by Rabbi Steve Greenberg
This Thanksgiving my husband, daughter and I are in Columbus, Ohio celebrating with my family. I love going home, for my mother’s marvelous cooking and for her stories.
My mother is a holocaust survivor and Thanksgiving was the time when we asked her to share her stories. For years, she did not talk much about her childhood in France. When I was in my twenties I began asking questions and slowly she began to share with all of us some of the painful and moving details of her experience and accounts of the people whose generosity and courage, saved her life.
When my mother was 5 years old, her father, a young enterprising businessman, was taken from his bed in the middle of the night. It was not the Nazis, but the collaborating French police, that arrested him. He was among the very first Jews to be taken, because, unlike his cousins, he was an immigrant from Odessa, and not a French citizen. He was taken to an internment camp in Drancy and from Drancy to Auschwitz. He was gassed there two months later.
Following the round up, my grandmother, mother and aunt went into hiding. A few months later, shaken by two very close calls, she decided that her children would be safer without her. For the next two and half years four courageous Catholic families and dozens of brave nuns protected my mother and aunt during the deadly ravages of xenophobia unleashed by Nazi Germany, to which much of the French political leadership acquiesed.
My mother survived the war as a nine-year old orphan. She remembers passing the statue of Liberty in New York harbour on her journey from Paris to Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Lady liberty holding out her lamp and the brave Christians who sheltered my mother in the midst of French and German nationalist brutality are remembered each year as we sit down on Thanksgiving. The stories of care for those “tempest tossed” is understood as a moral imperative in all the Abrahamic religions and it is one that has been deeply woven into American culture.
Abraham spots two dusty nomadic strangers and rushes out to the distant trail to welcome them into his tent for rest and refreshment. His fearless kindness is marked as the inverse of the city of Sodom. The early church fathers, like the rabbis of their time, spoke of a place of inhospitality, gluttony and cruelty, not homosexuality. Sodom was a gated city where poverty was zoned out and the protection of refugees was deemed a crime.
On this Thanksgiving Day, what is asked of us now as grateful children of America’s promise, is a renewed trust in each other, a restoration of a confident and fearless Abrahamic tent. Despite our fractures, the vast majority of us are deeply committed to an American greatness that is more about justice than power, more about generosity than wealth and is in faithful concert with God’s love of the stranger.
Together, around tables modest and mighty, we will remember our blessings, share our stories of gratitude, raise our voices in chorus and commit ourselves to a vigilant brotherhood that binds us all and crowns what is truly good about America, indeed what is Great about America, from sea to shining sea.