Why

As we walked the rough cobblestones of the death camps some of the elderly among us struggled with the uneven terrain even as they struggled with memories of lost family and broken connections and betrayed heritage. I watched her walk beyond the limits of her ability because this is was why she came .

At Auschwitz I, the docent took us through buildings that were still standing, explaining the function of each. The eugenics, where terrible experiments took place. The original rooms that served as “barracks”, people packed on the floor with no space to walk. The “punishment” cells where the SS experimented with ways to kill. And many more.

Although the buildings were relatively close together, it was hard going. Those that had been utilizing wheelchairs were unable to do so on these unforgiving paths. And the docent, sensitive to the limitations of some in our group, suggested places that folks could rest and wait for us to meet up with them. Many did just that – they rested, they waited, unable to go on.

One of the most moving things I witnessed on this trip was one elderly woman. Overweight, swollen legs, short of breath. She was offered many opportunities to rest, to stop, to end the tour at each camp. I watched her struggle on, slowly, well behind the pace of the rest of the group. But she would not give up. Being on this sacred ground, where her family died, was the most important thing. Walking these paths, looking for their names on the recording pages, this was everything. She would not give up, she would keep going the whole way, no matter how painful or how difficult, because this was why she came.

BEING THERE

My shoes are grey with the ashes of the dead

it rains as we leave Auschwitz-Birkenau

A reflection of how I feel.

The hems of my trousers are splattered

with the mud of the bones, a sacrilege to wash.

The old folks always said don’t buy a Mercedes

now I feel why.

Every step is to walk not only over a grave, but

to walk the last meters that numberless thousands walked;

to view the last view they saw before they became ashes.

These roads are filled with the spirits of the unnumbered,

unnamed, uncounted, unknown.

Oh! Those Germans were meticulous record keepers

except in their haste to rid the world they neglected to count

and record…

more than we will ever know, rushed to the gas chamber

At the moment of arriving if they still lived.

The pollen falls like ashes as we stand

in the crematorium at Dachau

breaking my heart in ways for which I have no words.

Standing in these places of unimaginable horror

I can only touch the walls with the palm of my hand

and whisper”we remember” “we will not forget”.

I feel your spirits.

We can only remember, honor, teach;

somehow know what cannot be known.

My brain is full of history,

my eyes cannot hold any more horror.

With reverence and tears I spoke the Kaddish

in these holiest of places

and remembered…all the genocide, not just of these

but of our human history…ongoing still.

What Now?

It is morning, the sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy and I feel oddly anxious in this strange unstructured life. I seem always to have something to do and I wonder how that could be. Are these things that I simply ignored when I was working, things I chose to be in denial about or that I just put off until now? Maybe they are the things I filled my nights and weekends with so that I felt that I never had a day off.

How strange to be able to say, “I can do that tomorrow” or “there is no urgency”. But I still find myself thinking I must do it now. A lifetime of structure – I need to rewire my brain.

I am off to Germany and Poland in a few days and people keep saying to me “have fun”. Although I think this trip will be interesting, spiritually fulfilling, educational and emotional, I am not sure it will be exactly fun. It is a trip to visit the places of the holocaust, that horrific time that many people choose to deny or forget just as we forget or ignore the many many genocides that have taken place in our time. There are so many, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Nanking, the Ukraine under Stalin, Armenia all in the last 100 years and many in my lifetime.

I am honored to be able to say Kaddish at the places my people died. I am filled with gratitude to be able to carry the memory of my Grandmother who, as a child, fled Russia with her mother and seven siblings to come to America. And I am proud to know that in a family of mixed and little faith, I carry the faith of my ancestors and represent them at a time critical in the survival of Judaism in America.

I am proud that I recently took a group of young Jewish students on an overnight trip the central purpose of which was to visit a small but powerful holocaust museum about three hours from our home Temple. We had fun too, but the impact it made on some of those young people was stunning.

So, in my unstructured life, I sat down at my computer to write, told Alexa to play some bebop and this is what I wrote.

Shalom