They were both teenage Holocaust survivors who experienced the anti-Semitism of the church even before the Nazis entered their hometowns in Poland. The two eighty-three-year-old women, both named Mania, both short with carefully coiffed blond hair, were in the audience with over 4,000 Christian Zionists at the opening plenary of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) Summit on July 20. Seven pastors spoke, and the two women listened with incredulity to words which defied everything they had ever experienced.
The ministers proclaimed that "Israel is not just a Jewish issue. It's a Christian issue. It's an American issue." The underlying tenant of CUFI is "I will bless those who bless you [Israel], And I will curse him who curses you [Israel], Genesis 12:3.3John Hagee, founder of CUFI, reviewed the history of those who cursed Israel. "What you predict for Israel will be your destiny. Pharoah wanted to drown Jewish children, and he was drowned. Haman wanted to hang Jews and he was hung. It has taken us Christians 2,000 years to catch on... We will strive to be a blessing to Israel."
The audience, a cross section of America, included high school students, CUFI on Campus groups, senior citizens moving with the assistance of canes, families with children, African-American ministries, Hispanic churches, cowboy churches, urbanites, suburbanites, ranchers, scientists, bond brokers, travel agents and golfers. They were from all fifty states and as diverse as a group can get, yet they spoke with one voice and cheered wildly as the speakers reaffirmed the CUFI pledge that:
The Jewish people have a right to live in their ancient land of Israel, and that the modern State of Israel is the fulfillment of this historic right.
There is no excuse for acts of terrorism against Israel and that Israel has the same right as every other nation to defend her citizens from such violent attacks.
Christian Zionists will "stand up, speak up and never shut up for Israel" until the attacks stop and Israelis are finally living in peace.
No one had stood up or spoken up for the Manias the last time Jews were on the precipice of death. Their non-Jewish neighbors turned their backs and closed their eyes. The world was silent when their homes were confiscated, when they were thrown out of schools because Jewish children were not to be educated, and when their families were starved, tormented, and sent off in cattle cars to their deaths in Auschwitz. Now sixty-five years after their liberation from concentration camps, the women heard words which calmed their souls.
Here were over 4,000 Christians, and behind these 4,000 were more than 400,000 members of CUFI offering themselves as allies to Jews and the State of Israel in the battle for survival. It was time to pick sides and these Christians were mobilizing on the Jewish side. On one side is Israel, a democracy with shared values for human life, freedom of religion, and the dignity of the individual. "On the other are the unsavory characters of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and the United Nations. The US must stand on the right side." Hagee was certain of the winning side.
"Egypt could not enslave Israel; European nations could not assimilate the Jews; dictators and thugs will not annihilate Israel. We are part of the covenant in a battle for the entire Earth... This time Jews do not have to stand alone."
One of the Manias, my mother, turned to me and said, "However long I was destined to live, I will now live ten years longer." The outspoken and genuine support throughout the three-day summit did more than apply a salve to deep wounds; it empowered these women to speak up as they had never done before. My mother, almost manic in her excitement, spoke to dozens and dozens of Summit participants, who listened to her story with compassion and gratitude. Everywhere we went in the giant convention center and later on Capital Hill, people greeted her by name.
It was the last morning of the Summit when she truly found her voice. My mother had never spoken to a Senator before. She certainly had never spoken up to a person in such a high office. When we met with our two senators, they were both very disappointing in their responses to our requests to ask the president to implement the Iran sanctions legislation that had passed the Senate unanimously. One senator, who had actually co-sponsored the bill, never read it and thought is was a resolution asking for the UN to act. The other senator equivocated. When the short meeting ended and the legislators were ready to take photos with their constituents, my mother walked up to one senator. He asked her if she wanted a photo. "No, I want to speak to you." "Hmm. Well I am taking pictures." "I will wait." Wait she did. She asked him about enforcing strong sanctions against Iran and he said he was against war. "I am against war. I was in a war, and I know what it means," She explained. "If Iran gets a nuclear bomb, they told us what they will do, and I believe them. They will kill Israelis and they will attack us. We won't be able to avoid war then." He was not able to placate her with gratuitous statements about his support of Israel. "Those are nice words. I want to know where you stand on issues that will determine the fate of Israel, the U.S. and the world."
The other Mania's silence was broken less publicly but even more profoundly. First about her silence. Three years ago, Mania went with my family on a first and last journey back to Poland. She was quiet for most of the trip, muttering only soto vocce disparaging remarks. We were walking through the remnants of the Birkenau death camp and passed a flimsy wooden barrack, which was intended for 52 horses and converted into housing for more than 500 inmates. "I was here," she said quietly. No one had known, not even her daughter the story she was about to tell.
In the summer of 1944, there were orders for the final liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, where Mania, her parents, and her little sister had survived starvation and typhus. Knowing that the final days were near, her father had arranged for his family and several others to hide behind the false wall of what had once been his store. Two days before they were set to go into hiding, he was grabbed off the street and sent to Auschwitz. Her mother was frantic with the choice forced upon her. The night that the others went into hiding, she fought with herself whether to join them or try to meet up with her husband, wherever he might be, and share whatever fate awaited him. There were no correct answers in this world turned upside down, so she held on to what she knew to be true-keep the family together. The next day, she and her two daughters were arrested and packed into a cattle car. When the car had its determined number of human cargo, the outside bolts slammed shut and the three set off in the dark.
Mania was seventeen when she arrived in Auschwitz after torturous days crammed in a cattle car with her mother and seven-year-old sister. The train doors opened to shouts, barks, clubs, screams and chaos. Her little sister was pushed to one line and she to another. Her mother faced another agonizing decision and only moments to make it. Which daughter would she accompany? She chose the younger. Mania was ignorant of what that decision meant as she was herded into the barracks. She sat on the barrack floor back-to-back with hundreds of other girls, with no room to stretch her legs, no food, no water, and no relief from an awful stench.
When the more seasoned inmates spoke about the ovens, Mania was horror struck to learn that her mother and sister were among the ashes. She did not scream. She couldn't. She had lost her voice. For three days, she sat starved and crushed on the floor and could not utter one word. (Language no longer served her.)
Since that day, she has remained a very quiet woman, speaking only when other options aren't available.
At the CUFI Summit, Mania was not able to articulate her reactions other than, "I can't believe it. I can't believe it." At the Wednesday evening Night to Honor Israel, she was stunned to hear a beautiful rendition of the Israeli national anthem and a medley of songs about Jerusalem, all in Hebrew and all accompanied by thousands of Israeli and US flags waving in a sea of people. There she was, proudly, joyously standing and waving flags. When people started dancing, this woman who never dances, ran up and grabbed the hands of two strangers, and joined in. It was the end of a long day in blazing heat, but she was indefatigable.
We returned home on Thursday and met with the family for Shabbat dinner on Friday night. I was describing our experiences at the Summit when Mania interrupted me. It was the first time in the thirty years that I have known her that she has ever interrupted anyone to say anything.
Christians speaking up in support of Israel and the Jewish people allowed two Holocaust survivors to renew their hope in the world and find their own voices to shout to the world, "Am Yisroel Chai!" Long live the people of Israel.