Tuesday, April 20, 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.