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“Quo Vadis?” An Interview with Erika Jacoby

“Quo Vadis?” As I entered my cousin Erika Jacoby's home, she looked me in the eye and asked me the question: Quo Vadis?
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May 2, 2024
Erika Jacoby (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Danziger)

“Quo Vadis?” As I entered my cousin Erika Jacoby’s home, she looked me in the eye and asked me the question: Quo Vadis? Where are we going? Erika is a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, psychotherapist, and widow of Dr Emil Jacoby, the former head of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education. She remembers pogroms. She remembers Auschwitz. Now she remembers Oct. 7 – and wonders where it will all end.

Over a snack of fruit and hamantashen, Erika shared her thoughts about the future of the Jewish people. Here are some excerpts from our conversation. 

When asked what she meant by “Where are we going?” she replied, “That’s the big question. it is probably the eternal problem of the Jews.” She asserts that even though one person’s role is small, they must live up to their heritage. “As it says in Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon used to say, ‘You are not required to complete the task, but you are not exempt from undertaking it.’“

In previous conversations, Erika and I have discussed the many people who find the news so depressing that they do not look at it. She scoffed, “It is the only solution for blind people. When I was young in Hungary, we had no free press. We did not know what Hitler was; we were like blind people, and look what happened. I think we cannot afford to be blind.“ Now, Erika watches the news every night because she feels responsible for knowing what is happening. She emphasizes, “We are living through a historic time that will be written about for years to come, and we have a responsibility to bear witness to it. You need to think because this is not just what happens next week. This is defining our future, and we have to think about how our grandchildren will grow up with hatred. And we need to learn how not to hate.” When I protested that we don’t hate our enemies, but they hate us,  she said, ”I know, but that’s not an excuse for me to hate.”

Despite her experience of Auschwitz, Erika remains committed to the ideal of peace. She adds urgently, “I need to tell you, and whoever wants to hear it, that this is not the way to go. I know you say, look what they are doing. And I’m scared. I’m scared of weapons. I don’t want to die. But what do I do to prevent that? So that’s the question, “Where are we going?” I don’t think you and I will answer those questions sitting here having lunch. But we asked. That in itself is doing something right. We are not just going ahead with blind eyes.” Even in the face of violence perpetrated by our enemies, she insists that the path to true justice lies not in retaliation but in reconciliation.

The belief that Judaism is a religion of peace is central to Erika’s worldview. She invoked the teachings of the Torah, which implore us to cherish and seek peace. She expresses dissatisfaction with Israel’s current government, saying, “I love Israel, but I feel that somehow the Israeli government lives within a dream world that whatever they do is okay because they have suffered. It’s not okay. Living with violence is not okay.” 

When I protested that the only language Hamas understands is the language of violence, she retorted, “That’s the question. Just because he is bad, do I also have to be bad? If he is trying to kill me, I have to defend myself. We have an army that has protected us. They had to do what they did after October 7, but it is not defensible in theory to underwrite violence. I do not have the answer, but we need to think about it. Right now, we only know to fight.” 

Although she understands the need to defend ourselves, Erika is stalwart in her view that the only real path forward is through peace. “We need to learn to raise our children with thoughts of peace,” she said. When I said that our enemies love death and we love life, she replied that the key is education. “The time is short, and the work is too much, but we cannot go to sleep because it might be too late. “

When asked about what a person can do to prevent the flow of violence, Erika, drawing on her decades of experience as a psychotherapist, noted that hatred is one of the easiest emotions to acquire. However, she added, “People don’t think about the meaning and consequence of hatred. Our religion always teaches peace — why do we not listen to ourselves?”

Erika does not claim to have an answer to the paradox of needing to defend our land and living in peace. She urges us, however, to continue asking the questions. 

Erika does not claim to have an answer to the paradox of needing to defend our land and living in peace. She urges us, however, to continue asking the questions. She insisted “All I can say is that the most acceptable behavior is to search because if we don’t, that means we have given up to violence. I don’t want to accept that, so I do whatever I can to remember that words can kill and try to lower the temperature, not add fuel to the fire.”

In conclusion, Erika reflected, “In a way, it’s not fair to ask me what I think because I have already experienced the worst. So what do you think I feel? Am I scared? Do I hate them? No, because my parents taught me not to hate. Because my religion taught me how not to hate. And if I don’t follow that, then I don’t deserve to live.”

Perhaps, then, this is Erika’s answer to the question, “Quo vadis?” We are going toward peace, even if it might be a long way coming.


Elizabeth Danziger is the author of four books, including “Get to the Point,” 2nd edition, which was originally published by Random House. She lives in Venice, California.

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