At age 13, I joined the Walk for Israel in Milwaukee. Israel was 25 years old and in the early years of the walk, its distance was measured in a mile per year of the independence anniversary. In 1973, the walk widely looped from the JCC on Prospect Avenue to the Temple Shalom parking lot in Fox Point and back downtown. 25 miles.
At 9 a.m. on that sunny April morning, the sun beamed down on hundreds of walkers, parents and one group of pure hate. Separated by a driveway, they glared at us. Under their waving Swastika flags, they chanted vile and anti-Semitic clichés. They blocked the sidewalk and were waiting for us.
My bar mitzvah was just in the previous November, which meant that I was an adult. Not quite. My father silently stood behind me, facing an old nightmare that his son was now watching.
As a seven-year-old boy, my father endured, survived and escaped the Warsaw Ghetto. I valued his resilience in the face of extermination. As a child, he witnessed bloody beatings, unceremonious executions and bodies of starved and diseased Jews lying dead in the Ghetto streets. Seven days a week, the guards forced him to load the bodies in a pushcart and walk them to a gate for disposal. There was no pause for the Sabbath.
When the patrolling Nazis forced him to do gruesome labors, he wanted to be invisible. On this Walk for Israel day, we were visible to the Nazis across the driveway. Very visible. Landscaped edging of cut rocks separated the driveway from the JCC building and us. Some young members of the AZA Witt Chapter stood next to me, grumbling about doing something.
“Put down the rocks,” said my father. Staring at the Nazis, he spoke to us.
“If you start anything with them,” he said, “they’ll claim that Jews attacked them. Don’t make them victims.”
“Just a few lobbed rocks,” someone mumbled. My father’s jaw was firm, as he looked at the boys.
“Let’s yell back,” I said.
“Never argue with a Nazi,” answered my father. “They’re never interested in the truth and that’s not why you’re here.” My father had once faced down those flags and brown shirts. He understood hate and what not to do about it. Defiance should not be a baited reaction, then or now. We stood tall and proudly began the Walk for Israel, walking right past the Nazi thugs.
While hate always seems to rear its head for attention, twisting to whitewash history, we must continue to educate and share the truth – undistracted.
My father showed me how to be resilient, while living a proud Jewish life. Standing up defiantly against hate means visibly being there and moving forward with hope.
Thanks again, Dad.
Jeffrey N. Gingold is the internationally acclaimed and award-winning author of “Tunnel, Smuggle, Collect: A Holocaust Boy.” (Henschel Haus, 2015).