You Are My People

Heather Wasilewski

Last November, I had the privilege of traveling to Israel with a mother’s group out of South Windsor, CT named the Mitzvah Mamas. The group was formed to participate in birthright-style trip by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP). Being accepted into the cohort that would travel to Israel launched me onto a path of being more involved Jewishly, and gave me the confidence to speak up and take action on a topic that I am very passionate about: environmentalism. That led to a new job for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Now I am actively on a quest to learn about the intersection of Judaism and environmentalism, sometimes called Earth-Based Judaism.

Anyway, that was just background information for what I was really asked to write about. While I was in Israel, the group had a tour of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum. I bet many of you have visited there. Well, it was the one part of the trip that I was not looking forward to. For years, I had actively avoided visiting Holocaust museums, memorials, or Yom HaShoah events. I find the topic so uncomfortable and so unpleasant I wouldn’t willingly bring myself to think about it. In fact, the last time I faced anything Holocaust was when I watched Schindler’s List back when I was in high school. While my mother-in-law enjoys reading books about triumph and bravery during the Holocaust, I always declined to read those books when she offered them.

As someone who was not born or raised Jewish, I think I was privileged to be able to ignore this horrible event. My immigrant ancestors came to America for economic reasons before the crises of the World Wars broke out. I don’t know how my Polish ancestors would have dealt with the atrocities of WWII had they been in Poland at the time. So, I chose to avoid thinking about it.

For most Jews, the Holocaust is seen as a story that must be told. It must be remembered and it must be discussed. We have a mission of making sure it is not forgotten so that it can never happen again.

And then there was Heather, the convert, avoiding the unpleasantness because it’s just too difficult.

That was until the day when my bus tour went to Yad Vashem. I thought of asking to not go in. I knew that was not really an option, so I quietly followed the tour. It was very powerful and very emotional. I felt disgusted most of the time. Still, I had this feeling of separation. These were not my ancestors. They were not my people. I chose to become one of them, and this happened to them, but it did not happen to me.

The tour was over and we saw a bookshop. Some ladies asked if we could have enough time to go in. We were told “just 10 minutes.” I had no money with me, so I was looking at the books, thinking of titles that I might want to read in the future. I looked at books about the Israeli government, about environmental issues in Israel, but not the books about the Holocaust. We were told, “two more minutes.” Then I was stopped by Ingrid from Johannesburg. She said “Heather, I saw this book and I thought it was you on the cover.” It is titled To Bear Witness: Holocaust Remembrances at Yad Vashem. The woman is a mother carrying her child who looks to be about three years old, with another child to her right. She looks just like me. I have a 3-year-old daughter and two older daughters. Instantly the truth hit me. It hit me hard. It was no longer their story. This is now my story. I could have been one of those people who were walked into the gas chambers. I no longer feel a separation. The Jewish people are my people.

 

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