I always thought of myself as one of the lucky Jews never directly affected by the Holocaust. My paternal grandparents arrived in the United States decades before World War II broke out. My mother's parents immigrated to Canada in the 1920s. Yet the Shoah was not completely absent from my childhood.
It was incorporated in my Jewish day-school curriculum, woven through sermons in synagogue, and as close as my next-door neighbor, whose tattooed number on her arm both frightened and intrigued me. However much the Holocaust was around me, it never felt in me. Odd, because my mother's mother lost almost her entire family, and I'm named in memory of one of her dear sisters. But it all seemed so distant and remote to me, especially compared to experiences of classmates who were children of survivors.
Fast-forward to the year 2000. I was attending a crafts fair near my home in Austin, Texas, and was drawn to a booth where a man sold fanny packs. I initiated a conversation with the artist, expressing my interest in purchasing one. As the dialogue unfolded, I detected something about him that left me uneasy. He spoke with a German accent.
My mind flashed back to childhood and to the admonishments that Jews do not buy anything made in Germany. I was suddenly confused. What do I do? How can I buy this? What if his grandfather was responsible for putting my people to death?
"He's not a Nazi. He's not responsible for what happened," I argued with myself. As I struggled with my emotions, I recognized that I was not one of the lucky ones I had fancied myself all these years. I, too, was affected by the Shoah.
In the end, I chose to purchase the pack, determined not to indulge in the convenience of victimhood. I felt good about the decision, and proud that I had overcome my own prejudices while contributing to our community's evolving reconciliation with the German state.
Interesting how not long after I bought the fanny pack, I lost it. I'd like to think it was nothing more than a random act of carelessness, but it was not. The pack was a metaphor for everything that evoked my hate and hurt about the Holocaust. I lost that pouch because I did not want to be reminded of, and was not ready to forgive, a nation that destroyed mine.
The incident eventually faded from memory, until last year when I began a training program to teach people the sport of Nordic Pole Walking. My trainer was a former Olympic track-and-field coach from Germany. Thoughts that lay dormant for a decade quickly resurfaced. I wanted to engage him in dialogue about the Holocaust. I wanted to pepper him with a laundry list of questions. But I did neither. It's not his issue, I told myself. It's mine. Get over it.
Curious how these recollections have surfaced just before Passover. And not by coincidence, I'm sure. Just as I thought I had no intimate ties to the Holocaust, so, too, had I believed I shared no direct connection to the life of bondage our ancestors experienced in ancient Egypt.
How wrong I was, for I, too, am a slave — chained to my conflicted and unresolved emotions about all things German. In the Haggadah, we read that we are to look upon ourselves as having personally come out of Egypt. I never grasped how I could reproduce that feeling, until now.
Most of us, at one time in our lives, have been tethered to something from which we've wished to escape — a bad habit, a sour relationship, a job we don't like. We've been enslaved by our own private Egypts. But we also have the ability, if we choose, to break free, to make a new start.
What better time of year than in this season of renewal to pause, reflect on our lives and make change. Because change means freedom. And freedom is what Passover is all about.
Lorne Opler is a Toronto-based freelancer.