Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Shoah and Chavi.

After finally getting Netflix to actually stream on my computer, I got busy watching movies. One of the first I picked up was "Hiding and Seeking," a film about a father who takes his two grown Orthodox sons to Poland to meet the family that hid their grandfather during the Shoah. The father is worried that his sons focus too much on ignoring and pushing away the "outside world." The movie opens with a powerful playback of dialog from what I assume must be a famous Orthodox rabbi spouting off the necessity to cast out the goyim (which, in truth, means "nation" in Hebrew, but has come to mean Gentiles). The rabbi on the tape has some unpleasant things to say about goyim, and thus begins the adventure of the father seeking out what his sons think about the outside world.

It wasn't exactly what I expected it to be, but it was truly breathtaking in its honesty. There is no special production or anything involved, but rather the clips are choppy and the footage is shaky. It is, in truth, a true journey into the acts of righteous Gentiles and the survivors and their families. The movie has moments that caught me completely off guard, leaving me wondering whether righteous Gentiles -- in some cases -- are truly that, or whether motives go beyond simply "doing the right thing." The movie ends with a sobering quote from one of the Orthodox sons, that sadly in some ways rings true.

The thing about this movie is that it shows how fleeting these memories are. Shoah survivors are becoming fewer and fewer in number. I remember when my grandfather died last year I thought to myself, so few Pearl Harbor survivors remain ... what will become of their memory? The movie goes to great lengths to provide the idea that the efforts are meant to keep a memory alive in the generations of survivors. Grandchildren and children are meant to hold the memory, tell the stories, and help pass along the message of such horrid times.

In my efforts to connect with the Shoah, though, this movie is yet another reminder that the direct link is not there. I have no family, no connection, no history with the Shoah. It brings me to my knees and makes me weep, without fail, every time. Its stories and images are emblazoned on my mind in ways that I cannot describe, in ways that even my own personal tragedies cannot comprehend. The collective memory is something that I am now a part of preserving, and movies like this make me desperate to understand and explore the stories that are available. I spent a great deal of time avoiding the Shoah, simply because it is a subject that is so large, so vast, that one could spend an entire lifetime grasping for, and yet never truly understand. The social, emotional, cultural and spiritual implications of such a catastrophe are so despair-inducing, it's difficult to spend more than moments focusing on at once. Where was G-d? Where were the miracles? Where was G-d?

I find it deeply saddening that something so close feels so far away. As each survivor passes away, I worry about that memory. I worry about the cries of "Never Again," even as genocides around the world persist. I find it so hard to connect, to truly connect, that I sometimes wonder if my tears are truly enough. I also hope -- desperately, with all of my heart and mind -- that in my lifetime and in my children's lifetime and in my children's children's lifetime and so on, that such horror will never again occur. There need not be martyrs.

But in a way, I know the feeling of never having known someone. The mystery that surrounds their loss and the despair that is felt when you have no memories, not even memories from your family. With this, I will mark the yahrzeit of my grandmother -- my father's mother. She died 46 years ago of cancer (on Jan. 20 or 15 of Sh'vat, which also happens to be Tu B'Sh'vat, the minor holiday for the new year for trees). My father was only nine years old, and I, like he, would never know his mother. What kind of woman she was or what kind of woman she would be. Whether she would have more children, whether she would cradle her grandbabies in her arms while singing lullabies. Whether she had stories about her parents and their parents. Stories of a lineage long and true. Unique in all of it's manners and details.

I understand what it means to have an empty, curious spot in my lineage. A puff of smoke where a name and photos should be. But I also know that this is not the same, and each day I search the six million for a way to connect. On any other day I have a million and one reasons and ways in which I connect to Judaism and the Jewish people and the collective memory. But the Shoah is one way in which I will spend moments, hours, weeks, months and perhaps the whole of my lifetime, trying to connect to. There are six million stories, and I am but one person, but I have known emptiness and the ghost of a branch on my family's wide-reaching expanse of a tree.