Saturday, April 10, 2021

Guest Blogger--Jonathan Siger: The Murdered are Everywhere



This past week, communities around the world observed Yom HaShoah--Holocaust Remembrance Day--to recall the victims of the Holocaust.  I thought it appropriate share the thoughts of a distinguished writer of non-fiction on that solemn day.  

Jonathan Siger is rabbi of Congregation Jewish Community North in Spring, Texas.  In addition to his pulpit work, Rabbi Siger serves the Hillel Foundation at Texas A&M University as a Senior Jewish Educator.  In addition, he is a River Chaplain Associate of the Seamen’s Church Institute and a lead volunteer Chaplain for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.  He’s also my son, and what he wrote speaks to far more than the Jewish Experience—especially these days.

I don’t get the question so much anymore, but for years, it was asked all the time. “Why did you become a rabbi?” Like many of my colleagues, I developed a stock ‘elevator speech’ with which to answer. And so, I often respond with the following: It was a way to combine what I was naturally best at, with what I was most passionate about. And this is true. It’s still true. But it is not the whole truth. I wanted to be liked, and I wanted to feel important.

I also wanted to defy the Nazis.

I first learned about the Shoah when I was seven years old. My parents had split by then, and we were visiting my mother’s parents in Massachusetts. They had a rock on the mantle over their fireplace with “Masada” written on it. They had a map of Israel on the wall. They had an awesome basement with a playroom and a workshop for my grandfather.

There were great things in that workshop. Tools, and an old guitar that sounded horrible and was missing strings but was still a real guitar, and a cool necklace with a big medal on it. I emerged from the basement, striding into the sitting room off the kitchen, strutting around with my new-found treasure. It turns out that the necklace was a battle trophy; something one of my uncles had brought back from the war. An "Iron Cross", as it happens, taken from a dead Nazi.

My grandmother was mortified at the sight of me wearing it. I wasn’t in trouble, but she snatched it from me, and I never saw it again. And that is how I learned that my grandmother had family that died and how that symbol reminded her of how the letters had just stopped coming in the late fall of 1941. Due to the diligent and invaluable work of a cousin, we learned the horrifying details a few years ago: dozens of members of the family died together at the Rumbala forest massacre outside Riga, Latvia.

The mass graves in which dozens of my family members lie buried along with 24,000 other Latvian Jews.


The site as it appears today

My grandfather's family from Lapy, near Bialiystok, were apparently all executed in the street when their town was liquidated. Among the dead our cousin Ciril, who, based on this picture alone connected with some kind of theatrical production, was definitely both my kin and kind.


My cousin Ciril

My grandmother's grandmother from her passport which was seized by the Reich after their invasion of Latvia

As I grew older, I learned I wasn’t the only kid who knew about the Nazis. Other kids knew about Hitler and the camps and the mass graves and about how to torture Jews. Classmates drew swastikas on my belongings, shouted “Heil Hitler” and threw straight-arm salutes at each other as I passed by. How many Jews fit in a Volkswagen, you ask? All what I assume was typical middle-school bullying, in the age of Hair Metal and Suburban Satanic Cult Murder on Long Island. I did what I was told to do by responsible adults, and ignored it.

I came to learn my uncle on my father’s side, Ben Maretsky, had been captured during the Battle of the Bulge and spent the last part of the war in a series of Nazi German prison camps including the notorious Stalag 13. He hid his identity and even passed for an Antisemite. He gave me his eyewitness testimony of the war and the camps, in an age before computers and tablets. He told me his story, and I learned to value stories told by old men who smelled like shaving soap and talc and had faraway gazes, having seen •some things• in their day. I took them in and held those memories as close to my own as I could.

S/Sgt. Benny Maretsky, POW, Stalag 13

I decided I would honor those who suffered so horribly or even died for being what I was. The Nazis and their barbaric comrades and collaborators would not prevail. My Jewish education would be an act of cultural self-defense. I would live a defiantly Jewish life. I would do my part to rebuild.

Not only did I grow up with and around survivors; I had the good fortune to study with some of the best historians of the post-war generation. I came to understand that the Holocaust may have been the biggest, most methodical and cruel attempt to destroy the Jewish people, but it is also only the most recent. The Inquisition and the Crusades were as cruel to the Jews, and lasted centuries. After a thousand years, what folly it seems to be to have thought that the disease would have run its course. What fools were we who dared think it was over.

Yom HaShoah continues, because for millions of us, it has never ended.

Thank you, son, I’m proud of you.



  1. Thank you, Jonathan, for sharing this personal story. If only there was a vaccine that would prevent the infection of hatred and intolerance...

  2. Jeff, thank you for surrendering the pulpit to your eloquent son. Rabbi Siger, thank you for holding your faith, and your history, to the light. The world needs to remember - and the world needs more men like you.

  3. Welcome, Jonathan. Your father calls me Sis, and I call him Bro. So I guess I am your Auntie. Thank you for this post. Never forgetting is something we must all do. And in the way you do here, by showing us the faces of the fallen, and of a warrior against the perpetrators. Your description and pictures remind us that every one of the dead was an individual, unique, irreplaceable person. Heartbreaking.

    In January 2017, I was visiting my ancestral part of Sicily where Remembrance Day was being observed, and the students and teachers of a local liceo turned their school building into a Holocaust museum. My cousin Anna Puglisi, a teacher, organizes the effort each year. The local population came in droves to see and learn from what they students presented. It was devastatingly effective. I included it in a blog here on MIE. I am posting a link here. I think you will find it interesting to see how committed your Sicilian "cousins" are to the cause you serve so beautifully here today. This "Auntie" is proud of them. And of you! Scroll to the bottom half to see the student's exhibits.

    1. Thank you for sharing that link...and having spent most of my childhood and the rest of my life with a large Italian stepfamily, you'll fit right in with the Calabrian and Genovese cousins!

  4. My dad’s 11th book came out this week-check the NY Post this weekend, and my brother wrote the most incredible tribute to our ancestors on the Halocaust day of Remembrance.

    I managed to shave my legs in a standup shower. Cirque de Soliel would be proud. 🙌🏻

  5. My grandfather was born in Bialystok, and he and my grandmother and her family came to the U.S., between 1907 and 1913. I thought both sides of my mother's family were here. Then two years ago, I found out about several half-siblings of my grandfather's, and at least one sister died in the Holocaust. At that point the family lived in Sokolka, not far from Bialystok. Descriptions of that town when the Nazis invaded it are horrible. I read the diary of one eyewitness once and that was it.
    I'm for unity and solidarity with all people who are endangered by the far-right, those at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and in Charlottesville in 2017, yelling racist and anti-Semitic slogans.