Yad VaShem: The Israel Trip Part 5

Previously:
Part 1: I’m Not Sure Where to Start
Part 2: Shabbat in the Desert
Part 3: The Road to Jerusalem
This Post Is Brought to You by the Word ‘And’
Part 4: The Old City of Jerusalem

Blogroll: Erika ~ Scott ~ Arthur

Let Me Take You Back…

Long before I became a Jew by Choice, you see, I was a German by Choice. I took German in high school, fell instantly in love with the language, the culture, and immersed myself in both for the next decade of my life. I lived in Germany for two years, and most people I met there couldn’t tell I wasn’t a native speaker.

I was there during the eighties and nineties, during an opening of the German national heart — a decades-long, ongoing process, fraught but steady, of opening up to the atrocities of the past. The government built museums, academic institutes, and memorials on the sites of the many concentration camps on German soil.

I visited one of them, Bergen-Belsen, just after high school with my German host family. I remember that even though the site is surrounded by a forest, somehow the birds knew not to sing there. Low, blood-red bushes grew in the footprints of the long-vanished barracks. The people, my host family included, were silent, saddened, wandered the blighted ground like polite ghosts.

As I did at all the museums and sites over the next twenty years, I wandered with them.

Yad VaShem Museum

Not This Time

We entered the museum and I felt numb. I just didn’t want to be there, bumping elbows with other visitors in the dark, cramped spaces at the start of the main hall — which, at the beginning, is all about Germany in the years leading up to the deportations and killings.

I wanted to go out and party on Ben Yehuda street or something. Eat. Drink. Feel alive. Anywhere but there.

Exhibit after exhibit. Numb.

But then I started to linger on individual stories. My steps slowed, weighed down by grief and morbid fascination. “How do they expect me to move through this place?” I wrote later in my journal. “How do they expect me to put one foot in front of the other? How can I not stand in front of one picture, one story, and stay there?”

The videotaped survivor interviews grabbed me. I listened to elderly European Jews relating their stories in Hebrew, which I’d never experienced before. I could understand much of what they were saying and was utterly drawn in by their linguistic defiance. As old as they are in the videos, as blessed with children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, they talk of the last time they saw their mothers and fathers and cry like little kids.

The View from Yad VaShem, by Greg Barman

The View from Yad VaShem, by Greg Barman

We went in all laughs, like we’d been since breakfast, and came out silent at the top of the slow climb out of hell, looking out over the beautiful hills of West Jerusalem. Trees. Houses. A highway. That finally brought the tears on.

“There’s anger here,” I wrote later. “Anger at being forgotten, left to die. Anger and being locked out, shut out, even after all the killing was over. And defiance. All those stubborn little suburbs on disputed land, prosperous little red roofs sheltering the descendants of people who were simply thrown away.”

I Wept the Rest of the Way

Yad Vashem MemorialIt hit me in the hall that contains the actual memorial, ashes and other remains retrieved from the death camps of Europe, from exhumed mass graves — buried under a massive slab of black rock with the names of the camps carved on them in Hebrew and Roman letters.

For the first time, I cried for myself, for the part of me, the Jew, buried there with them.

We gathered briefly outside to talk about what else there was at Yad VaShem, where we were going from there, and that’s when I heard about the children. Ran, our tour guide, told us we were going into a space where we would hear the names of children read aloud, along with their ages and countries of origin.

“Please, G-d,” I thought to myself. “Not the children.”

It’s dark inside the children’s memorial. The only light comes from little lamps suspended in a maze of mirrors — hundreds, maybe thousands of little reflections hanging in empty space along with black and white photographs.

Maybe the images rotated, maybe they stayed the same. I just don’t know.

I couldn’t bring myself to look at them. I heard the names being read aloud, but I couldn’t understand them. I staggered through the dark, sobbing.

Ma & MeEvery name was a gashing wound whose pain I recognized instantly, perfectly.

It was the pain of the little boy in me who lost his mother.

Somehow I moved my feet and made it out. I tried to not let everyone see how hard I was sobbing, but I imagine I blew my nose often enough to give it away. Brian had taken note of one of the children’s names.

Yudith Honig, twelve, Belarus. 

Outside We Prayed Together

We read a translation of Psalm 90 from Sha’ar Zahav, the mostly GLBTQ community in San Francisco:

G-d, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were born, or the earth and world brought forth, through all time and space, You are G-d.

You turn us from You and we are destroyed; or You can call: Return, My human family.

For a thousand years in Your sight are as yesterday when it is passed, or as a watch in the night.

You sweep us away with a flood of years; we are like a dream at daybreak.

We are like the grass which grows; tall and flourishing in the morning, cut and withered when evening comes.

For the years of our lives are few; we spend our youth seeking adulthood, and our age seeking youth, but we are soon cut off, and we fly away.

Teach us to number our days, that our hearts may grow wise.

Let Your servants understand Your work, and share in Your glory.

And may the beauty of the Eternal be upon us, and upon our deeds; may G-d grant that our deeds deserve to endure.

And this recollection from a gay survivor, which recalls that not everyone who survived made it out of the camps…

Through six years– but no, the camps were beyond time;
Through forever, when I was sure
The Nazis ruled heaven and earth–
For if not, where was the power of heaven?
Where the decent people of earth?–
I survived.
When they cam to free us it hardly mattered to me.
The ones to whom things still mattered had died long ago.
But we walked out the gate
And they gave us food–
That mattered–
And then they processed us again.
And we were to receive money and help in relocating;
But then I saw the few left of the men with the lavender triangles:
They had been separated out;
They would go back to the camps,
For they were not political inmates;
They were, as all civilized people knew,
Criminals,
And the Nazi government rightfully put them in the camps.
Then I knew where the nations had been,
And how much they cared for the pain of the different.

I wish I had some insight to share with you, some way I found to make sense of it all. But I don’t, naturally. No one does. From the same author comes this line:

May G-d’s name be praised
Though what we praise is beyond our comprehending.

Next Up: Meeting the GLBTQ Movers and Shakers of Jerusalem.

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3 Responses to Yad VaShem: The Israel Trip Part 5

  1. rachel bar says:

    This post was heartbreaking. I was there with you. This – “For the first time, I cried for myself, for the part of me, the Jew, buried there with them.” – is the essence.

  2. Paul Oakley says:

    Michael, my partner Walter and I went to Yad Vashem in the summer of 1990 when I was 30 and he 60. Your description of the emotion you experienced in the children’s memorial brought it all flooding back. The lamps and mirrors effect was itself physically disorienting; at times I was approaching vertigo. I couldn’t tell whether I was upright or leaning, walking on the earth or shuffling through the air. I was constantly on the verge of falling. And in that atmosphere of disorientation the reading of the names sliced into the consciousness and stabbed the heart. We, too, sobbed.

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