Apr 19, 2010

And Then, I Wept for Six Million.

This is my 1,000th blog post here on Just Call Me Chaviva. It's been a good and educational run so far, and during my four years here, I've mapped my way through two degrees (the B.A. and upcoming M.A.), three streams of Judaism, four towns, eight houses/apartments of residence, and countless bad dates that have resulted in my current engagement to Tuvia. I could numerate a dozen other things (books read, cities traveled, movies watched, angry/inappropriate blog post comments), but I won't waste your time. I wanted to stress how long I've been blogging and how big this post is for me -- and ultimately for you -- and the best way I can do this is through just writing the darn thing. So here goes. Enjoy this 1,000th post, comment, and let me know what you think. Oh, and keep reading!

I spent the past few days traversing the East Coast, with the eventual goal of landing in Washington D.C. and at the U.S. Holocaust Museum with a class from my university that I'm not even in. The head of the department planned the trip, which was funded by an awesome couple that literally (I mean that, too, building floors and laboring on buildings back in the day) helped build the university, and I was invited along because I'm a graduate student. I said yes, knowing that, as I've said a million times before, the Holocaust is a difficult thing for converts to connect to. I've been twice before, once in January 2003 and once on a JDate (right) in 2006. Four years later, and I'm in a different place entirely. This blog, for one, has followed me through those four years of growing from Reform Conversion to Orthodox Conversion and all the chaos, tears, and education in between. The last two trips to the museum for me were not particularly emotional. I was stunned, yes, but not emotional. I wasn't involved. I wasn't in the trenches of the Holocaust; there was no memory.

Now? I'm marrying into the memory of the Holocaust. Tuvia's family has Holocaust survivors and stories that are still yet untold. I walked into that museum entrenched in the emotion of two new families: my Jewish family and my future in-laws.

The tour was guided. There were about 20 of us, two docents -- one a retired lawyer, the other a retired doctor -- and several floors of stories, photos, and horror. Lots of random people ended up following us and listening to the docents, who peppered the winding journey with anecdotes about people who they've shown through the museum, people who saw themselves standing near rail cars and in bread lines. I couldn't help but be horrified at the prospect: Walking through a Holocaust museum, staring into a photo of Nazi visions, and seeing yourself or your mother or your father. I looked at every photo in that museum, hoping to see the image of three women I know who survived that horrific vision of Hitler's.

I don't know why, but when I stepped into the museum, I felt different. I've already mentioned that I knew I was walking in with something new, something different, but I didn't know how much it would impact my experience. We made it to the photos. The Tower of Faces. That hall of photos from a village, thousands of people in photos skiing and smiling and eating dinner and hugging and laughing and ... living. And you see them on two floors, and it only took me to the first encounter with them and I teared up. Without tissues, I hesitated. I breathed. I looked at the happy photos and pretended they had names with their faces and that they were just there, in that moment, happy and alive and that that is how they lived and died. On skis. Smiling. Just giggling away. But I know they're dead. I knew there, standing in that hall, listening to the docent tell an anecdote about his granddaughter and Elie Wiesel. I was lost.

We stopped at a bathroom and I grabbed a wad of toilet paper. I had spotted the rail car in the distance, I knew something was coming. A flood. Emotions that I never knew I had, that my neshama has hidden away, yearning something to spark it. Something to help me feel connected, to really get the Shoah.

We carried on, staring at photos from the ghettos. Iron doors and sad faces, people sitting in streets unaware of their eventual fate beyond hunger, thirst, and poverty: death. We rounded a corner, experiencing for a moment the joy of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. And then? The rail car. "Everyone come in," the docent said. "Closer, closer," he said.

CLOSER, he urged.

There we were, ten or eleven of us in that rail car. Gifted to the museum by Poland (how kind of them), placed in the museum while it was still being built. And I lost it. I completely lost it. I imagined what it must have been like -- like I have every other time I was there, but it was different. The air was tight, the light floating inside the small windows was suffocating, the corners smelled like urine, the car was full. Full of death and tears. My tears.

He ushered us out, moving on to photos of individuals arriving at Auschwitz, and I stared into the faces, my eyes blurry, sopping up tears, trying and hoping to see a familiar face. It's probably really morbid that I want to see my future in-laws in those photos, but I want to empathize, I want to see them in those moments they don't talk about. I want to know their story.

The rest of the museum -- up until lunch -- was a blur. Stories of liberation and righteous gentiles, a photo of Chaviva Reik, who paratrooped into the warzone and died. There were striped pajamas and piles of shoes that made me cry again. I looked at them and whispered quietly, "HaShem, where were you?" I marveled at the bible verses in the Memorial Hall, thinking how ironic it is that they're there, after everything, G-d is there. He's always there. Wasn't he? Isn't he?
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. --Elie Wiesel
By the time we got back to the classroom for lunch, and after I had to beg and plead for more than prepackaged asian noodles for lunch, I had calmed down. Calmed down enough that I sat talking to others and blinking, a lot. I haven't been tired all day, but my eyes, after crying and my mind, after absorbing and processing, left me exhausted. No, it left me depressed.

I just wanted to sleep.

But there was a propaganda exhibit (which I have another post about, believe me), and speakers, and the gift shop, and discussion. There were conversations and complaints about food and space and exhaustion  and in my head I continued to think "we're all so fucking stupid." Stupid, I mean, because our lives? They're a walk in the park. Even with the threat of antiSemitism (think: Monsey as of late), we're not edging as close as we think we are to then. To that life. To that other place where things were ... hell. Where death was at the doorstep. Where life was being sucked out of people. I felt weird complaining about anything. The kosher food, the temperature in the room, my exhaustion. I was sobered. Fast.

My eyes are still foggy. I'm not tired, but my head hurts, my heart hurts. I'm still processing and there are images I can't seem to get out of my head. This one, of a woman in that destroyed village, with long flowing hair; she looked like a gypsy with her headdress, but clearly a Jewess, a Jewess who probably was murdered by the Nazi death machine. Her photo? It was in the Tower of Faces, people from Eishishok in now-Lithuania. I bet she had many suitors in her day.

Suddenly, the Holocaust is my memory. I have a story now, I have a lot of stories. I have too many stories, in boxcars and shoes and images of beautiful, Jewish women. I have my fiance's grandmother's story. And her sisters. My mind is a cloud of darkness and violence and hatred. My eyes? A well of tears that could fill a boxcar. I never thought it would resonate; I never thought I would feel death and aging in my bones like I do right now.

But I'm alive, and I am breathing. I'm not smoke drifting upward, a cloud in formation, dust over the atmosphere. I'm breathing, with bones and blood. I am a Jew. And there was a Holocaust. How do I know? I feel it; I breathe it; when my tears drip, they drip for the 6 million and more.

An End: This post ends on a bus somewhere in Maryland, and Defiance is on the movie screen. Justice makes me smile, living makes me laugh. I just wish the world knew that we're all 99 percent the same. That, folks, is the majority. In most things, the majority wins. So why, in the battle of humanity, do we allow that 1 percent difference to move us to active indifference, collaboration, and murder? I'm exhausted and frustrated with humanity. With genocide and the Holocaust and indifference. Indifference. Do you realize how indifferent we are? My world is topsy turvy right now. My stream of consciousness is dry, my eyes wet. This is where indifference must stop.


HSaboMilner said...

Poignant and beautifully written. As a grandchild of survivors, i know the feeling of looking for their faces in the pictures - but it's more than that. it's a need to personalize, a need to identify with that person's story, a need to feel connected. A need to know that we have a history that connects us all.

I am grateful for you, that you finally had that connection this time, devastating though it may feel right now.

Sending you so much warmth and strength.

Jew Wishes said...

I have been to the USHMM many times over the years...and try to get there at least once every year, if not twice. I feel an obligation to do so, feel responsible to remember.

I had family members murdered during the Holocaust in mass killings, in two different shtetls in Lithuania...members from my paternal grandfather's side, and members from my paternal grandmother's side. I was permitted to take a photo of the shtetls etched on the long window, to the right of the exit hallway, overlooking the first floor, before going down the stairs.

I look at the images daily, they are hanging on my wall...reminders, memorials enshrined of lives lost.

I can't breathe from the minute I get on the elevator, until after leaving the museum. The event stifles me, surrounds my very being, and I hear the cries of my relatives, and the moans and cries of all of those who were murdered, and those who survived. I think it is innate, a part of my genetic recall/memory, so to speak.

Yet, I can't stay away...I must go...must pay my respects...must be there to remember.

The photograph that gets me the most, that constricts my air passages, is one of a line of naked women waiting to go to the gas chamber...and what stands out before my eyes within the photograph is a naked woman, carrying a baby who is leaning on her chest...

I will never forget that image as long as I live, and whenever there, pray for her and her child, pray for all the women and children gassed, pray that it never happens again.

But, it has happened, to other religious groups and to other ethnic backgrounds. Why? Who could ever answer that question, certainly not me.

I can never understand the entirety of what they witnessed or went through. I can only know, as a Jewish woman, that I don't really want to understand, because to understand then gives credit to the Nazis. No matter how small, the credit and acknowledgment would be me affirming their actions, no matter how slight the affirmation might be. NO! I don't even try to understand. I remember, instead.

Excuse the rant, you opened a door.
Thanks for listening.

Drew said...

Beautifully written post.

I've been to the Holocaust Museum in the past year. At the time J and I weren't engaged or even serious about it. I went to the Holocaust museum and expected to feel so much. However, I walked through the main exhibit and stood in the train car. I was upset but not connected. My mind was unable to comprehend how any human could do this to another.

I left the exhibit with more education. However, I was still in my protective shell. I wasn't Jewish and as far as I knew, none of my family members had been hurt or hurt during that terrible time period.

Then, on a whim, I went through the exhibit for children. It told the story room by room of a young boy whose life changed one day when the Nazi's move his family to a ghetto and so on. As I walked through that exhibit, I thought about J's niece who was very young at that point. I thought of being a child and witnessing this and eventually being separated from your family. Not knowing what happened to them. I cried in that exhibit. I cried for the children. The most innocent of all innocents.

Now that J and I are married we have taken the time to get his familys history from his relatives. His parents don't speak about that time period or show pictures. We had to convince his Aunt and Uncle to walk us through their past. After hearing hours of stories and looking at hundreds of pictures, I understood somewhat what J feels when he thinks of the holocaust.

I suspect that another trip to the museum would be very different. I have also married into a history. I have lost family in the holocaust. They are a part of me now.

Not that long ago, before J's last remaining Grandmother passed away, his Sister and I made a promise that we would not raise our children the way his parents raised them. We would raise our children with pictures and stories. We would remember for those lost.

shualah elisheva said...

a few points:

- this is one of your most well.written posts. it should be e.mailed 'round to everyone you know.

- a thought: it terrifies me that there will one day be another shoah museum, one with blown.up photos of mushroom clouds and historical timelines detailing iran's nuclear weapons program. how much longer does the country's rhetoric have to go on before the world will take his threats against israel seriously? with the push of a button, he could do the same damage that hitler [may his name be erased] did. absolutely chills my blood to winter.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I come from a slightly different point of departure in that yes, I am a convert, but there are Jewish roots in my family and the simple fact is I just don't know if any of my unknown family ever had to end their life in such a way - G-d forbid that it be so.

I went to several concentration camps as part of my European journey last year. I came away from Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Plotzensee, Oskar Schindler's factory, Kazimierz, enveloped in the beautiful summer weather and felt more and more stunned each time. I couldn't revisit our photos, my journal, my feelings until months later.

How do we deal with it? How do try to reconcile now and then? This has to be an individual process, each of us processing the impact in a myriad number of ways.

As long as we never forget. As long as the voices of the lost are still heard, through us. That is imperative.

Karen Zampa Katz said...

I deeply appreciate your post, and I truly understand your reaction.
After 2 years of experience and study I "dunked" on April 1...got married on April 13...and left for Israel before the end of the month for my honeymoon with my rabbi and 48 others! We were there for the 60th anniversary celebration….but also for the most intense time period..Yom Ha Shoah…”memorial day”…. Then the anniversary.
So there we are the day after Yom Hashoah…we are Yad Vashem the Holocaust memorial….first we went through the museum ….by the time I was one third the way through, I was crying so hard that I almost couldn’t see….by the time I got to the “camps” part of the tour, I was totally unable to withstand it for one more moment, I was so emotionally distraught I don’t remember any more of it. It was a blur.
Then We went to the children’s memorial…then onto the memorial for the towns, where we had a service…..well it is enough to say there were tears…many many tears……
I feel connected.I feel connected.
Thanks for your honesty and beautiful writing.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

All I can say is thank you, to all of you, for commenting. Each of our stories and journeys lead us in unique directions and lead us to places at very different paces. It's interesting how the Holocaust touches us and moves us ... and horrifies us.

Again, thank you for reading and THANK YOU for commenting with your personal thoughts!

AnnaI said...

I went there back in the mid 90s and they had some sort of a special exhibit when you enter through a black room and then you see the images flash in front of you. I puked right there on the floor and had to be carried out of the building.

There's a small Auschwitz Memorial Museum nearby where we live (in Fukushima prefecture, Japan) and even there the staff said they stopped showing the documentary footage, because people found it too disturbing.

PS. I've been lurking on your blog for a while, I guess this is my first comment.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@AnnaI Wow ... that's a very visceral reaction. I've never gotten a "sick" feeling looking at the footage, just an intense feeling of disgust along with horror. But disgust is how I'd categorize it. How interesting that you're in Japan. I'd be interested in hearing about the Jewish community there, if you have the time. Of course, I'm always interested in hearing how people ended up here and what their story is. Shoot me an email kvetching dot editor at gmail dot com.

And thanks for commenting and sharing your experience. Did you ever make it back to the museum in DC?

Batya said...

Amazing post. I must admit that I haven't been there and don't know if I ever will. I find the Yad Veshem in Jerusalem annoying, too rich, slick and afraid of the "m" word.

Did the Nazis murder Jews? Or did the Jews just "perish," like in a flood or earthquake?

Naomi Litvin said...

Thank you for this beautifully written piece. I cannot go to the USHMM because I have already lived, every day of my life, with the horrors as I am the daughter of a Hungarian survivor. I have run from the memories that have been ingrained in me since perhaps before I was born. With all the running I did, I ended up right back at square one, with my mother. We wrote a book about it, and got some healing from that. She is fragile now and I suppose I am stepping into her place to help keep her story alive. But it's a daunting responsibility and sometimes it makes me do things that are actually out of character for me. But I have accepted this and that is why I keep doing what I do.

Geneve said...

As child of a survivor, my mother never talked about it, and we were told that number on her arm was a phone number so when she was lost people would phone her father Dr. Glazer and surrender her back to his office. The only time my mother ever talked about it is when she committed suicide and left a note behind asking to be cremated and her ashes thrown on Dachau and Auschwitz. Yes we did against all of the Jewish laws and against hasham who stood by while six million of his chosen people were slaughtered and scarified before his alter. Today we are witnessing the same threats against Israel from a man who wants to inhalant the whole state of the Jewish people. I guess history is repeating itself.

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