For the B’nei Menashe, Yom ha-Shoah is Theirs, Too
Updated: Apr 9
(April 8) No one doubts that the B’nei Menashe, once officially converted, are fully a part of the Jewish people. But can they relate to the Jewish experience as do other Jews when they have so different a history? And specifically: how do they, having no historical memories of the Holocaust, and coming from a country – India – that has no record of anti-Semitism, relate to the murder of European Jewry?
On the occasion of Yom ha-Shoah, our Newsletter’s correspondent put these questions to B’nei Menashe in Israel and India. Here are some of their answers.
Yehoshua Lunkhel 57, living in Israel:
“Anyone who is a Jew feels the pain and the magnitude of the Holocaust. When I think of all those people 80 years ago, knowing they were going to die, I can’t help putting myself in their place and imagining the hopelessness of their situation and the horror of their existence. There’s a Kuki proverb, ‘To feel like a locked-up puppy scratching desperately at the walls.’ That’s what I imagine it must have been like.”
Avichai Mate, 34, a resident of Churachandpur in Manipur:
“The Holocaust is the greatest disaster that ever happened to us. But we must also remember that throughout the ages there have been disasters like it, if not of the same magnitude. The Holocuast was the culmination of the hatred of us that accumulated over time.”
Ohaliav Haokip, also 34 and living in Manipur:
“As a member of the B’nei Menashe community, I’ve been hearing about the Holocaust since my childhood. Except for India, we have been persecuted everywhere for the past 2,000 years. For me, the Holocaust was a national catastrophe, a catastrophe of our people. I feel strongly about it. I can only imagine what those six million must have gone through, their absolute desperation with no hope.”
“We,” “us”: the words occur again and again. The striking thing about such and other similar replies is the total identification they express not just with the Judaism that the B’nei Menashe have come to adopt but with the Jewish people that they have joined. When asked whether their non-Jewish past made them feel less involved with the Holocaust, not one interviewee answered that it did or seemed even to regard the question as meaningful.
Few B’Menashe have had any personal contact with Holocaust survivors. Most who live in Israel have learned much of what they know from the Israeli media, like Natan Mangsat Kipgen, 73, who told us:
“I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about the Holocaust on Yom ha-Shoah year after year. They always bring tears to my eyes. The most painful part of it for me is thinking of all the small, innocent children who were killed. What kind of beast would have the heart to kill children? What could they have done to deserve to be killed like that? I’ve been thinking about that year after year, too, and I still haven’t found the answer.”
Gershom Mate, 32, a resident of the northern Israeli town of Akko, was already deeply affected by the Holocaust as a child in Manipur. “Although I was raised Jewishly,” he told our Newsletter, “I was sent to a Catholic school. We studied history according to a standard curriculum, and there was a brief passage about the Holocaust in our textbook. It was terribly skimpy. And then – I must have been about ten years old – I was in the school library one day, looking for something interesting to read, when I came across a book on a shelf in a corner whose jacket illustration I recognized from our textbook. It was of a group of emaciated men and women looking at the camera through barbed wire. The book was so old that its paper tore if you weren’t careful, but I borrowed it for a week, took it home, and renewed my loan for two more weeks, during which I read it several times. One incident in it has stayed with me to this day: a scene in which a man smuggles a Jewish child hidden in his overcoat. I wondered how he could have smuggled anyone out of a concentration camp. But a few years ago I watched a movie on Israeli TV about an uprising in a Polish ghetto and realized that it must have happened in a place like that.
“When I came to Israel in 2014,” Mate says, “I visited Yad Vashem for the first time. Looking at all the displays and exhibits, none of it seemed new to me. I already had a mental picture of all those things. I hadn’t needed the actual photos I now saw, because I had already seen it all in my imagination after reading about it. When I went back to Yad Vashem several years later with my family, I couldn’t bring myself to go in and see it again. I waited outside while my wife and the others went in. I empathize with the victims so much that I was afraid to go through the experience again. The Holocaust brings out deep feelings of anger and even vengeance in me.”
If the Holocaust, apart from its emotional impact, has a meaning to Israel and India’s B’nei Menashe, this is distinctly Israel-related. Here, again, are some of their answers.
“The Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if Israel had existed then, since most Jews would have been living in it. It’s our sacred duty to see to it that Israel survives and thrives so that something similar never happens again.”
“The lesson of the Holocaust is that we can’t take anything for granted. Look at Europe and America – on the surface it’s peaceful but anti-Semitism is on the rise. It’s difficult to explain our religion to others and even more difficult to make them understand. Wherever there are Jews in the world, there is the possibility of another Holocaust. It’s very important that every Jew come to live in Israel.”
“The Holocaust was the sacrifice the Jewish people had to pay for the establishment of the state of Israel. We paid the price with our blood. There is a price for everything. If not for those who went through the Holocaust, would I be living in Israel today? I’ll always remember their sacrifice and the privilege it has given me to live here. I’ll honor their memory for as long as I live.”
The youngest of our interviewees was Ilana Thangjom, 16. Although born in Manipur, Ilana came to Israel as an infant and has been educated in its schools. Does she relate differently to the Holocaust because of her B’nei Menashe background? “Not really,” she says. “I’ve learned about the Holocaust in school just like everyone else. I may not have a personal connection to it but it’s part of my national identity.”
It’s so much a part of her identity that she works as a volunteer for Israel’s Foundation for the Welfare of Holocaust Victims. “We help them with their needs and, most of all, talk with them,” she says of herself and her fellow volunteers. “They all have children and grandchildren who are busy with their lives and need someone to tell their stories to. It’s difficult. We live through the trauma of the Holocaust once a year, on Yom ha-Shoah, but they live through it every day.”
Ilana could have volunteered for many things – there is no lack of worthy causes in Israel. Why working with Holocaust victims?
“Because the people of Israel are their family,” she answered. “And it’s my family, too. That makes us relatives.”