Forgotten Voices


San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square is a Mecca for tourists. Predictably it also attracts entrepreneurs interested in revenue sharing. You can hear every San Francisco song in creation performed on every conceivable instrument; you can have your portrait done for $15, your caricature for $10, or your silhouette cut for $5.

One aged hustler, in particular, caught my attention, in part, because he could not attract anyone else's. He was lying in a recliner. When open, his eyes were glazed, but most of the time that I observed, they were closed.

Next to him was a large handwritten sign offering to do impressions for 50 cents, a relative bargain. His repertoire was impressive; there were over 50 names listed.

Unfortunately, they were all dead and, for the most part, forgotten: Don Adams, Fred Allen, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Jack Benny, David Brinkley, Jimmy Durante, Jose Jimenez, Burt Lancaster, Will Rogers, Ed Sullivan, John Wayne, Dennis "Chester" Weaver, Senor Wences, Walter Winchell. The names evoked a certain nostalgia for me, but simultaneously, amazement and compassion. Didn't he realize how outdated these references were? Was he counting on this income that he would never see? Wasn't it humiliating for him to be constantly ignored?

During the 20 minutes that my family and I rested near him, a few kids would stop, point to his sign and ask their parents who Walter Brennan or Paul Lynde were. Even their parents didn't know.

If it wasn't the Sabbath, I probably would have given him $25 to go through his entire list, not because I was really interested in his imitations, which I suspected were hackneyed, but because I knew that I would be haunted by his specter when I went to sleep that night. I was.

I know why the sight of grown men, particularly elderly ones, struggling to make a living bothers me so. It reminds me of my father.
Before Auschwitz, my father was driven by a chauffeur to the factory in Lodz that he managed. After Auschwitz, he crammed into a packed subway to his 10 x 10 foot room in the garment center, where he barely managed.

I often wondered if the claustrophobic subway car reminded him of the cattle car he took to Auschwitz. I never asked.

Did he pine for his previous position? I never asked him that either. I knew the answer. His livelihood was the least of his losses. His friends, his family, his siblings, his parents, his wife, and his child made his job pale in comparison.

My father never spoke of his previous position. Neither he, nor my mother, nor any of their fellow survivors in Washington Heights, ever spoke of their lives before "the war."

They did however, have something to say on the subject. It could be summarized in one word. Their word was "Gedenk!" We translate it: "Remember!" "Zachor!"

They lived in fear that the world would forget what was done to them. The genocidal death camps might be dismissed as but another of the inevitable atrocities of war. War is hell. So was Auschwitz.

Thanks to the efforts of Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Steven Spielberg and innumerable others, such has not been the case. Today, seven decades later, most literate individuals remember Hitler and recognize the Holocaust.

Do they however, understand it?

Every political figure from Oliver North to Obama is compared to Hitler. Walls that are constructed to obstruct suicide bombers or illegal aliens are equated to the electrified barbed wire fences of Auschwitz. Photographing and fingerprinting welfare recipients to prevent fraud are derided as "Gestapo tactics." Soldiers are "storm troopers;" policemen are "Nazis."

In the most recent, and repugnant, example, ultra-Orthodox Israelis dressed their children in striped pajamas and yellow stars to resemble those who were exterminated in the death camps. What was their justification for this heinous publicity stunt? Because sending grammar school girls to an Orthodox yeshiva in their neighborhood is a "spiritual Holocaust."

My sister, who was murdered in Auschwitz before I was born, was one of those yeshiva girls. Exploiting her memory to insult someone just like her is a desecration of her martyrdom.

Anyone who invokes a "spiritual Holocaust" is either abysmally ignorant or, more likely, devoid of any conscience. It is as sadistic as going to a pediatric oncology ward and asking for sympathy for “spiritual cancer.” It is as nonsensical as comparing yourself to a murder victim because you were shot by a "spiritual bullet."

My father's voice has been stilled, as has almost all of his generation. He would be pleased to know that the Shoah has not been forgotten. He would however, be as distressed as I am to see how it has been trivialized.

It is my generation’s responsibility to ensure that our parents’ voices not be forgotten.

Isaac Herschkopf, a local psychiatrist, is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Week.