By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2024)
Phillip Kramer (1892-1962)
The strapping young man in the photo above is my grandfather Philip Kramer (in his late teens or early twenties, to my best estimation). He immigrated to America from Bialystok circa 1910. While the area is now part of the Republic of Poland, Bialystok “belonged” to the Russian Empire when he lived there (ergo, he was fluent in Russian, Polish, and Yiddish).
One of the reasons his family emigrated was to flee the state terror inflicted on Russia’s Jewish population by Czar Nicholas (the Bialystok pogram of 1906 was particularly nasty).
I suppose I have Czar Nicholas to thank for my existence. If my grandfather had never left Bialystok, he never would have met New York City born-and-raised Celia Mogerman (the daughter of Jewish German immigrants). Consequently, they never would have fallen in love, got married, and had their daughter Lillian, who never would have met and fallen in love with a young G.I. named Robert Hartley (a W.A.S.P. farm boy from Ohio) at a New York City U.S.O. Club. They, in turn, produced…me (otherwise, you’d just be staring at a blank page here).
Two lovebirds on their honeymoon, 1955
Obvious personal reasons aside, I’m thankful that Phil got out of Dodge well before Hitler’s army divisions rolled into Poland in 1939. Needless to say, the Jews of Bialystok fared no better under the Nazi regime than they did during the reign of the Czar. Far worse, actually.
So through luck and circumstance, Phil and Celie (flanking my mom in bottom row) enjoyed a wonderful life together, creating a quintessential American family. All three of their children did their part for the war effort. My uncle Irving (third from left in the top row) served in the USAAF (he was the radio operator on a B-25 crew that flew a number of missions over Germany). My Uncle Charles (not pictured) served in the U.S. Army (Pacific theater).
My mother (center above) was too young to enlist in the military, but served in the Civilian Defense Force. The photo was taken on a Brooklyn rooftop during the war (interestingly, it took intervention by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to nudge the recruitment of women).
Thankfully, the Kramer family survived the war. But sadly a great number of their relatives who had remained in Europe did not. And many of them were victims of the Holocaust.
That is why I am thinking about all of them on this Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It appears I am not alone in this contemplation of fate, circumstance, and family roots; which is particularly…complicated this first Remembrance Day since the events of October 7:
Recently, my mother, who escaped Hungary as a young teen in 1943 as the Nazis were closing in, called me from her home in Jerusalem. She was quite agitated, asking why even Israel’s loyal friends seem to be promoting compromise on issues fundamental to its security. She begged me to speak to anyone and everyone I know, from community leaders to elected officials.
As the world marks Saturday, January 27, as the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is clear that my mother needs no such day. The question the Jewish people must be asking is who will benefit from a day in January, 2024, designated to remember the Holocaust? […]
The United Nations, which at the initiative of its Israeli delegation designated the day back in 2005 to build Holocaust awareness and prevent further acts of genocide, now deploys the lessons of the Holocaust against the Jewish people. The U.N. has yet to condemn the explicitly and admittedly genocidal acts of Hamas against Israel on October 7 while its International Court of Justice is trying Israel for genocide in Gaza. If this is the result of remembering the Holocaust, we Jews would prefer they forgot about it. [,,,]
Everyday since Oct. 7, my mother is reminded of and haunted by the delusions of her grandparents and more than a dozen uncles and aunts who naively chose not to join her parents’ escape to Palestine as the Nazi menace spread, only to be turned to ashes in Auschwitz. She often muses aloud about how my father, of blessed memory, a Holocaust survivor, would process October 7th in Israel, October 8th in Harvard, and October 9th in the UN.
It’s not easy being a Jewish American right now, which is why I’ve been reticent to share my feelings on the Israeli-Hamas war (aside from my initial reflexive expression of abhorrence to the prospect of more death and destruction in the region, regardless of who propagates it).
From “Harold and Maude” (1971)
There has certainly been no shortage of historical dramas and documentaries about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 (on television, stage, and screen). It’s even possible that “WW2 fatigue” is a thing at this point (particularly among post-boomers). But you know, there’s this funny thing about history. It’s cyclical.
For example, here’s how some fine folks were reacting this morning on X to posts that merely acknowledged this commemorative holiday:
Those are some of the nicest ones. But you get the gist.
One could surmise that the lessons of history haven’t quite sunk in with everyone (especially those who may be condemned to repeat it). So perhaps there cannot be enough historical dramas and documentaries reminding people about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945, nu? Or am I just overreacting to a few internet trolls and a current presidential hopeful who, when asked why he never condemned the Neo-Nazis who incited the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 (resulting in the death of peaceful counter-protestor Heather Heyer) -stated that there were/are “…very fine people on both sides”?
After carefully weighing all the historical evidence put before me, I can only conclude that…there were no fine Nazis in 1920 (the year the party was founded), no fine Nazis since 1920, nor are there likely to be any fine Nazis from now until the end of recorded time.
As for those who still insist there is no harm in casually co-opting the tenets of an evil ideology that would foist such a horror upon humanity, I won’t pretend to “pray for you” (while I lost many relatives in the Holocaust, I’m not “Jewish” in the religious sense, so I doubt my prayers would even “take”), but this old Hasidic proverb gives me hope:
“The virtue of angels is that they cannot deteriorate; their flaw is that they cannot improve. Humanity’s flaw is that we can deteriorate; but our virtue is that we can improve.”
Here’s hoping for some “improvement” going forward. That’s why it’s important to look backward sometimes at the lessons of history, so we remain aware of how we don’t want to be. Here are links to some films I’ve written about that might give us a good place to start: