‘You Call It a Hate Crime. We Called It Life’

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The Wall Street Journal 14.04.2023


‘You Call It a Hate Crime. We Called It Life’



Eighty years ago, my uncle Irwin Gerson celebrated his bar mitzvah in the Bronx. It was March 27, 1943, and World War II was raging. In his speech—which his granddaughter recently discovered in his files while working on an oral-history project with him—he admitted that he felt odd rejoicing “against a background of blood and tears, a ruined world.” He emphasized that “the enemy has undertaken the total annihilation . . . of our people.” Irwin’s words belie the claim that Americans didn’t know about the Nazi war against the Jews.


On Tuesday, when the memorial siren wails for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israelis will put aside political differences to mourn together. Americans can learn from this moment and from this brief speech by a 13-year-old who knew he won the historical lottery: His parents escaped Eastern Europe to the Goldene Medina, the still-golden land, America.


“On this solemn and sacred day of my Bar Mitzvah,” Irwin said, “I humbly declare” that “I am conscious of my Jewish tradition.” That consciousness included admiring “the children of the Nazi-held lands” who displayed “unflinching heroism” amid “persecution, hunger, homelessness.”


He couldn’t have known that five days earlier, the Germans had inaugurated Auschwitz-Birkenau’s first gas chamber. But he knew this much: “Words fail to convey the horror of the tragedy that has befallen our people over there.”


Yet the occasion was too festive—and Irwin too American—to wallow in sorrow. “It was my good fortune,” he said, “to be born in this free and glorious country, where children may laugh and play and have real happiness.” Irwin envisioned “a world of liberty and justice” where “the homeless Jewish wanderers must be given the right to live the life of a free nation in the Land of Israel.”


Irwin, who is 93 and lives in Florida, realized the American dream, succeeding as a “Mad Men”-style pharmaceutical advertising executive. He occasionally confronted American nightmares too. Recalling how some Irish and Italian toughs menaced him and his Jewish buddies in the 1930s and ’40s, he quips, “You call it a hate crime. We called it life.”


The Zionist dream of a free Jewish homeland, which Irwin articulated in 1943, came true in 1948. This April 26, when the modern state of Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary, many will emphasize today’s passing headaches. Irwin’s all-American, deeply Jewish prose poem to freedom, opportunity, tradition and hope invites us to roll up our sleeves and solve these problems. It also encourages us to step back, think historically and appreciate Israel’s transformational miracle in bringing this “homeless and persecuted people” back home, back to history and back to life.



A Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University currently living in Jerusalem, Gil Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and a leading Zionist activist. He is, most recently, the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People ( www.theljp.org )  . Two years ago he co-authored with Natan Sharansky Never Alone: Prison, Politics and  My People,  was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette. Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of  The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist. 




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Prof Gil Troy · 20 Derech Bet Lechem · Apt 2 · Jerusalem 9310925 · Israel