By Eugen Schoenfeld
The other night I watched one of my favorite television program, “Finding Your Roots.” While I am interested in the history of most families depicted, I am most interested in the histories of the Jewish families.
My interest is perhaps rooted in my own lack of knowledge of my ancestry. Indeed, very few Jews in the United States have knowledge about their families beyond those who immigrated to these United States.
The recent episode of “Finding Your Roots” featured the history of Dustin Hoffman’s family tree.
The paternal side of his family story is indeed a tragic one. His grandfather and great-grandfather suffered extreme losses at the hands of the Bolshevik revolutionists. His grandfather, great-grandfather and grand-uncle were killed by the Soviet secret police, the Cheka.
His great-grandmother, after a seven-year imprisonment in a gulag, was able to escape and migrated to Brazil, from where she finally settled with the remnant of her family in Chicago. All this, according to the story, was unknown to Hoffman, and his father refused to talk about it.
In the end, when asked what his thoughts were, Hoffman raised his head and proudly proclaimed, “I am a Jew.”
Needless to say, I too shed some tears as the story unfolded.
Yes, most of us have tragic stories to tell — stories of persecution, of hardship, of attempts to survive. Of course, I, too, as a Holocaust survivor, have stories to share, and so do most other Jewish families living in the United States — or perhaps I should say worldwide.
But as we look at these stories, it becomes evident that a common denominator characterizing the Jewish people is the indomitable spirit to survive as Jews. Jewish history attests that most of us or members of our families in the past survived against all odds.
We all are “unsinkable Molly Browns”; we are the unsinkable Jewish people.
In the last two millennia we were, more than any nationality or religious group, torn from our homes and had to survive outrageous fortunes, myriads of massacres and even forced conversions, but in the end we retained our identity and our spirit. Indeed, we are a stiff-necked people.
It is this propensity to survive and have phoenixlike rebirths that is our enduring quality. In a letter sent to me by President Barack Obama on the occasion of my 90th birthday, he writes: “You are part of an extraordinary generation that, in the face of unspeakable evil, showed the courage to preserve and the strength to thrive.”
Yes, Mr. President, we have done so for two millennia.
On the 23rd of this month, on Wednesday evening, I’ll read the Megillah. It is a story of Jewish perseverance and of survival against historical enemies who wished and still wish to destroy us — and yet we survive and in most times even prosper, especially in our spirit.