When I was growing up, it was hard not to notice the numbers tattooed on her wrist. Children are often very observant, and I was curious about what they meant.
My grandmother Judith Mandel grew up in a small town called Hatvan, a few miles outside Budapest, Hungary. She was an ordinary girl, but she learned quickly that her heritage made her different when her classmates began to taunt her for being Jewish.
Following German forces’ annexation of Austria in 1938, they set their sights on Hungary, and they invaded in March 1944. A few weeks later, my great-grandmother Ilona Kalman and my grandmother were forced into a ghetto at a sugar factory.
Judith was 16 when she and her mother were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, in occupied Poland, that June. When they arrived, Judith was separated from her mother and forced to work in the camp, while my great-grandmother was put to death in the gas chamber.
My grandmother would survive, but not before being put to work at the Krakow-Plaszow, Seeshaupt and Dachau camps. When she was liberated by American troops from Dachau in May 1945, she weighed 45 pounds.
After the war, she married Ernest Mandel, and in 1948 they emigrated to the United States. They settled in the Bronx and raised three daughters.
Having witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust, my grandmother had a difficult time adjusting to her new life. For many years she was afraid to plug things into electrical sockets because of her experience with electrified fences, and would overfeed her first-born daughter, my mother, so she wouldn’t starve. She struggled to learn English.
Her story had a profound impact on me. When I was a child, she often told me about her experiences. She took me to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. I learned that being Jewish was part of my identity, and that while we lived in a country that was founded on the principal of freedom from religious persecution, this wasn’t the case in other parts of the world.
That’s why it is so important to remember the Holocaust, as we will this Friday, which is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is important never to forget the more than 6 million lives lost simply because of their religious, ethnic, gender or genetic differences, because history has a wicked way of repeating itself.
Over the past year alone, there has been so much hateful rhetoric on Long Island. The pamphlets of antisemitic literature being circulated across our communities, and the reports of those harmed for their beliefs, are enough to make many of us sick.
While I’m thankful that I live in a nation where, for the most part, we embrace one another’s differences, it is important to remember, and understand, why the Holocaust happened, in order to prevent anything like it from ever happening again. That is why it is so important to teach children about it — so we, and they, never forget what took place. Books like “Number the Stars,” by Lois Lowry, and “Daniel’s Story,” by Carol Matas, shouldn’t be deemed too “controversial,” because their subject matter is the human condition.
Banning literature — as the Nazis did generations ago — will only open a path to more of the kind of prejudice that can poison our society. This has already happened in one Texas school district, where, in 2021, teachers were advised to include readings that offered “opposing” views on controversial topics.
What makes this so despicable isn’t just the fact that when it comes to the Holocaust, there are no reasonable opposing views, because any literature that denies that it happened is itself hate speech — but also because people have become so sensitive that they believe there has to be an alternative to using accounts of violence and death to educate about real events in history.
That is why it is so important to teach children about the Holocaust. We must never forget the lessons the world learned.
The Holocaust showed us the worst of humanity; banning its honest examination in the classroom will only perpetuate the type of ignorance that allowed such horror to happen in the first place.
We must continue to encourage this chapter of history to be a part of our children’s education. They deserve to know the unfiltered truth, so they will never be taken in by the false rhetoric that has been perpetuated by Holocaust deniers.
My grandmother’s struggle, and that of so many others who came here seeking refuge from persecution, cannot have been for nothing.