Just beyond the terrace wall, the 47 Peace Palace bells ring from its tower for their biweekly Carillon Concert. I'm visiting my original home of the Netherlands for just over two weeks, staying in the political capital of Den Haag, an hour drive from Amsterdam.
In the past, when I visited Holland, the experience was mainly about reconnecting to my heritage and spending quality time with family members. While this is all still true, this visit now carries a new significance, one that connects my areas of study to my family histories.
I've been fairly interested in Judaism as a tradition since my Junior year of high school. Over the years I visited synagogues with my friends, attended bat/bar mitzvahs, experimented and stuck with a kosher diet, read a lot of books, took a class with a Conservative Rabbi, and recently was able to spend a Passover Seder with an Orthodox Rabbi, his wife, and a friend of mine. I decided I wanted to minor in Jewish Studies when I entered college.
Yet, through all of this, it really wasn't too long ago that I found out that my great-grandpa and great-great-grandpa were Jews affected by the Shoah (Holocaust). The last time my Oma (Grandma) visited the states, we were able to sit and talk about their stories as German refugees in the Catholic Dutch Brabant. My Oma told me about the gold stars they had sewn on their clothes. She recalled the trauma her grandfather had after 8 or 9 months in a concentration camp, crying each night and throwing up after each meal. They were the only ethnically Jewish family in the village, subject to slurs for both being German and for being Jewish. What a combination.
My father's cousin (from my Oma's side) visits us on the terrace in Den Haag, with the Peace Palace tower peaking out on the horizon. I'll call her Yara.
We're attempting to make dinner plans when my mom mentions that I don't eat pork and shellfish. We eventually enter a conversation about our families Jewish roots.
Looking at any of my Oma's siblings, it wouldn't be difficult to pin them as ethnically Jewish, but Yara never really considered herself to be Jewish. Yara has been known to travel pretty far and wide, traversing Europe, Africa, Asia. Through it all, she tells me, one of the most perplexing trips she had been on was to the Holy Land. "The moment I landed, I felt I was home." She struggles to describe how strange the experience was. Yara talks about this feeling in her blood that desired to stay. It felt like she was connected to this tense, confusing, disputed place.
I bring up the Jewish Emancipation in Holland (1700s), a moment where Jews could finally become true Dutch citizens so long as they rescinded their dominant Jewish identities and instead became Dutch people who practiced an 'Israelite faith.' These strides toward freedom for Jewish people meant very little 200 years later once Germany knocked on the border, to which the 'true' Dutch promptly began handing over names and addresses to SS troops. Only 25% of Dutch Jews survived, making it remarkable that my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather both survived the war.
Ultimately Yara and I both marvel at the fact that we are both alive, the fact that either of us was born, and regret how much distance we've put between of Protestant Christian identities and our familial Jewish identities at different points in our lives.
The fact is, the years between 1939–1945 are slowly disappearing in the modern psyche. It's becoming a series of folk tales, where authentic narratives are blending with the recreations media and textbooks create of them. They become sources of 'inspiration' and foreign fantasy, fetishized. Many of the efforts we make, especially Americans, to honor those who suffered in the war have turned into a twisted form of entertainment rather than one of remembrance.
The longer we go without having conversations with one another, without asking better questions, without coming face to face with the individuals we know who are directly affected by moments of horror, the further we will fall out of touch with what unites each of us: our shared humanity.
My journey better understanding my family's Judaism is largely a journey of understanding how I 'other.' It's easy to compartmentalize and box individuals who are not ourselves and assign 'appropriate' labels. I used to think myself simply a Protestant Christian, that those 'others' are Catholic; those 'others' are Muslim; those 'others' are Jewish. Therefore, I cannot and should not speak for and with them.
By distinguishing ourselves from one another in this way, we create distance by our difference rather than unity from our commonalities. We defend rather than protect. We curse each other rather than pray.
I look forward to having more conversations, asking more questions, and visiting more places that can connect me back to the stories of those who sacrificed much.
More than that, I hope that by hearing the stories of those connected to me, particularly family, I can connect more to those who differ from me. At the end of the day, we all have much more to connect over than divide between.