I have been to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, twice in my life.
Age sixteen, I am taking part in a tour of Israel along with eighty other Jewish teenagers.
We have already visited Poland, took the bust to Auschwitz as it still stands in its museum, entered the camp at the site of the iconic train tracks, the same tracks that surrendered our families onto the undesirable grassland of Hitler’s largest death camp.
I do not really know what is happening.
On the surface I understand, where I am, why I am here.
Internally, I am confused, obsessively depressed and distracted by social anxiety. I am a teenager and therefore categorically empathetically inept.
I keep a diary during the trip. In my notes I declare my experience “annoying”, describing the other kids as “clumped together and hugging” as if their conventional sense of emotion is offensive to my complete lack of social grip.
Superficially these notes may read like the diary of a sociopath but hindsight illuminates the diary as a necessary numbing agent. At the time, during that trip, an entire month where I worried firstly about my own social alienation, where I felt great shame for not having my experience fit into the obvious spectrum of emotional Jewish reactions to Auschwitz, anxious note taking became a protective measure against facing the RIGHT HERE evidence that the world turned its back on The Jewish People, me, my family, stacked us into piles and waited for us to die.
Mistakenly, I refused not want to focus on the misery of my lineage. I was already depressed, the last thing I wanted to do was remember the hatred, threats, depletion, unceremonious existence. All I really wanted was to get through the day without crying. And, if my day involved a march through Auschwitz with a bunch of people who need hugs? Stare at something external and let my mind obsess over the world as if I am not a part of it.
I remember very little from my teenage visit to Poland. I missed the point.
I was challenged to exorcise the value of a historical monument at a time when I felt valueless. I numbed myself. Standing in the very place where my family suffered, I refused to suffer. Not for stoicism. For shame.
At age sixteen, the topic of The Holocaust was already well established in my psyche.
I grew up in a Jewish community. Practically everyone I knew had grandparents who survived the Holocaust. I had heard their stories and the stories of my own Bubie and Zeidy.
Our Jewish schools made sure to educate us on the wrongdoings of Hitler and history in general. It is uncomfortable to admit the effect of my education. In a way, we were desensitized to the details of The Shoah (Hebrew for The Holocaust). Nothing was shocking: Gas chambers, crematoriums, piles of dead bodies, these nightmarish details are the facts of our roots, they run through our blood, anguish is our ancestry. A walk through Auschwitz on a nice day? At that age, with my disposition, it was just an unfortunate mundanity.
I Had To Acknowledge History, Stare At It And See It, In Order To Gain Empathy For My Own Ancestry
No one can force you to take a look at yourself and try to relax every little thing you refuse, you swear you will never, you hate, you can’t stand, just relax your opinion, attitude, expectations and be Here.
No one will ever force you to come Here.
We all stand in denial of the facts that threaten our survival.
To deny that we were once victims is to deny that I am a victim is to assume that I have strength.
But, I cannot gain strength until I learn from danger.
I can numb myself from my Jewish identity but here I am: Jewish. If someone were to show up today and threaten the lives of all Jews, that’s me and that threat will look like This like Auschwitz, look around and if you don’t know the name for the feeling it gives you that’s fine but don’t be numb, you can’t numb history.
My Zeidy had a story about a friend of his that he told me more than once: On a march from one camp to the next, they had been on foot “for months” and people were dropping dead as they were marching. His friend beside him was a little weak and all of a sudden (Zeidy claps his hands) he gets shot in the back and “I had to keep walking. I just stepped right over him. I remember. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Zeidy always talked about The Shoah “like it was yesterday”.
He remembers it, fifty, sixty, seventy or so years until the end of his life, he remembers those experiences just as if they were yesterday, as if nothing else happened between then and now, as if the sound of your friend getting shot, dropping to the ground and losing strength in his limbs, his neck, his lungs, as if that just happened, just yesterday and then you walked over his body and kept marching in the snow freezing cold wearing basically pyjamas starving hungry and no insight, no clue as to where you are going, when can you go home or why, why do you even keep walking? Why don’t you give up?
At sixteen years old, I am scribbling in a notebook about the other teenagers who are probably thinking about their grandparents and I wasn’t numb, of course I am not numb, I am thinking about the unknowns, how is this real?
None of this is real, right? Zeidy was here? He was right HERE? And Bubie? Was HERE? Sleeping in these little wooden slots? You’re telling me that THIS is where they were taken? And right over there is where my Zeidy saw his mother for the last time? RIGHT THERE? Why? Why would anyone make them do that? Why? No no no no don’t think about the unknown, don’t cry, don’t. Because there is no answer. The only way we survived those fields, those barracks, is by not asking questions. Don’t. Ask. Why. Don’t do it. Put your head down. Numb.
Here’s the problem: Jewish people love asking questions. Jewish tradition, rabbinical discourse, is filled with questions. But why?
Why did Hashem tell Moses to take off his shoes? Why did Hashem create plants on day three if they weren’t going to grow until Adam could water them on day six? Why isn’t shellfish kosher? Why is Shabbat on Saturday? We have questions about things and then we have questions about those questions and when all is said and done we rest assured that, no matter the conclusion to our discussion, we can reliably state some other question. We inquire, we persist, we enjoy not knowing and we trust that Hashem will know. But what about those times where you are sure that Hashem is either confused or not really watching anymore?
Consider for a second that the Eastern European Jewish prisoners of the Nazi camps, if they weren’t ever imprisoned, would have been living in their homes. Most of them practiced Judaism religiously. That was their life. Hashem was with them, they prayed, they ate, they washed and slept in Hashem’s honour. Everything was parochial and decidedly spiritual. And then. All of a sudden. Their beliefs were challenged.
I have heard many accounts of prayer in the camps. Of keeping holidays, Shabbat. And now I’m crying because non-adolescent Rachel is in extreme awe of survivorship.
Survivors are required to stop wondering. Survivors are those who deal with their immediate circumstances, no blaming, no crying, no you are not done yet. You believe, no questions. And of course when you do have a question, because questions are inevitable, you ask with the awareness that there will only ever be more questions.
At sixteen, I didn’t have the maturity to appreciate survival. I can see now that I was surviving a little every day but I was also under little-to-no threat.
I still feel that I slip into survival mode, sit quietly and observe fairly often. Maybe it’s an inherited instinct. Jewish survivorship is in me. But now I need to find a way to override my fear so that I can take advantage of my feelings in the present because somebody gave me this presence. Somebody survived enough to get here so that I can be here surviving further to give more so that someone else can continue.
My first visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem occurred directly after my visit to Poland on the same trip with the same kids. My diary tells me that I felt awkward walking through the museum alone while everyone else seemed to have social cliques. I numbed my way through but I remember my fear.
The second time I visited Yad Vashem was with my grandparents. My family took the most incredible trip back to Romania with my Bubie and Zeidy. We rode in a van, driven by a Hungarian man named Ishvan. We stayed in a barn run by a short one-eyed nice Romanian fellow named Boodie. We woke up to the sounds of roosters daily, drank black tar-like coffee and we met locals who offered to trade us fruits for our valuables (one banana for your pefume? No thank you). The trip was an obvious blessing after which we flew to Israel for ten days or so and visited the Yad Vashem memorial.
This time I walk through Yad Vashem with my Bubie.
She nods her head, swallowing constantly, gripping my arm, stopping at a photograph of the inside of a barrack. Prisoners begged the camera for freedom. Thin shoulders, string-like necks and gaunt faces peeking out, glaring at the lens, at the documenting SS officer, at us, Bubie sobs suddenly.
“They were such small spaces, Rachie” she says, sobbing and shaking, gripping my hand and I feel momentarily stuck there with her, piled in on wooden planks, the stench of prisoners, waiting.
I cry too.
Whoever hurt this little girl—
“Ok.” She says. She wipes her nose on a tissue. She stops crying and she tugs me away.