I guess enough time has passed, because it’s back again. On my mind, creeping into late night thoughts, presenting itself in my first visions when waking. Sometimes it returns because of something I saw on television; other times, a book I’m reading. If I watch a movie, like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”, it can take several weeks to shut down my brain.
I don’t know why I’ve always felt this connection to the Holocaust. As I get older, I don’t think about it as much. I no longer imagine the gas chambers when first entering a shower like I did when younger. I’ve read so much by now, seen so many photos, explored the history of Germany’s culpability….how and why her people were able to not only turn a blind eye to genocide but in most cases actively help perpetuate it…..that I only return to it every so often. When “it” happens, I feel a cloud, guilt, and a deep depression that the evil which occurred is still within some humans; the propensity to hate and to discard humanity still out there, in full view.
It could’ve begun within me, in the womb. One of the people who knows me best, my best friend from college, jokes that I must’ve been a Polish Jew in a past life. Another teases me, although the teasing leaves a sour taste, saying I obsess over the Holocaust because maybe I was actually a Nazi. I think it’s more simple than this. I think it began with my DNA, something unique to my person, and with the White City Library when I was in the 3rd grade.
We would walk together as a class the four blocks to our small town’s library. I loved this building, made of large stone squares. It was my favorite structure in town. The steep stone steps seemed huge and I felt like a Very Important Person each time I entered. The smell was familiar, as well as the quiet, the old-school card catalog and the stamp Frankie the Librarian used. These were things I would wrap myself in, a special place right in the middle of our small village. I thought it must be glamorous to work there and couldn’t imagine always having so many books surrounding me every day.
It was here, while the other kids were in the basement picking through age appropriate books, that I found myself alone in the small non-fiction section on the main floor every single visit. The book was always there, easy to spot if you knew what to look for; hard back, thin, no sleeve, old and rough. I’ve wracked my brain, but cannot remember the exact title. It was something like “We Must Never Forget” and it was filled with photos. Black and white stills of the Holocaust, photos that to this day sear my memory as they did back in 1979. I never checked out the book, was afraid I’d be told “no”, as if the book was something racy I could get into trouble for reading. Only there really were few words. This was a photographic record of the horrors.
The one page I cannot forget is a series of four photos. A man, probably middle-aged but who looks as if he is seventy, sits in a glass box. He was an experiment. The test involved high pressure, to see how much pressure a pilot could take before….well, before. The man has no expression through the first two photos. By the fourth, I thought I could feel the pain in his head; I could physically see it in his face, his eyes. I never shared this book with anyone else. It wasn’t a macabre “Oh you’ve got to see this!” type of book in my young opinion. It was as if I knew I needed to know about this secret because I could never be fully enlightened in life if I ignored it. The fact that it was a book, in a library, seemed too poignant and ironic, since the Third Reich began burning books in order to darken the veil.
It wasn’t long after I found this book that I began reading Corrie Ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place”. It fit perfectly with my spiritual mindset at the time and with my newfound curiosity about the Holocaust. It was my first introduction to Ravensbruck and the violence of the camps. Around that time, a film adaptation was made and long after I’d gone to bed after watching it, I found myself silently crying, unable to erase the vision of an old woman in the film whose hands were crushed for smuggling food to camp Jews.
I was probably too young. But, then, I think maybe not. Sometimes, when reading book reviews of novels that deal with this topic, I see someone write something like “the Holocaust theme has been done before and is tiring to a reader” or “frustrated with a topic that has been told so many times before”. I think to myself, maybe these people should’ve been impacted from an early age with exposure to the horror. How can something so awful, so indescribable, be spoken of too many times?
Regardless, it did impact me. It began with showers. I would imagine closing my eyes and feeling not water, but an acrid smell burning my nostrils, throat, eyes and lungs. I’ve cried most tears over the Holocaust in the shower. It doesn’t happen as often anymore and I’ve learned to shut down the thoughts as quickly as they begin; unless, as stated earlier, I’ve had recent exposure via print or video.
I’ve always saved small things, like sugar packets. Not because I can’t go to the store and buy more sugar and not because I was raised by Depression era grandparents, but because the small amount within those tiny little packets would’ve been worth its weight in gold in Lodz or Warsaw. We carelessly discard something so trivial, so infinitesimal, something that could’ve been traded for a piece of bread from a starving person. I’m the same with socks that have holes, knit gloves that are unthreading….and whenever I leave the house just to drop off one of our children, I briefly consider the shoes I’m wearing and whether or not they would protect my feet if I had to walk a long distance unexpectedly.
Living in Kansas, there is always the threat of tornadoes. Have you ever thought about what you would grab first if you had to rush to the basement? I’ve thought about what I’d grab first if armed men came to the door and made us leave, allowing us only a small bag. You see, in my heart, my deepest and most vulnerable heart, I know it could happen. It didn’t just happen in Germany or Poland. It has happened in Somalia. In Croatia. In Iran. It is still happening today.
Before you roll your eyes, I understand that I’m not normal and that I might sound cliché to some. You see, though, I don’t care because there has got to be a reason I carry this. This is what it is like for me: I see the murdered men, women, and children as if they were at the end of a zoom lens. Imagine a massively powerful telescope in space, looking down on earth. The earth is like that number we all know: six million (and more). As the lens zooms in, we see 1 million, then 1 thousand, then 1 hundred…..until, at the very end of that lens, there is a baby and her mother lying in a pit, awash with blood, while the mother sings to the baby before a bullet ends the song. The mother and the baby each had names. They were each loved. Each of them had a story, a community, a family, hopes, dreams, fears, and souls.
Each of these individuals is why I find myself overcome when I think of the horror of that time. It’s why I look around my neighborhood and wonder who would be willing to help and who would quietly look the other way, including myself. Some, I’m certain, would be whistlers. As a child, I looked at my grandparents and knew that if they had been Jewish in 1940, they would’ve been turned left after leaving the train because they were old. My cousin Rachael, with a disease that has ravaged her body, also would’ve been turned left. My Uncle David and his two daughters would’ve worn the yellow star, simply because they carried Jewish blood while my Aunt Steph, a convert and devout Jew but not Jewish by birth or blood, would’ve been spared the star.
I don’t know what to do with this and I can’t pretend to understand why I cannot shed it, even after almost forty years . I’ve never known what to do with it. Family and friends think it’s cute and odd and they look at me with affection when I bring up the subject but they cannot really know that it isn’t cute when I move into those dark moments where, after dwelling in my mind, I can’t breathe. I didn’t even go through it. No one in my family went through it. I’m not even Jewish. I’ve never been starved or beaten. I only feel what I feel because someone took the time to write about it. So tell me, reader, what do I do with this?
I guess, in a small way, it is important for people who are affected more deeply by these things to share what we feel, to remind others that they must think about what happened every so often. That they must make the connection between what happened then and what continues to happen in other places; what could even happen again in their own country if we are not careful…..if we do not take the time to zoom in and remember each and every face, our own humanity.
I didn’t plan to write this today, but for some reason cannot stop. Today was my Uncle David’s birthday. His grandmother was a Russian Jew, his children and grandchildren Jewish. My cousin’s son Simon became a Bar Mitzvah two years ago and he has embraced his culture and religion with sincerity and devotion. I love this young boy and know that his grandfather would be so proud, so touched, that he understands the thread he sustains and immortalizes willingly. He is evidence that good grows, even in the face of evil.
Simon is preparing now for his confirmation, which is the decision of young adults to embrace Jewish study in their lives and reaffirm their commitment to the Covenant. Simon will represent "the first fruits of each year's harvest” and the hope and promise of tomorrow. More than this, he represents an entire race that not only survived, but has thrived and grown in the face of man’s most base sin.
I began this trying to find a way out the darkness that sometimes rears its ugly head. After all, that is why I write, if only to get it out and try to move on. In doing so, I find that I’ve come full circle. Today, I will replace the visions of death with memories of a special uncle and his birthday. ……..and of a young boy’s light that burns brightly. A light that represents every Jewish spirit that was extinguished. A light that represents growth, continuity, history, life, and hope.
I love you Simon, and I miss your grandfather. He would be proud.