Bardejov is a small Slovakian town at the base of the Tatras Mountains. Quaint, unassuming and colorful when the sun is out, it is also the place where my Safta was born. As I drove towards Bardejov just four years ago, I planned on hating it. All it symbolized to me were the ugly remains of my family tree after it had been ripped from the soil.
This was a town that had made my grandmother suffer. It forced her into the woods to starve as a six-year-old — solely because she was a Jew. I did not come to Bardejov to forgive, I only came to remember.
Six years ago, I was there for a memorial ceremony. It was there that I heard the burly white-haired mayor of the town, Boris Hanuščak offer a heartfelt apology to the survivors and their descendants in front of the newly-dedicated monument. “Welcome home,” he said, “welcome home.” At these words, something changed in me. For the first time during the trip, I felt like I could breathe.
In forgiving, we free ourselves from the pain of wrongs done against us. We liberate ourselves to develop new connections. As we come to the end of the school year, we have an opportunity to look back and reconsider our relationships, those that are flourishing and those that aren’t. The freedom of moving on — of letting go of the hurt we have felt — outweighs the pain we hold by remaining angry.
Boris Hanuščak was not the man who knocked on my Safta’s door 75 years ago to tear her father away from her. He is not the reason why my grandmother flinches every time she hears a dog barking, or why she obsessively insists that I finish the food on my plate. No, Boris Hanuščak has done nothing to deserve my contempt. But many of the townspeople who preceded him have: Some of the elderly people of Bardejov are the very same ones who stood by as my Safta lost everything. Do these people deserve my forgiveness, too?
The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that Boris made me eager to forgive. In letting go of my anger, in putting behind past wrongs, I felt free to get to know someone like Boris — the names of his children, his favorite breakfast meal, his family history.
This doesn’t change the fact that my grandfather will continue refusing to step foot in Germany — his birthplace — and that my grandmother will always start to cry when I talk to her about her experiences during World War II. For the survivors, that’s justified. It’s an understandable response to first-hand trauma. But as their grandson, I have the opportunity — the luxury — to pave a new path. I get the chance to feel how wonderful forgiveness can be.
As you gear up for finals and start packing up for the summer, look to the people around you at Yale who have made mistakes in how they’ve treated you and try to forgive them. In doing so, you will not only free yourself from the resentment built up inside you, but also allow more people into your life who you otherwise would have written off.
A year after I traveled to Bardejov, I attended a Jewish summer camp in another small European town called Szarvas. Just two hours from Budapest, Szarvas welcomes hundreds of Jewish youth from across Eastern Europe each summer to celebrate their Jewish identities. In a discussion with a Polish counselor, he told me that tourists only come to visit his country as a Jewish graveyard, never as a way to rejuvenate or enliven the small Jewish community that actually lives there. Hearing the pain in his voice, I realized that remembering the past is only half of the equation, that it can only take us so far. Meeting so many Jewish students my age, from countries that I didn’t even know Jews lived in anymore, was evidence enough that perhaps — someday — things will change.
Two weeks from yesterday is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a day when Jews from across the world get together to remember. This coming Yom HaShoah, I will be holding with me not only the pain of all that was lost, but also the hope of what is to come in two, three, four generations from now, when my grandchildren and great-grand children will return to Bardejov, touch the names of their ancestors engraved on the memorial, and maybe — just maybe — feel at home.
Gabriel Klapholz is a first year in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .