March 13, 2011: In Which I Depress Us All
Despite the fact that two people in our group celebrated their birthdays today, our day was sad and full of tears.
We left our Jerusalem hotel behind in the morning and made our way to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum.
I have visited the D.C. Holocaust Museum at least twice, so I was curious to see how the two compared. I absolutely love the D.C. museum---the major exhibit takes you through the timeline of the Holocaust by giving you an alternate identity of a holocaust victim (assigned based on your gender and relative age to be most similar to you); you get this person's life story in a little booklet that you read piecemeal, only learning their fate at the end of the exhibit. As a result of my background in DC, my expectations for the Israeli museum were somewhat low.
Of course, I ended up being very impressed and wowed by the Israeli museum.
Before even entering the museum, we were met with a sculpture whose meaning was so much sadder than its abstract structure would suggest:
The description of the sculpture:
It reads: On January 18, 1943, the Germans surrounded the Grodno ghetto in order to round up the Jews for deporation to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Frejdowicz family and friends hid in an attic. Three babies were not hidden for fear that their crying would expose the others. Grandfather Nahum Frejdowicz chose to stay with the babies---two of them his grandchildren---and together they were taken to their deaths. Dr. Felix Zandman is the only grandson of Nahum Frejdowicz who survived the Holocaust.
Once inside the museum, we watched a 45-minute video in which a survivor of Auschwitz told his story. This survivor was from a small village in Greece, and was deported along with his family---mother, father, and six sisters---to Auschwitz. Of his whole family, this man was the only one selected for work; everyone else was sent directly to the gas chambers to be killed. He escaped the crematorium himself several months later by sneaking into a factory job on the camp. One day he was in the middle of a terribly brutal beating, crying out for his mother, when a female prisoner walking by recognized his dialect. She somehow managed to put an end to the beating and was able to introduce herself---she was from his small Greek village, too! At that moment, he said, nothing hurt anymore. He just wanted to see her again. The two began to see each other in secret and they fell in love. He vowed to marry her if they both survived. Then he was transferred to a different camp.
After this man was eventually liberated, he went back to his village and regularly checked the growing registries of Jews returning home from the camps. He was looking for the names of his family, none of which ever appeared. He assumed his love had died, but then one day her name showed up on the list. They reunited and he proposed, but she refused to accept his proposal. She revealed that she'd been forcibly sterilized in the camp---at age 16---and could not provide him with the large family he would want. He swore he didn't want any children, and she demanded that he put this promise in writing in the Ketubah (the Jewish marriage contract), and then she would agree to be married. He did, and she did.
After their marriage, they moved into a cow shed in someone else's backyard. Soon after, his wife suspected that she'd caught a terrible disease from the woman who lived in the main house, where they used the shower. Why did she think this? Because her belly was becoming swollen, just like the woman in the main house. Only after going to a doctor did this woman learn the true story of what happened to her during her sterilization operation at the camp. Dr. Mengele kept a Jewish doctor on his "team" to operate on women when Mengele was unavailable, which periodically occurred. Something happened during this woman's surgery that drew Mengele away, so the Jewish doctor took over, and, as he always did, he sabotaged the surgery. Although the Jewish doctor was being supervised by Nazi soldiers, he removed only unimportant organs, leaving this woman still fertile while creating the impression for the soldiers that he was doing his job. (At one point, the doctor's deception was discovered and he was executed.)
Long story short: the survivors were pregnant! They went on to have two children and many grandchildren/great grandchildren. The man considers this a great victory over the Nazis.
After this video ended, there was not a dry eye in the room. We proceeded to the main museum on shaky knees.
The museum has been built underground. This seemed symbolic in many ways---the dead lie underground; many want to bury the Holocaust and forget about it; and when it was actually happening, it seemed to many countries to be out of sight and out of mind. The museum exhibits wind back and forth across a long tunnel. There is a light at the end of the tunnel at the exit, but there is no direct path there. You must endure the entire exhibit before you can be liberated from the museum.
I appreciated that the museum began its timeline much earlier than the DC museum. Yad Vashem started its story with historical anti-Semitic attitudes towards the Jews stemming all the way back to the death of Jesus. It also covered traditional Jewish Shetl life and Hilter's rise to power on a tide of anti-Semitic feelings leading to the inevitable "final solution" to the "Jewish Problem." (I was surprised to see that other countries adopted this language, too; in debating whether to accept Jewish refugees, a Canadian official remarked that Canana "currently does not have a Jewish Problem," so why would they want to take on someone else's?)
Israel's museum also extended its timeline beyond the Jews' liberation from the camps and addressed the survivors' efforts to regain control of their lives and find happiness once again. In one touching video testimonial, a woman told of her utter panic at learning that she was pregnant post-liberation. For her, the cries of a baby reminded her too much of the cries of babies murdered at Auschwitz. The prospect of hearing that sound again drove her to attempt to cause her own miscarriage. Fortunately, she did not succeed in this; her child was born healthy and she was able to appreciate the blessing. The role of her pregnancy contrasted sharply with the surprise pregnancy we heard about in our very first survivor video: for the first couple, the child was the ultimate rebellion and victory; for the second, the child carried its mother right back into the camp.
I was moved to tears by the story of a woman who volunteered to go on a death march, very close to her own liberation, just to protect her sister who was being forced to march. The two were forced to march 800 kilometers (almost 500 miles) over several months. For the last three weeks of the march, this woman carried her sister who had become too weak to walk. Eventually they were liberated from the march and hospitalized. This woman spent the night practically unconscious, unaware that her sister was dying, shouting for her all night. Her sister died in the hospital that night. I feel so protective of my sister, who was also with me on this trip, and this woman's story hit home for me somehow.
Of course, I can't recount every story or every exhibit. I will say that I ran my feet over the cobblestone street of the Warsaw Ghetto, walked under [a replica of] the iconic "Arbeit Mach Frei" sign that led into Auschwitz---I think I came up short with a heavy feeling of dread and deeply-ingrained terror upon turning a corner and seeing that sign---and stood in a chamber housing thousands of binders stacked on shelves three stories high containing the names of a mere fraction, 4.5 million, of the Jews murdered.
Hall of Names. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Two things I was most surprised to learn about the Holocaust (a subject I considered myself pretty knowledgable about):
1. The Nazis operated several death camps, which only consisted of gas chambers. A Nazi official was quoted as saying of these camps that the "law" there was that "those being sent to their deaths should be deceived to the very end." Some camps even went so far as to hand out "receipts" to the Jews after they were forced to strip off all their clothing and valuables (they were sent to the gas chambers naked). The Jews were admonished to hold onto their receipts so that they could collect their belongings after their "shower." The Nazis did this knowing that people would obey them if there was some illusion of survival, rather than seeing their certain death and fighting to survive. All of these deceptions taken together help me understand why people didn't fight back with more frequency and in greater numbers. I truly believe that if the Jews and other Holocaust victims knew what was in store for them, they would have more consistently rebelled. Instead, they believed the Nazi's promise that their train ticket would take them to a new Jewish settlement, a government-sponsored apartment, and a stipend. They knew the alternative to getting in the cattle cars was being shot on the platform. What could be done when hope shone before them like the light at the end of a tunnel?
2. Some of the Holocaust survivors were killed by anti-Semitic neighbors upon their return from the camps. This infuriated me. I cannot imagine what it would be like to survive the atrocities of the Holocaust only to return home and be accused of blood libel, then be beaten to death by your neighbors. 42 Holocaust survivors were killed this way in just one town.
I was particularly struck and saddened by the number of comments our tour guide made about how fill-in-the-blank artifact proves that the Holocaust did in fact happen. I don't remember hearing any focus in D.C. on convincing the museum goers that the Holocaust was not made up. While I know there are people in the U.S. who deny the Holocaust, the fact that these affirmations were such a persistent part of our Israeli tour reminded me that Holocaust denial is alive and well; perhaps not in Israel but certainly among their tourists and elsewhere in the Middle East. (See, e.g., Iran, whose president called the Holocaust "a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim.")
We emerged from our three-hour tour of the exhibit onto a large, shady patio overlooking the rolling green hills of Jerusalem. The design choice was very purposeful. In that moment, I understood much better the argument I have heard my whole life for the importance of a Jewish state: its existence ensures that Jews will have at least one respite, one safe place in this world, to flee from persecution. I realize how much that sounds like propaganda, and I think it is, but I did truly feel and believe that in that moment.
The view from the exit.
The view from the exit.
Finally, we ended the morning at a memorial to the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust. The memorial was sponsored by a Jewish couple who had been married with a two and a half year old baby boy when they were shipped to a concentration camp. Apparently, regardless of whether you were young and healthy, the Nazis would automatically send you to your death upon arrival at a camp if you held a child in your arms. I hadn't known this before. This was another one of the Nazis' crowd control tricks: tearing children from the arms of their parents has a way of sparking a violent response. The Germans wanted easy obedience, so instead of separating an able-bodied parent from their "useless" child to send one to work and one to death, both would be sent to death.
So this Jewish couple arrived at the camp holding their baby boy as they exited the cattle cars and got in line to be sorted. A Jewish prisoner walked by the couple and saw the baby in their arms; he immediately snatched the child from them and placed him in the arms of his grandmother. At first, the mother screamed and demanded her child. The prisoner immediately quieted her and told her to stay silent, that he had just saved her life. The woman and her husband were chosen for work. They were sent to different camps but were reunited after liberation. Their son and his grandmother, being too young and too old to work, were killed.
The children's monument is dedicated to the memory of this child. It consisted of a single path through a dark room. In the room were five flickering candles, with mirrors angled around the room at every direction, multiplying those five candles exponentially. It reminded me of a verse in the bible, in which Gd promises Abraham, "I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky." The flickers looked just like stars in the night sky.
I have been writing in my travel journal for almost two hours now and have barely recorded all of the most memorable moments of Yad Vashem. I was once again struck by amazement that people survived the Holocaust. I learn about the trials people endured and feel sure that I would have died many times over if I'd gone through that experience---in the Ghettos on a forced 200 calorie a day diet; in the cattle cars, crowded and starving for seven days; in the initial sorting of work or death (if I were even lucky enough to avoid a death camp); in the months or more of work and beatings; in the death marches as Germans committed their last act of cruelty to their Jewish prisoners.
I also feel sad at the thought that these genocidal horrors continue to happen in other countries. The fact that humans are capable of such cruelty, and also such indifference to the extermination of other cultures, is frightening. Even in Yad Vashem, the focus was on Jewish victims of the Holocaust, when we know there were many other non-Jewish victims, including gypsies and homosexuals. I suppose it's not bad for the museum to have a focus, but it still seems to emphasize the human tendency to care about our own group or culture at the expense of others.
After the Holocaust museum, we visited Israel's national cemetery. I was struck by the graves of the soldiers there. They are raised up in stone boxes and covered in dirt in the middle. Plants grow inside and make the graves look like flower boxes. It's beautiful. Several years back, I was captivated by a friend's description of her burial wishes. She eschewed the coffin and insisted on being buried in a simple, white sheet. Rather than rot in a box, she said, "I'd rather be daisies." That idea stuck with me (and has become my own will), and something about the beautiful nature of these graves brought this image to mind.
"I'd rather be daisies."
This soldier, killed in Lebanon, was originally from Philadelphia. Tourists leave American/Philadelphia paraphernalia for him.
The whole day, I periodically remembered the words of Neil Lazarus---the Middle East political expert we heard from yesterday---that Israel is a "one-strike country," meaning that a nuclear Iran, for example, could annihilate this country with just two bombs. A scary and somber thought after spending the day amidst evidence of a very successful attempt to exterminate us, and alongside the bodies of those who fell defending the state of Israel.
It seems strange to just go on with life after experiencing something like this. Where do we go from here?