Condemned to Repeat It

Dachau. Photo by Robert Schrader on

One of the most straightforward statements for learning and remembering history, and the starkest warning concerning what happens when this is not done, was provided by the Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) in his book The Life of Reason. “Those who cannot remember the past,” he wrote, “are condemned to repeat it.” `

I had a dental appointment this morning (Tuesday, April 18, 2023). My wife was with me. I cannot speak modern Hebrew, and my wife, a fluent Hebrew speaker, graciously accompanies me when needed. The clinic was crowded. However, we were able to find seats next to each other. A bit before 10 a.m., she leaned close to me and whispered, “The siren goes off in a few moments.”

There were a couple of reasons she did this. While she is generally calm in stressful situations, I tend to be skittish. She was giving me a heads-up to prepare for a loud siren about to go off. Unwarned, I would have looked for the clinic’s bomb shelter at the sound of the alarm or tried to fit my bulky frame under my chair. The second reason was to remind me that the siren was a memorial, not an air-raid alert. 

The two sirens are distinct. The memorial one is a continuous solid blast; the warning siren oscillates from low to high and back again. At home, our dog Kulfi has been trained to go to our bomb shelter door when a siren sounds, but I have not been able to teach him the distinction between siren types.

Sure enough, at 10 a.m., straight-up, the siren sounded. Patients and staff in the waiting room stood in silence for two minutes as the siren wailed. The siren’s blast was a call to all who heard it to remember the people who died in the Holocaust (Shoah).

I have studied the Holocaust for over forty-five years. I have read books, fiction, and non-fiction, viewed numerous documentaries and Hollywood films about the time, attended lectures, and met and talked with Holocaust survivors. In the early seventies, I served in the US Army in Germany. There I visited Dachau. Just a few years ago, my wife and I made a trip to Poland to visit places of importance to her mother’s side of the family, Galician Jews. We spent one day at Auschwitz. Our Polish guide took us to one of the buildings that displayed Santayana’s statement on its entry door.

But how much do we remember, and does the memory affect our behavior? Once, in Philadelphia, in the ’90s, I was waiting for a bus outside a bookstore I had just visited. A stranger approached me. “Dr. Steinberg?” he asked. “No,” I replied; “I’m not Dr. Steinberg. Sorry.” “But you are Jewish, right?” he continued. Well, that question is tricky when asked of me by a stranger. But I told him I was. That was his signal to begin a rant about how good his parents were, that they were good Germans, and he wanted to know when we, the Jews, would stop talking about the Holocaust. I told him I didn’t think we ever would or could. I reminded him I had not started this conversation, did not like it, and asked him to go away and leave me alone. He didn’t. He continued until the bus taking me home arrived. Fortunately, it was not his bus.

Another time, in the section of Philadelphia where my former wife and I lived, some friends of ours purchased a house on our street. They wished to rent it to others. Soon, they found renters. The rental property was two houses up from ours. One day my wife called me at work, shaken. She had been tending to her garden in the backyard when one of the renters shouted, “You GD Jewish bitch.” (I apologize for the language; it was not mine). She went inside and called me. She was frightened and asked me what to do. I told her to stay inside and keep the children with her. After speaking with her, I called my Rabbi for some advice.

Rabbi listed three ways I could handle the problem. First, I could ignore it. This idea, he added, is what most of us do. We forget unpleasantness if we can. On the other hand, he said when I got home, I could go to the man’s house to discuss it with him. This approach came with a warning: the offender might punch me in the nose. His final suggestion was that my family and I move to a more Jewish neighborhood. I wasn’t satisfied with any of these alternatives. I opted to get my family a watchdog, not a German Shepherd, but a dog with a loud bark and instinctive family loyalty. 

Fortunately, the offender and his family left the neighborhood quickly. They had not paid their rent, and when our friends tried to get what was owed them, someone came to the rental property at night, turned on all the water faucets, punched holes in the walls, and broke several windows.

I need to remember the Shoah and do what I can to prevent a reoccurrence of such a dark time. But I learned something else from studying this terrible period in history. The iconic phrase, “Never Again,” does not, or should not, mean just to my people or me. It means that something like the Holocaust should never happen again, not to anyone, anywhere, at any time, for any reason. And if we forget this, we will be condemned to repeat it as victims or perpetrators. So it seems to me.

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Attributed to Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

All the best,
Gershon Ben-Avraham

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

One thought

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful article. I grew up in Canada. My own experiences with hatred are few and trivial. I feel unqualified to say anything about the Holocaust and therefore appreciate your thoughts all the more.

    Liked by 1 person

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