The day we visited Auschwitz was a dream. A benevolent and gentle sun, a caress of a breeze. We piled out of the buses, a hundred young girls, Jewish Americans, overdressed in sweatshirts and rain boots. We stood at the entrance, so famous from the pictures; it was exactly like the pictures. It is a very large camp, Auschwitz- barbed wire encasing fields and trees and fields and trees and fields and… an endless hell. That Friday it didn’t seem to end.
What if places harbor memories like people? How tired and weighed down some places must get. Perhaps they grow angry sometime, perhaps they grow bored and play games with their visitors. Seemed like Auschwitz scattered its memories, all over, under our noses but cleverly hidden out of sight; a game of hide-and-seek. We searched for the memories like frantic children. We found pieces of them- in the barracks, on the bunkers, in the train tracks and nestled on the wires. For some, I think it was enough. For others, a gnawing desperation and dread- we will never catch a hold of what transpired, and of what it meant. Our hearts and our feet were like lead.
But what could I really see, what could I have possibly uncovered? A redheaded girl of 18, surrounded by friends, encased in new boots, a heart swollen with memories foreign and vague, a fist full of air. I was a fist full of air. How lonesome and heavy the ground and sky must feel- so many feet and eyes, and none of them can possibly comprehend any of the things they’ve witnessed.
Yet we know that we must remember. A genocide, a daily massacre of thousands and thousands. An atrocity. A hell, carved and shaped by human, cultured hands. We have to remember the capriciousness of fate and the fragility of civilizations. We stood at the brick ruins of gas chambers- a sacrificial altar- and we tried to grasp at the memories hovering in the sacred air. How unbearably heavy the heart can grow with emptiness. All these people, their lives and deaths and stories, and how can we ease the burden off of history? I wish I could have knelt on the ground and wept, or bled. Maybe sanctified it somehow. But the ground was not mine to sanctify. Only memory.
It is no longer fashionable to believe in G-d. Religion’s status has deteriorated drastically- nowadays it is folly, an unfortunate and uncomfortable thing to encounter, a crutch used by the weak and desperate, silly to many. I grew up a Jewish, Orthodox girl, and I had more questions than most adults had answers. I pored over countless books and websites, an adolescent, scavenging for the truth on my own. I never really took my religiousness for granted. But it always felt too heavy, too risky to throw it away. Not unless it was proven wrong. And the proof never came. Now, at 19, I feel a humble connoisseur of a truth that is way greater than me; I cannot imagine renouncing my religion, my belief and connection to G-d. It is a knowing of the bones and soul, a knowledge that’s rooted in text and philosophy, yet ultimately transcends reason and the confines of our physical universe. And I do not feel as if I am leaning on anything- on the contrary, Judaism believes in an individual’s full responsibility. If every action of yours has immeasurable ramifications, then every action has to be weighed and thought out. Mindfulness, nowadays, has become popular, but honestly, it can be pretty exhausting. Ours is a religion of the ego surrendering to G-d’s Will, of humbling the pain and the agony of rage, of accepting all we cannot control…
…I do not want to go into it here and now; I just wish to describe a bit of the connection I felt to G-d, throughout the entire Poland trip, where we visited concentration and death camps, where we drove down endless roads flanked by somber forests whose trees loyally guarded unknown secrets. Frozen in a warped and perplexing reality, I found Him again and again- in the gas chamber of Majdanek, in the grass strewn pathway of Auschwitz, in the modern and grey façade of Warsaw. I found no answers, mind you. But I also found that I no longer needed them. I found that I could come to the end of all reason, and that I could step onto the faceless platform of faith, without resentment or fear.
We were advised by some of the older girls to keep rigorous journals; you won’t remember the half of it if you don’t, we were warned. So I wrote. On the bus, in the strange and fresh sheets of various hotel beds, in between rest stops. “We stayed at a really nice hotel, had the best shower of life…” “Visited a library that used to be a synagogue…dozens of bullet holes perforating a mural on the back wall…uncanny…” “…a gigantic cemetery, giving an idea of the size of the living community… It felt really peaceful, and sad in a gentle kind of way and steeped in history…” “The weather was dismal, a weak and sorrowful rain, a chilled wind…in Treblinka…shift my feet carefully, afraid to feel the bones cracking beneath my weight. But all is still. Close to a million bodies buried here, hallowed ground…” “… A mass grave of 15 or 20,000 people… The numbers don’t fit within logic; it just doesn’t make sense…” ” Krakow.. considered a hip, artsy area now, kind of like Soho in NY… Tons of little bars and boutiques…tourists and locals sipping coffee… amazing looking sandwiches, smelling incredibly fresh…every street, every house, was Jewish before the War…” “Damn this land, this place… We saw the shoes- piles and piles and piles and piles and piles…you could barely look; it just never ended. But the children’s… little sneakers and little button up boots, they were so little, so cute… I just wanted to hold a kid and I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t change anything and I wanted to disappear…” It is exhausting to talk about the entire trip, because so much of the experience was too deep, too abstract to capture and cage into words.
It is strange- I do not remember what I ate, for the entirety of the trip. A vague recollection of chicken for dinner our last night, but that’s it. Usually a stickler for detail, and an enthusiast when it comes to food, the breakfasts, lunches and dinners are frustrating, taunting holes in my brain. What the heck did we eat?? I remember one night a wild craving for chocolate; I do not remember if I ended up satisfying it. I am bothered by that gap in memory, but I do not seek the answer from friends. It seems fitting to have yet another unexplainable ache associated with the experience.
There is a magnanimity to history that we shrink from. We fashion ourselves cocoons, engrave patterns into our daily routine, and we shy away from disturbances. Because our streets are littered with the homeless, and our news feed clogged with tragedies. And what are we to do? Sometimes we let the tragedies break us, and we cry, and we marvel and fret over our tenderness. But those moments are rare- luxuries almost- and we don’t know how to act upon them, so we stow them away. For the most part, we tune ourselves out; a mechanism of survival. We buy Starbucks lattes, and walk our dogs, and sleep at night with the windows open to let in the pleasant breeze. We are in a perpetual state of being bombarded by information and threatening news coverage and incidents that can eat our hearts out if we let them. There is a whole silicon world available, and we people have inhibited its sterile and mechanical environs, citizens of the underground. We construct our own mini-worlds on our phones- our conversations, our music, our pictures, memos, books, etc- and we pore over our mini-selves incessantly. We clutter our thoughts mindlessly; we stuff our hearts with a purposeful abandon…
…But it’s ok now, just as it was then. It’s ok that there are activists making a ruckus regarding endangered species and gender neutral restrooms while there are still children who dream of bread; children sold on the market like furniture, children laboring 16 hours a day. It’s ok that we look at our phones more than at our friends, it’s ok that we treat our parents like our employees, it’s ok that we hunger for success and adulation more than for people, it’s ok that we can’t be bothered to care. It’s ok that we attack each other’s opinions on social media and call each other names with no intent of hearing the other side. It’s ok that the media attacks Israel for their acts of defense in Gaza- it is easier to yell allegations of occupation and murder at a democratic and moral country, than to yell about thousands of dead children in Syria and slaughtered Christians and enslaved young girls throughout most of the remaining Middle East ( but we can’t think about that.) It’s ok that we choose whom to believe and whom to bleed for- all within our convenience, giving us time to watch our favorite TV show while feeling all self-satisfied (what about calling the friend who is struggling with depression or through a break up or through general existential angst? Um, awkward and unnecessary?) It’s ok when they are livid and wild- they’re just young. It’s ok when they are world weary, embracing cynicism and harsh apathy- they’re just old. It’s ok that we sometimes hurt the ones we love, that they forgive us, that we do it again- it’s ok. The world is spinning, blood is flowing, time is ticking steady steady steady… Keep it coming. Catastrophe has occurred before- history cries out with it- but we are above natural consequence, above caring, above the burden of changing. And we’re all gonna be ok.