remembering them in life

by Leah Bieler

In high school, I took a trip to Poland and Israel, one of the first wave of groups to do so, when Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain. I know, I’m showing my age. The emotional experience of visiting the camps, the complicated reaction I had when I saw sweet looking little old men and women, and realized that many of them were the perfect age to have been Nazi collaborators, those things I more or less expected. 


But it was the beginning of summer, and the weather was unusually hot and sunny. The skies were stubbornly blue, the rolling hills and blooming fields mocked us with their loveliness. How could it be that a place that had been so full of hate and evil looked so bright, so pastoral? 


Until that point, my images of Poland in the first half of the 20th century were some mixture of black and white Nazi films, Roman Vishniac photos, and the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof. So it made perfect sense that it had never occurred to me that Poland could be, well, beautiful. 


A few years later, I visited Ukraine with my family, and saw the town where my grandfather had grown up. My father recalled how he had always heard that the town looked just like Switzerland, and to be honest, I had assumed that was a joke. When I woke up to a brilliantly clear and sunny day, and saw the town surrounding a huge sparkling lake with the ground sloping up in the background, it upturned everything I had envisioned about life in Europe before the war. 


My understanding about the Shoah had been based largely on my day school tragedy-focused education, sprinkled with movies and TV shows, and a smattering of Holocaust novels. The stories I heard from my parents about life before the war seemed like unconnected fairy tales. 


I’m aiming to teach my children a little differently, with the luxury we have of distance. For our parents’ generation, the wounds were so raw, the cuts so deep, the pain so constant, they didn’t always have the energy left to focus on anything else. The tincture of time has allowed me both to take my children to Yad Vashem, to explore literature about the war, and also to try and paint a more colorful picture of what life was like before those years that changed everything. 


So this year, I want to remember all my family members who perished - not for the moment of their deaths, but for the fullness of their lives. They were fathers and mothers, aunts uncles and cousins, siblings with rivalries, couples who fought and made up, and fought again. They were doctors and business owners and factory foreman. They were Talmud scholars and Socialists and Zionists, very religious and...not. They were so much more like us than we imagine. 


So, with their lives in mind, on a sun-filled spring day in New England, buds everywhere I look mustering the courage to open, full of promise and hope, I remember them.


Yekutiel Schmelke Bieler

Betka Bieler Fischer

Israel Fischer

Sabina Bieler Teichholtz

Abysch Teichholtz

Giza Teichholtz 17

Klara Teichholtz 16

Jakob (Kuba) Teichholtz 9

Moshe Bieler

Gusta Spitzer Bieler

Henya Bieler 7

Josef Bieler 5

Sosie Bieler Biloraj

Abraham Biloraj

Two Biloraj children ages 3 and 1.5

Chava Dvojre Bieler

Hersh Bieler

Rakhel Bieler

Herman Bieler

Misia Bieler

Bernhard Bieler

Wilhelm Bieler

..and so many more whose names have been lost to history.


the real life consequences of fake bombs

by Leah Bieler

I'm back from vacation, a little tanner, or as tan as one can get wearing layers of SPF 70 at all times. By way of a 'welcome back to the U.S.,' I was bombarded by stories of desecrated cemeteries and evacuated schools/JCCs. Since at the moment there's nothing to be done to halt these attacks, I think we need to talk about how best to react as a community. And I'd love to hear more suggestions. It takes a village. Also, it's my birthday, so maybe no bomb threats today, bad guys? 


I was on vacation last week, in a largely vain attempt to escape the news. So I plugged my feet into the sand on the ocean’s edge, trying to warm up my New England core, but I found myself sinking deeper with each successive wave.

While I was hiding with my feet buried in the sand, an old friend sent me a note. She attached a post from a ‘secret’ Facebook group. It was about a parent pulling a child from a JCC nursery school out of fear from the recent spate of bomb threats. And I found myself surprised. Which is silly, of course. Why should it be surprising that a parent who fears for their child’s safety might put that child in a local secular school, rather than hold their breath each time another evacuation flashes on the screen?

see more

a rallying cry

by Leah Bieler

Can Jews and Arabs work together to oppose Trump? Some Jews think the answer is no. I'm hoping the answer is yes. Today in The Times of Israel, adventures in protesting.


Years ago a friend of mine sent me a picture of a sign that made him giggle. It was from a march of some kind — I can’t recall the cause — and there was a small group holding up a banner emblazoned with the words, “Jewish Lesbian Vegetarians.” Together we laughed about how unbelievably specific the sign was, and wondered aloud whether this group would deign to associate with meat eaters. Or vegans.

It feels quaint now, our surprise. Today, we are slicing ourselves into smaller and smaller pieces of the pie. This isn’t all bad. How amazing to discover that scattered around the world there are at least 117 people who share your passion for Indonesian airmail stamps from 1971-77?

see more

Mourning in America

by Leah Bieler

It hits me when I least expect it. I’m driving to Target for paper towels, and out of the corner of my eye, in my very blue state, I see a bumper sticker. My stomach does a flip, and suddenly, despite myself, I am chocking back tears. I’ve heard countless people say I ought to ‘get over it.’ And yet, I remain unable to contain the emotion. Why on earth is it so hard?


We live in arguably the best moment in all of human history for women. I can own property by myself, I can work in nearly any profession. I have the right to vote. But as our culture has changed so blindingly fast over the last 100 years, I still live with memories of a different time. Those memories are at the same time deeply painful, and the things that spur me on to fight for a more just and equal society. 


Only recently, in an unfortunately timely discussion about sexual assault, I was recallingthe lyrics to the song “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof. Maybe you remember it? Tevye’s daughters are taking turns pretending to be Yente the Matchmaker. They are describing potential suitors for their sisters. As part of the rundown, one of the young women explains, “You’ve heard he has a temper/ He’ll beat you every night/ But only when he’s sober/ So you’re all right.”


My whole life, starting when I was a little girl, I had sung that song with abandon. I never balked at that line. But now something in me has changed, and I cannot go backwards. When I hear that line, I shudder. How comfortable we were with the idea that a man would beat his wife. How comfortable I was. 


This, of course, is why I’ve worked as I have, protested, signed petitions, lectured, marched - in the foolish confidence that I would fight so that my children wouldn’t need to. 

I had an optimistic vision of progress as a one-way street. I truly believed, I’m only now beginning to realize, that once things moved in the direction of more equality and tolerance, they would not - they could not - slide backwards into the abyss. 


On November 8, I was certain that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. Not because I have been a lifelong Democrat, or even because she is a woman. But because I truly believed that this country could not relinquish the progress it had made, and elect someone who ran on racism, and xenophobia, and on famous men being given blanket permission to sexually assault women. 


I was sure my daughters, and my sons, would be watching with awe as we swore in our first woman as President. I thought Donald Trump represented the past, and that America would vote for the future. And right there, in the space between my hopes and my reality, right there sits my grief. I am mourning for the future I had envisioned, and it feels, in some measure, like a death. 


Some will balk at that comparison, but in terms of my emotional experience, and that of many women my age and older (I’m 44), it is apt. No other event in my life, except an actual death,  has left me feeling this raw, and angry, and suddenly tearful. Sometimes it wakes me in the night, this realization that my vision of the world was too hopeful, and I find it hard to return to sleep. 


Over time, the sharp blade of my feelings will dull around the edges, as with any loss. Most people I know, more like all of them, if I’m being truthful, see me as a cynical person. I’m not sure I was even aware myself that this upbeat, rosy, idealistic side of me was hiding underneath. But there it was, open, and vulnerable, and available - to be crushed like a bug.


Over winter break, as a respite from the news, we watched old Muppet Show DVDs with the kids. One episode opened with a musical number wherein Sandy Duncan did copious numbers of shots and then got manhandled (monsterhandled?) in what might be charitably described as assault. Through it all, Ms. Duncan seemed quite sanguine.  My husband and I glanced at one another, waiting to see if anyone would react. Our third grader looked over, eyes wide. “Wow,” he exclaimed, “She is NOT a feminist.” So for now, I’ll try to revel in the little victories.


Because I have learned a painful lesson this season, and it’s a lesson I won’t soon forget. Progress is not inevitable. I will need to teach my children to continue the fight that I thought I could save them from. 


And all of us, women and men, young and old, who still have a lump in our throats, we are allowed to mourn. Like in a bad dream, there is a marathon we thought we had run, and instead we find ourselves back at the starting line. We can take a little time to lick our wounds, and to assess our losses. Then, sooner rather than later,  we’ll need to take our children by the hands, keep our eyes on the horizon, and start running that very first mile.