Holocaust brought on twin tragedies Child survivor recalls the love and the pain.

May 04, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

Abraham Foxman suffered two tragedies during the Holocaust, one that came from excessive hate, and another that came from excessive love.

Mr. Foxman, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, is a Jew who was born in Poland in 1940. As his parents fled the advancing German occupation, they decided to leave their 1-year-old son with his nanny. He was raised as a Catholic in the city of Vilna.

His experience as a child survivor of the hatred of the Holocaust was central to the talk Mr. Foxman gave yesterday at the Yom HaShoah Holocaust remembrance ceremonies at the city's War Memorial Building and nearby Holocaust Memorial.

The focus of this year's observance was Jewish children lost under the Nazi regime.

About 850 people attended yesterday's ceremony, including children from Jewish day and religious schools who led a "Procession of Memory" to the memorial. Six candles were lighted in memory of the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

"I don't know why they made that decision," Mr. Foxman said of his parents' leaving their only child. "I'm sure it wasn't entirely rational, but it turned out to be exactly the right thing to do."

After the war, when his parents sought to reclaim him, the nanny did not want to give him up. A custody battle in the courts ensued.

"My father always taught me that anything in excess is dangerous, whether it's too much love or too much hate," Mr. Foxman said.

"This woman saved my life, and she saved my parents' lives, too, because without a child with them, their mobility, their ability to make decisions, was increased a hundredfold. I was raised by her from the age of 1 to 5.

"But she suffered from too much love and did not want to give me up." he said. "I know my parents remained in some contact with her, sent her money. But I never saw her again. She died in the 1950s.

"They invited her to be a part of our family since we lost all the rest of it, to be a grandmother to me. But I guess she just couldn't take that. It was a tragedy of love."

In an telephone interview from New York, Mr. Foxman said, "The Jewish people are always plagued by the questions of 'Why?' around the Holocaust. Why did it happen? Why did the world remain silent? Why didn't the Almighty intervene?

"For the survivors, there is the very personal question of, 'Why did I survive?' I know that more than 1 million children died in the Holocaust. Why wasn't I one of them?"

Mr. Foxman said that growing up, he came to realize what it was that he had gone through as a child, why it was that he had no aunts and uncles.

"You feel the burden and guilt of a survivor. As an adult, you start to come to terms with it and you begin to look for a meaningful life. And part of what that means to me, as a survivor, is to be a witness. But a witness to what? I don't want to be a witness against anything as much as I want to be a witness for love, compassion and understanding."

The message that he hoped to convey in Baltimore is not merely a denunciation of anti-Semitism but a condemnation of the refusal of principled people to condemn such behavior.

"When I was in college, you had all the '-isms' on campus -- radicalism, feminism, socialism, whatever. But you didn't have racism or anti-Semitism. That wasn't tolerated," he said.

"Now when you have more intolerance and more hatred, particularly on campuses, you also have more silence. People are not willing to stand up. They are worried about what they say being politically correct or incorrect."

As an example, he pointed to the reluctance of some people to condemn the riots that rocked Los Angeles after the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King case.

"I found the verdict shocking, but that does not justify the taking of human life. But some people seem to have difficulty speaking up for human life."

Mr. Foxman said that, for years, the memory of the Holocaust raised the level of awareness of the dangers of intolerance and hatred.

"It acted as a reminder to people of the power of words of hatred," he said. "But now we are 2 1/2 generations removed from the Holocaust, and I am afraid people have started to forget.

"We have developed a permissiveness in our society that says people should be allowed to say anything, do anything, unchallenged. We develop a greater tolerance for hate and intolerance."

Mr. Foxman said that he feels a particular need to bring this message to people since he is alive today because 50 years ago a woman was willing to stand up and risk her life for love and decency.

"There are more people who love and are decent than there are people who hate and are evil. But when the people who love sit on the sidelines and do not have the courage to speak out, then we have a problem."

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