Growing up in a generation hungry to listen to Holocaust survivors, to go to the Museum of Tolerance, to speak openly and to learn historically what occurred, I grew to relate to the Holocaust as a weakness. I viewed the tagline of “Never Again” as a comforting lie we tell ourselves – “of course it will happen again; it’s happening right now in Darfur!” My desire to be a strong and proud Jew didn’t allow me to connect entirely to the inaction of stories told to me. I was affected, but at a shallow level that washed away within the hour. Even this year in seminary, as Vicky teaches us the specifics of the ghettos and camps, the residue of her words leave nothing.
But standing in a gas chamber changes everything. Feeling suffocated by my tears as I walk out of a room that my people didn’t walk out of, wearing the flag of Israel as a representation of our survival, singing Hebrew songs crying out to the god that abandoned us; the complex array of emotions are impossible to tally up.
The anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising claims the attention of tv and radio stations today: Yom Hashoa, the Remembrance Day for the Holocaust. Standing at a street corner in Jerusalem, I witness a city stopping- no a country stopping- every person standing next to their car, every conversation paused. The one minute siren at 10am doesn’t just exclaim a mindfulness of history, it unites us in a conquest over Hitler’s slashed plans, a pledge of faithfulness to this system of being a Jew, and a reconfirmation of our established state that fulfills our nationhood.
Walking through Polish neighborhoods, I consider what the elderly people were doing at the time and who originally lived in their homes.The total destruction of Treblinka leaves no evidence of the mechanized death, except for the memorials and train tracks that we walk shivering in the snow. The nameless 800 children smashed into the Zbilatowska Gora mass grave, the millions of shoes at Madjanek, the Warsaw cemetery that displays the life accomplishments and identities that were lived; my eyesight blurs with tears and my state of balance wavers from the information swimming around me.
The question of how the Holocaust happened doesn’t faze me. The same way I shoo the pidgin that was chilling in my dorm room out from the place he doesn’t belong, so did the Germans. And the Poles were plenty happy to serve the cleansing process. It’s not even why god let it happen. I think our relationship with our creator allows for excess free choice. The question that keeps me up lies in the definition of our covenant with god and our role as his people. Is this just the expected pattern and we should be waiting for the next one? If god has clearly walked away from being an overprotective parent, what do my tefillot mean to him, or for that matter to me? Are we born into this system of Judaism that calls on us to perform rituals knowing that even if I die as an individual, the nation will continue?
During Shabbat at Krakow, I meet Malka. An adorable college international relations student at the University of Krakow, Malka doesn’t “look” Jewish with her blonde hair and therefore she practices her Judaism hushed. As we get to know each other more throughout the weekend, our conversations hit intense notions of the beauty found through struggling in life. Yisrael does mean “to struggle with god” anyway. Malka understands the excellence in trying to be as Jewish as possible. She personifies the only true answer to my questions: live anyways. Live for the Jews that weren’t able to question, to dance, to create a Jewish family. Our promise with god didn’t say it was going to easy. Our agreement with god directs our survival through scraping by in these hardships and finding meaning in the daily tasks he laid out for us.
I have not figured out the Holocaust. I have not related to every story, nor detached from my love of strong Jews. I have however discovered the connectivity to the emotions of being a Jew in a nation of Jews. I am part of Am Yisrael and for the first time truly understand the definition of being a nation. I am never going to feel fulfilled by an answer to the Holocaust, but I will always celebrate the way those Jews lived holding onto Halacha and unifying. I will honor them by living a Jewish life and by continuing the work that was stolen from them. I will always struggle, but with pride.