Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch, who passed away Friday at the age of 88, understood that all Jews are connected. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel, tells the story.
Years ago, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau visited his brother in New York. The two brothers were in Buchenwald together, and miraculously survived while the rest of their family was wiped out. Rabbi Lau, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, became a rabbi, continuing his family’s unbroken chain of 38 generations of rabbis. His brother, Naphtali Lau-Levie, became a noted author and was appointed Israel’s consul general to New York.
Ed Koch, New York City’s brash, outspoken, overtly Jewish leader, asked Naphtali to introduce him to the great Rabbi Lau – then Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv – if his illustrious brother was ever in town.
Rabbi Lau visited New York and Naphtali arranged a meeting. When Mr. Koch walked into the room, he announced to a surprised Rabbi Lau, “I’m a Holocaust survivor too.” Rabbi Lau turned to his brother in puzzlement; this was not the information he’d received about the American-born Koch.
Mr. Koch explained. He was born in the Bronx, and grew up an American. He only went to Europe for the first time as a GI.
Years later, though, after he’d been elected mayor, he had the chance to travel to Germany as part of an international delegation of mayors. There he met with officials in Berlin and was shown various artifacts. One piece made the greatest impression on him: a globe that had once belonged to Adolph Hitler.
This globe was special. Hitler asked his assistants to determine the Jewish population in every country on earth, and to write this number under each nation’s name on his globe.
Poland, Hungary, Germany, Austria…. The Jewish population of each country was recorded, waiting – in Hitler’s twisted mind – for extermination. There was even a number 1 written under the city of Tirana in Albania, Ed Koch told Rabbi Lau. That lone Jew in Tirana was offensive to Hitler; even he was worthy of being remembered and targeted by the Nazis.
Ed Koch also saw a number under the “United States.” It was a special number, Mr. Koch remembered: 6,000,000.
“I was recorded in that number,” Ed Koch said to Rabbi Lau. “I was one of Hitler’s intended victims too.”
Ed Koch not only acknowledged and felt their pain; he realized that their pain was his pain too. In his mind, there were no distinctions between him and other Jews.
Rabbi Lau realized that Mr. Koch was right – he was one of Hitler’s intended victims; he was a survivor of the Holocaust too.
Ed Koch wasn’t just an onlooker; he was a survivor. He saw himself as part of history, as a vital member of the ongoing narrative of the Jewish people. One way to honor his memory is to follow his example, to look at our fellow Jews not as foreigners divided by language, religious observance, geography or time. Like Mr. Koch, let’s try to look at other Jews around the world and see ourselves.