers and sisters who lost their lives because they were Jews, we didn’t have to run. We wouldn’t be murdered. We were born here. We were Americans!
My grandmother’s warning tucked away, I told myself that these kids just didn’t understand how much pain their words created.
The Holocaust Memorial Center
When I moved to the Detroit area in the spring of 2011, I was excited to find a robust Jewish community that included Jewish adult education, more than a dozen synagogues and, most importantly to me, the Holocaust Memorial Center.
On my first visit to the Center, I sat alone on the long granite bench in front of the black stone wall inscribed with the names of the Nazi-occupied European countries, and the number of Jews murdered from each of those nations. I walked closer and stood where I could see my reflection in the smooth stone. I set my gaze on Lithuania, my grandmother’s birthplace, where 130,000 Jews were murdered. I fixated on the what ifs. What if, like the 6 million victims of the Shoah, she couldn’t have left?
It was as if Nanny was reminding me to take nothing for granted.
I knew that I wanted to be a part of the Holocaust Memorial Center where I would be able to do more than randomly holler at someone or something. I wanted to learn to tell the story of the Holocaust in the best way I could.
A new docent class was beginning in a few months. Yet, after going on a few public tours, I doubted my ability to share the story of the Holocaust with visitors. I was not a Holocaust scholar or a survivor. I didn’t consider myself a storyteller like the other docents I’d heard. Oh, they were so good. Suddenly I was just that scared Hebrew-school kid whose stomach hurt. But this time I knew why, and that I had to do something about it.
I was accepted into the next docent class and paired with a mentor, Donna Sklar, of blessed memory. She taught me how to tell a story. Halfway through the training I told her that I was sure I could not do this. She smiled and told me that my lack of confidence was “right on time.” Did I want the phone number of her other successful mentees who had also panicked halfway through? she asked, reminding me that her docents-in-training always passed.
It wasn’t an option to ruin Donna’s perfect record.
Over the next few years, I spoke to groups about vigilance, the fragility of democracy, and why, when we talk about the horrors of the Holocaust, we proclaim, “Never again.” More often than not, I felt compelled to explain that “never again” has become an aspirational phrase in a world where genocide based on race, religion and ethnicity continue to exist.
This past winter, as the U.S. Capitol was breached by those who didn’t believe in the veracity of the election results, I again thought of Nanny’s warning. It is happening here with a fueled ferocity that I thought I’d never see. I’m tempted to throw my hands up and say there’s nothing I can do. But when I think of the faces of the people whom I’ve met on my tours, I know that’s not an option. Because if I don’t want it to happen here, I have to do everything I can to try and make a difference.
Linda Laderman is a Detroit-area writer and a volunteer docent at the Holocaust Memorial Center where she leads adult groups on discussion tours. This was originally published in Jewish Historical Society of Michigan’s journal, Michigan Jewish History, Vol. 61 (Summer 2021) and is being reprinted with the permission of JHSM.