Fifteen

This esssay was written and published by Arnold Roth, whose daughter, Malka Chana Roth, was murdered in a 2001 Hamas terrorist attack at the Jerusalem Sbarros when she was fifteen years old. Arnold and his wife, Frimet, founded The Malki Foundation in their daughter’s memory. The Roths also blog at This Ongoing War. I had the pleasure of meeting Arnold recently and, during the course of our conversation, he mentioned this essay and granted permission to publish it at CiF Watch.

Most Jewish teenagers growing up in Australia during the 1960s were, like me, children of concentration camp survivors. Our parents were involved in owning small businesses or were employed. There was hardly a professional among them. At birth, we lacked even a single grandparent in most cases. Almost all of my friends were named after family members who perished in the Holocaust.

It was clear that we were everything to our parents, and no one needed to tell us why. Top of their priorities list was ensuring that we gained the best possible education. It is hardly surprising to know that several of the largest and most successful Jewish schools in the world were started in the tiny Melbourne Jewish community in the years right after World War II. The community’s interest in Israel was unlimited. The occasional Israeli film and Israeli visitor to Australia’s distant shores were memorable events.

***

The Six Day War between the Arab states and Israel happened when I was 15. The weeks of rising tension leading up to it left an indelible mark on me: the grainy television images of Egyptian and Syrian troops on the march; Nasser’s strident speeches and his unilateral blockade of the sea lanes to Eilat; the massing of Egyptian forces on Israel’s Sinai border and of the Syrian army on the Golan Heights; U Thant’s disgraceful capitulation in removing the UN’s peace-keeping forces from Sinai precisely when they were most needed. And the blood-curdling threats of one after another of the Arab dictators and monarchs: “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified… This is our opportunity to erase the ignominy which has been with us since 1948… Our goal is clear — to wipe Israel off the map.”

Fifteen marked a turning point in my life. A few months after Israel’s stunning defeat of those forces intending to carry out (once again) the liquidation of the Jews, I enrolled for the first time in a Jewish day-school. My ideas about being a Jew in the world, about history and how it affects our lives, about the Holocaust and the chain of Jewish life, began taking adult shape.

***

My mother grew up near Lodz in a town located close enough to the Polish/German frontier to have been overrun by Nazi forces on the first day of the war. Among the men rounded up by the invaders on September day in September was her father, the grandfather whose name I was given. As a father myself, I have to breathe deeply in calling to mind the image of my mother throwing herself at the feet of a German soldier, begging, screaming for her father’s life to be spared.

On the day the Nazis marched into Poland and began the process of destroying a world, trampling a unique culture into the mud, murdering Jews by the millions, my mother had just turned 15.

***

My awareness of my parents’ lives begins, in a certain sense, with the end of the war: their four or five years as displaced persons in post-war Germany, their long journey to Australia as a young couple with no English, no marketable skills and no roots beyond their few personal ties and their very Jewish sense of community.

An unexpected photograph changed this for me a few years ago.

I have a cousin, a kibbutznik. She is the daughter of my father’s oldest brother. She was born in Tel Aviv in the 1930s, shortly after her parents fled pre-war Poland. Returning as a tourist to her parent’s roots, she traveled to the city of Krakow in 2000, and via a chain of circumstances ended up in possession of four photocopied pages which she shared with me. These were Nazi documents — census forms which the Germans required the Jews in the Krakow ghetto to complete prior to dispatching them to the death camps.

The first page had been completed in the distinctive handwriting of my father, of blessed memory. A small snapshot attached to the form showed him as I had never seen him before: virile, handsome, young. Two other pages were the census forms of two of my father’s sisters. Their names were known to me from a family tree I had put together years earlier with my father’s help, but until that moment they were nothing more than names. Now I gazed at the portraits of two vibrant, attractive young women.

My oldest daughter, Malki, had just completed a family-roots project at school and I knew she would be interested. She glanced at the pages and she said exactly what I had been thinking: that she bore a striking resemblance to my father’s beautiful sister Feige.

Unlike my parents, Feige did not survive the Nazi murder machine. Whatever potential her life contained, whatever talents she was developing, whatever gifts she was planning to give the world — all these were overturned by a massive act of violent, barbaric hatred: the genocidal murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis.

***

Some months after we gazed on those extraordinary pictures for the first time, Malki sat down and quietly (without telling us) composed the words and music of an infectiously upbeat song: “You live, breathe and move – that’s a great start!… You’d better start dancing now!”

Living in the land promised to the Jewish people was a source of deep contentment to this grand-daughter of Holocaust survivors. The discovery of Feige’s picture enabled Malki, I think, to gain a strengthened sense of her personal role as a link in an ancient chain.

***

Arafat’s intifada war against Israel’s civilian population broke out around the time we received those precious pages. From the diary she kept, it’s evident that the almost daily toll of injuries and deaths weighed heavily on Malki’s mind. She writes of having to leave her classroom to weep in privacy upon learning of another terror attack… and another and another. We, her parents and siblings, were unaware of the depth of her empathy for the victims of the war raging in her precious land. The turmoil and pain were deeply personal to her. Though born in Australia, Malki had lived in Jerusalem since age two. She felt deeply connected to Jewish history.

In August 2001, my daughter and her friend Michal interrupted the activities of a busy summer vacation day to grab lunch in a crowded Jerusalem restaurant called Sbarro.

If she had noticed the man with a guitar case on his back striding through the unguarded door and positioning himself next to the counter where she was engrossed in tapping out a text message on her cell phone, would Malki have recognized the hatred, the barbaric ecstasy, on his face before he exploded?

Michal and Malki were buried the next day. The closest of friends since early childhood, they lie side by side forever on a hill near the entrance to Jerusalem.

Malki was fifteen.

***

Her diary is full of questions: How can such terrible things happen to our people? Why is our love for the Land of Israel not better understood by outsiders? What kind of Divine plan calls for teenagers to be injured and killed by people for whom we hold no hatred at all? How can such intense hatred even exist?

The unbearable question marks left behind by my daughter scream at me every day.

***

Jewish life, viewed from a distance, is an astonishing saga of tragedy, achievement, grandeur, destruction and greatness, played out over millennia. There is a risk we lose this perspective when we are the individuals living it.

Those of us raised in the shadow of the Holocaust, and who have experienced the tragedy of a child’s death by hatred, struggle to understand the nature of the Divine role in our lives as individuals and as a people. There are times, according to Jewish wisdom, when you need to know that God’s hand is at work even when the evidence is difficult to see, even when there are more questions than answers.

Arnold Roth, Jerusalem

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