A full year has passed.
Visiting the places I did had toxic consequences. Some were short-lived and many continue to plague me, a year later. It is not so much that those places are cursed, iridescent sunlit forests where children were thrown into pits and shot one by one, wide green fields where twenty thousand unearthed bodies were thrown onto metal bars and burned. It is more the cool contempt for human life practiced in those places that disease the human psyche. The influence is slow and sick, an emotional gangrene, where one begins to feel apathetic towards being alive.
It’s psychological torture. For example, my whole life I was taught that G-d loves the Jewish people. Reading former sonderkommando, Jankiel Wiernik’s, account of Treblinka, recounting how opening the gas chambers doors, he found suffocated mothers and children standing, holding each other, and other scenes I have left out for the sake of your sanity, I began to lose my mind.
Then it began.
The questions, the maddening lack of answers. The hurt in thinking I’ve been lied to, living a ferociously dedicated life as a G-d fearing Jewish woman, when all roads in Auschwitz lead to no G-d at all. The guilt after feeling that way. The running to a corner and crying, “maybe I’ve lost it.” The opening of a siddur, desperate to feel heard. The immediate thought that perhaps for once I can accept that I am speaking to no one at all. Betrayed by G-d if He exists, betrayed by my parents, friends, family, and school if He doesn’t. Lashing out at the people around me as the concentration camps afflicted my very soul. Walking through a quaint, beautiful town, thinking, “finally a break.” Learning quickly that there are no breaks in Poland, that two thousand Jews were rounded up in the Synagogue ahead of me and burned alive as the whole city listened to their bloodcurdling screeches. The dizzying spirals of questions, of gasps and gags, my mind whirling in grand circles of disbelief. Running again, to a corner, weeping, realizing I’ve truly lost it. The guilt as I get dressed for Shabbos. Climbing into the car and driving to Hitler’s home where he grew up. Crawling into bed and begging my mind to let me be. Thinking about breaking Shabbos to return the neglect and betrayal. The incessant “How can this have happened.” And finally, defeat, as I accept G-d is real, He is Truth and I’ll never have His answer. Then not wanting an answer even if G-d lifted me to his Heavenly Chambers to tell me why, tell me how, tell me what for, for nothing can make children skipping unknowingly to their death a good thing.
So life began to matter less. In a matter of minutes the process began, and within a few days, was in full swing.
It would be so satisfying to end here, the way a very strong, sad part of me wants to. To give you a glimpse into true emotional and spiritual turmoil. To leave this piece depressing, with nothing redemptive to lift your spirits. Just an outraged twenty-year-old parading her rage after seeing candles at Hitler’s parents grave, who met a girl in Venice who’s high school banned all holocaust education classes. Who almost killed the man who took a brick from Hitler’s home, hiding it beneath his jacket as he walked to his car (calm down, I didn’t go through with it). Who strolled through a shtetl in the rolling hills of Poland, following the map to a historical two-story Synagogue. Who learned that the Nazis traveled four days to sniff out those two thousand happy Jews nestled in those rolling hills of Poland. Who read that every single one of those two thousand happy Jews that attended that two-story Synagogue was massacred a mile away. Who had the locals stare at her quizzically. Who felt red hot boiling hatred, pulsating with her every heartbeat, wanting to ask them what they had to do with this, who needed someone to blame. Who held herself back from yelling that we were here first, that they’re living in stolen Jewish property. Who knew that her reaction was inappropriate and out of line, but for G-d’s sake, someone needed to be punished.
But I won’t end it that way. That would be a cop out, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, has taught me better.
So I present to you a story, the balm with which I have soothed my burning wounds of Eastern Europe.
He had a long white braid and wide blue eyes. I stood leaning against the wall in the Galicia Jewish Museum observing as he spoke to people walking by. Waiting impatiently for a moment alone, I stopped him, “Hi, how are you, I’m the Rabbi’s daughter.”
I paused, afraid the violent fits of weeping might begin again.
“I know you’re busy, but I would really appreciate if you would answer one question for me.”
He simply stared at me,
“I see you’re wearing a kipa,” I glance at the six numbered tattoo on his arm, “but tell me please, how can you believe in G-d, at least a G-d that is good, after Auschwitz?”
Smiling, he took a deep breath and leaned his face close to mine. “I don’t believe in the G-d that most people believe in. I believe that G-d is much more accepting and kind than most do. I don’t think he’s waiting to mete out punishment all day. He is a kinder, more loving G-d than we know.”
With that, he widened his eyes, smiled big, and was off. To this day, so much of what I do is dependent on those words, my faith hanging by a thread. Although the thread is small and simple, it is strong and it is true, powerful enough to move worlds. I am eternally grateful to that man, and his words, to the extent that they could, healed my subterranean brokenness.
After Majdanek, Auschwitz, Auschwitz – Birkenau, Sachsenhausen, Treblinka, and Mauthausen. After Hitler’s childhood home, and his parents’ graves. After seeing the couch his father died on in a bar that’s still open seven days a week (the beer is half off during happy hour). After the Berghof, the Eagles Nest nestled in the Bavarian Alps, the Wannsee Mansion, home to the final solution, the Konigssee, where Hitler and Eva frolicked in clear green waters, the room where Hitler was born in Braunau Am Inn, the church he attended, the art school he failed to get into. After walking the ghostly halls of Yeshiva Lublin, which will haunt me for the rest of my days. After the muffled moans of the mass graves beneath the green grass of Warsaws’ city parks. After Germany, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, oh Poland! After the Warsaw ghetto, the Lodz ghetto, Krakow Ghetto, Lublin Ghetto, Kovno Ghetto, Lvov Ghetto, Bialystok ghetto. After Umschlagplatz, and Milla 18. After walking over the rubble graves of Mordechai Anielewicz and over 100 Warsaw Ghetto resistance fighters, who lie silently where they fell. After standing in the spot where Chaim Rumkowski stood as he delivered the most harrowing speech in the history of mankind (“Give me your children!”), after witnessing the humiliation of my people, the death of too many to bear, the ashes that once lived and laughed, I booked a ticket and went home.
After losing myself for three weeks, I met up with Me, walking out of Ben Gurion Airport. Looking around, I found myself deeply in love with and attached to everyone around me. The people coming my way, passing me, staring at me, smoking outside, rushing with their bags to catch a flight, hugging their families goodbye. I welcomed the yells of the Sheirut driver as he told me to pay up.
I was with my people and I was revived.
At that moment, I felt I could finally understand why Moses defied G-d to His face, “And now, lift their sin, and if not, erase me please from Your book that You wrote”, demanding their relationship be terminated if He harmed the Jewish people. Why he defended our honor when we truly had nothing to show for ourselves, giving sloppy excuses like “But the Egyptians will hear…Since the Lord lacked the ability to bring this nation to the Land which He swore to them, He slaughtered them in the desert.” I sat there wide-eyed grasping why the Lubavitcher Rebbe stood outside six hours a day giving out dollars. Why he requested no one touch the hundreds of letters he received daily and answered them all personally. Why my sister drove two hours to Hawaiian army bases to teach young Jewish girls what it means to be a bat mitzvah. Why my twenty-year-old mother served chicken soup to two hundred Oxford University students every Friday night for eleven years. Why for two years my eldest brother, clad in his hat and jacket, left home to teach Torah in Germany because no Jew gets left behind. Why my parents put their heart and soul into raising nine children to respect and care for every human being, and know that their life is our life.
We’re here to care for each other.
I often think about how many problems G-d doesn’t have. How He really doesn’t have much to do all day if you really think about it. No bills to pay, no health concerns, no parents to apologize to, siblings to make up with.
And yet, “Behold, G-d Himself stands over him”.
It is you that takes up His time. He is watching your every move, He listens intently to your every thought. He waits for you to live the goodness that is the true you. Your actions are that important to Him. That you are kind and accepting. That you are gracious and sensitive. That you are like Him like that man told me in Poland.
And although couples counseling hasn’t finished, I left Eastern Europe with a gift I didn’t have when I arrived. I have been granted true vision. I now see flashes of what He sees in the people around me. That every person is a world in themselves, and that that is how I must look at them. That every human being is infinite as G-d Himself. That we are a single entity and my thoughts, speech and actions directly affect the limbs of our colossal, eternal body.
And with that vision He has granted me, I have vowed that never again will it take death and tragedy to make me love others as I love myself, that I must practice, perhaps for the whole of my life, to see in others what G-d sees.
It has been a year since the stench of death and G-dlesness and sickness and loneliness snaked through my nostrils, and I am alive with the force of Moses splitting the seas. I am shaking with the fire of Elijah the prophet as he thundered truth on Mount Carmel. I am ablaze with the might of Samson, laying his trust in G-d alone. I am as sure as Daniel in the lion’s den. I am as focused as David, slingshot in hand. I am as heartbroken as Job at the injustice in the world, and as determined as my Rebbe, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, to stop it.
Boarding the plane in Germany, crying like a baby, wondering how many Jews I was leaving behind is a memory I would like to forget forever. I would like to meet our six million who were stolen from us and tell them how much we’ve missed them, how seventy years was way too long for them to come back. I want Moshiach to come, because this long, is too long. I know, I know for certain, that the day will come when “Death will be swallowed up forever, and G-d will wipe the tears off every face” when this will all be but a faint nightmare, and “the whole world will know that there is a G-d in Israel.”