by Sam Davis
One of the most moving moments (among many) at the Sanctuary Shabbat service on May 12 was when two people came up to the bimah to tell the stories of how their family members had been saved from the Holocaust by receiving sanctuary in the homes of non-Jews. As Rabbi Dev put it later in the service, “So many of us are here because someone in our family took a train to a boat to another place where somebody helped them.”
Rabbi Dev’s words struck me because that is exactly the story of how my grandfather escaped the Holocaust and then got my grandmother and my mom visas to come join him in England. This story has been told so many times in my family, and is so fundamental to our Jewishness, that when I sent my mom a copy of the speech my son gave at his Kehilla graduation last week, one of her first reactions was to ask how he could write about his Jewish identity and not mention that story about her dad.
After the Sanctuary Shabbat, many mentioned how meaningful the family stories had been and suggested that we create a space for us to share those stories with each other. I want to write about how I shared my grandfather’s story with people currently facing danger because of their immigration status. But first, my grandfather’s story condensed into a paragraph:
On March 15, 1939, as Germany was invading Czechoslovakia — that very day — my grandfather drove from Brno, Czechoslovakia, to Svitavy, in the German-occupied Sudetenland region. He was able to cross the border since he had a German visa for business and nobody expected a Jew to be escaping into Germany. He abandoned his car in Svitavy and took a train to Antwerp, Belgium, changing at Aachen. His plan had been to meet family in Dresden, but when he didn’t see them on the platform, he just kept going and made a plan as he went. He stayed in Belgium with a business friend for two weeks, arranging his affairs, and then took a boat to England, arriving just before England stopped accepting Czech refugees on April 1. In London, a refugee organization helped him get established, and family friends of his father-in-law (through the international vegetarian movement) filed for work visas for my grandmother under false pretenses, saying they needed domestic help, which they did not. My grandmother and my mom, a toddler at the time, managed to get to England in August, just a couple of weeks before Britain entered the war against Germany. Unfortunately, there was no way for him to rescue his parents or his brother’s family. His brother, his brother’s wife, and their eight-year-old daughter were all killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz.
Last year, at an immigrant rights workshop that I helped to organize at my son’s school in Oakland to help undocumented parents understand their rights in case of ICE raids, I told them that they should not feel bad that they are confronting these dangers. I told them that in my family, we are not remotely embarrassed that my grandfather was a penniless refugee in England or that he had to use subterfuge in his visa applications to rescue my grandmother and my mom. Of course, in my family we venerate him as a hero for being clever enough and lucky enough to escape and to save those in the family that he could. And I told these parents in the audience that one day their families will recognize them as heroes for being brave enough to cross the border, to seek a new life for their families, and to survive the era of Trump.
I saw in their faces that this recognition of their heroism, at a time when those in power are criminalizing them, even describing them as animals, meant a lot to them. I was asked to repeat this speech at St. Elizabeth’s Church on May 1 last year before the immigrant rights march. Recently, a program officer at Catholic Charities of the East Bay told me that this talk struck her, and that she uses the story I told of my grandfather when she talks to groups of immigrants, encouraging them to recognize their own heroism in the little acts and the big acts that they are taking to help their own families survive these difficult times.
I love that my grandfather’s story, told many times in my family with many variations on the details, has now spread to people I have never even met. Our family stories have great power, and they are why we, as Jews, are standing up way out of proportion to our numbers to defend, accompany and speak out for refugees in these dark times for our country. Let’s keep sharing our stories, because they sustain and motivate us to take a stand for what is right.