Jerusalem-Day One

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013
If I believed Warsaw was old, the facts correct that perception in my mind. 1) Warsaw was leveled at the end of World War II, so t is not that old having been rebuilt by the Soviets. 2) Jerusalem is really old; its age and history is measured in the thousands of years, and its fractured and interesting history offers many lessons to all of us.

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While the sections of the city outside of the walls are jus as new, if not newer, than Warsaw, entering the Crusader made walls of the old town is exactly like traveling back in time. The press of people, the yelling of vendors, the smells, and the sights.

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Plus the fact that the buildings have stood for well over a thousand years.

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While I feel no specific spiritual connection to Jerusalem, it’s easy to see why it is so important to the various religions. We paused for a time at the Western wall. we journeyed deep into the various quarters of the old town; Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian. We followed the Via Dolorosa from the western edge to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Place where, in the Christian mythology, Jesus' hand laid against the wall.

Place where, in the Christian mythology, Jesus’ hand laid against the wall.

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What struck me the most was how Jerusalem is a combination of all things. Here we have the Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Armenians all coming together, living together, and proving that our ideas of how separate the groups of people are is not as correct as we thought it was.

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To see al these paths of history flowing together, and knowing that this city was the playground of all of them. Academically, you know that so much of history flowed from there, but standing in the courtyard of the Sepulcher, for example, and envisioning the battle that took place there, during the First Crusade, is a very intense feeling.

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And it is one that I think will last with me for a while.

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Birkenau

Michael led the way to the death camp. We approached via the rail road tracks that had brought so many victims when the camp was in operation. We walked in silence past houses that had stood there at the time.

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Approaching the well-photographed front gates was striking.

You see the photos, but walking up to them is soul-shaking. Upon entering, we immediately climbed to the top of the guard tower. From there you could see the entirety of the camp.

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And then there is the camp. Unlike Auschwitz, Birkenau is mostly ruins. There are some sections that have been rebuilt,but others are just the foundations of the original buildings.

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Why this should make it more real to me I don’t know, but it does. Perhaps because part of me does not feel the locations should be perfectly maintained. Memorialize, yes, but let life return. Maybe my way of thinking is coming to agree with how the Polish think of Plaszow. I doubt it, because I don’t think it should become a park, but perhaps it shouldn’t just be a frozen monument either.

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Remains of crematorium.

One of the takeaway lessons that I had was about the problem of teaching the Holocaust. There is no sense of justice or closure to it. Auschwitz-Birkenau is about death and ending. You can’t talk of justice and aftermath; so few people were punished for their actions; and so they fall back on numbers and Anne Frank who ends with that momentary burst of hope:

“I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”

Michael ended our Birkenau experience by playing an Israelie song, and translating the words into English:

Everyone has a name given to him by God
and given to him by his parents.
Everyone has a name given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles.
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name given to him by the mountains
and given to him by the walls.
Everyone has a name given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors.
Everyone has a name given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing.
Everyone has a name given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.
Everyone has a name given to him by his holidays
and given to him by his work.
Everyone has a name given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness.
Everyone has a name given to him by the sea and
given to him by his death.
Poem by Zelda
[translated from Hebrew]
We stood in the snow listening to this and it was so moving; it plays on the idea of naming all the victims. I felt sorrow deep, deep in my bones.

And then Michael looked up, and a smile broke his face, and he said the words that probably every victim of the camp would have loved to hear:

“Let’s go to Israel.”

Auschwitz Today

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

First a small note on Schindler. On our way out of Krakow we drove by Schindler’s factory. We didn’t have time to stop, and it wouldn’t have done any good anyway, because it is again striking how much of the past has been left behind. Schindler’s factory is a museum now, and not one that’s devoted to Oskar Schindler, but to the war in general.
Schnindler's Factory
Holocaust landscape,indeed.
***
Auschwitz today.

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Which looking back on in from two days later, was strangely disappointing. We explored both Auschwitz and Birkenau, and I don’t mean to say that they aren’t powerful monuments, but Auschwitz lacks something because it is too, too preserved, if that makes any sense at all.

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But the song remains the same, so to speak. It’s not as if we were learning new things, but there is power in walking in the place. Putting your imagination back to that time fills the place up. You think back over all you’ve learned and place it in context with its actual world. There is an extreme difference in reading words about a place, even seeing pictures or films, and instead standing in the place where Höss was executed, or where the bodies were cremated.

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There are moments of shock, and most of the came in the display of items taken from people as they were bearded into the camp. The different typology o f things is staggering, from prosthetic limbs to shoe polish. But it is the quantity that is truly mind boggling.

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The pile of hair, two tons worth, and shoes, stretching two lengths of a room, is somehow deafening; it is both numbing and emotionally overwhelming at the same time to see strong people with their hands over their mouths, eyes wide n shock. It is an emotional sucker punch.

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Yet there is a generalized museum atmosphere to Auschwitz that can detract from its power. There is a powerful sense of remembrance there, a reminder of what happened. Yet at the same, there are groups moving around with tour guides speaking various languages. In a way it has a feel of Colonial Williamsburg; not fully historical, not unhistorical, but a feeling of a replica of the way life was. What remains striking about it, despite that, is the power if walking where they walked, and seeing the world as they saw it.

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And then there is Birkenau, and oh, my god . . .

Krakow: Day One

Monday, March 11th, 2013
Krakow breathes in a way that I can’t fully understand. Unlike Warsaw, he city is old and real. Though real is a relative state of mind.
We began our exploration in the Jewish quarter of town, which while devoid of actual Jewish people (which explains my usage of “real” as relative) maintains the flavor. And yet there are no Jews. It’s now the hip part of town for people to live in, seemingly the party district of Krakow

imageWe first went to the Jewish Community Center who kindly hosted us for lunch. From there we explored the quarter, going to a synagogue that was real as opposed to the one in Tykochin. We explored the Jewish Cemetery there, which was sadly beautiful.

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Afterwards, we stopped at a few more synagogues, useful to se the different ways the Jewish people designed these buildings, which tell quite a bit about the times that they were built in. While in the quarter we stopped by a courtyard where the infamous scene of the boy hiding beneath the stairs was filmed.
We then drove through the Krakow ghetto, which is fascinating because of how small it is. It’s hard to fathom, and the Warsaw ghetto demonstrated this as well; how could all of those people possibly live in such a small place? From there, we were on our way to the Plaszow Concentration Camp. We drove by the grey house, which Michael informed us was the only real spot that the shooting from the balcony, as depicted in Schindler’s List could have occurred from.
There’s something fascinating about seeing the places that these events really took place at; layering what we’ve seen in film over the reality, and seeing just how close it all was. To drive this point home, we drove by Goth’s house, which is for sale (and if the students from Krakow are any indication, likely will be for a long, long time).
We then came to the Plaszlow Concentration Camp. The monument is gigantic and blatantly Soviet; it blames Hitler specifically, because in the minds of the Soviet Union there was truly no one else to blame.

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And yet the deep trench where they burned the bodies is a much greater memorial than the actual monuments (of which there are many, as each society wants its own). Michael said that bones were still being found.

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This park, because it is a park, led to an interesting discussion. I love being able to talk with people from different cultures. After visiting and talking to Michael we were led to talking to him about the usage of land. He had explained that people used the grounds of the concentration camp for things like walking their dogs, riding bikes, and even sunbathing topless (which he was kind enough to point out was shockingly disturbing when visiting the memorial). The idea seems so foreign to us (the irony of which is not at all lost on me), because in the States we would never use our memorial ground for anything else. We sanctify (I wonder if this has anything to do with Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address?). In Europe they need that land, and they use it. We insist on locking these lands in, and in our minds they insist that they never be used for anything else. Which side is the appropriate one?
For this I have no answer; I just put it out there.

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Day Two in Warsaw

Sunday, March 10th, 2013
You tell yourself that the camps will be the hardest, but they aren’t. Today we went to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. It’s not like regular cemeteries. In many instances, the markers are just placed there. It’s crowded, but more than just the stones.
Jewish Cemetary
I felt the presence of all the people. For a moment I clearly saw them, and saw myself walking through the. It seemed as if they were all standing there, just standing there, facing in the same direction, and I was passing through them, trying not to disturb them. I got a little emotional, tearing up. There was discussion about why that place was emotional to me, but I couldn’t explain it; it was just something that happened.

After, we took a bus journey to Tykochin, and arrived at the synagogue in the shtetl there. Actually, it’s wrong to say shtetl, because there are no Jews there anymore. The museum is nothing more than a museum now. Still, we explored it for a bit before venturing through the town to the city square. Here we talked about the Nazis rounding up the Jews and putting them in the church there, before the Germans realized they had violated the Molotov/Ribbentrop treaty with Russia. They pulled back.

Map of Tykochin
Not that that saved the Jews. They eventually ordered the Jewish people to the Jewish square, drove them to the woods, and shot them into mass graves there. Standing there, in the woods, listening to Belinda read testimony from a survivor who had lived through being shot, after witnessing her child being killed, buried beneath the bodies of her townspeople, and crawling out. Reading about these things teaches it academically, but standing where they stood does more than just bring it home; it drives it into your soul. I needed time and space to process it, and being n the woods by myself helped, but I’m not sure I feel my feelings yet.

Forest Outside Tykochin
Treblinka has a curious feeling if emptiness. The Nazis leveled the death camp to cover up there heinous crimes, and so portions of it were rebuilt as monuments. There are massive stones showing the countries and and communities that the people came from. It’s hard to grasp the enormity of what happened, but walking where they walked gives a feel of convergence . . .

Trenlinka
One of the most interesting parts of the day was that everywhere we went there were groups of Israelie kids, who were on a journey, their pilgrimage, to learn about their heritage. Seeing them there brought such a sense of life to the place. A reminder that despite the Nazi’s best attempts, the Jewish people do continue. They endure.

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In the beginning . . .

Warsaw is the oldest city I’ve ever been in. It has a lovely old world feel coupled with an interesting metropolitan style. And yet it has another thing that gives the city a feeling unlike any other. Ghosts. Warsaw has them packed in.

The ghetto wall.

The ghetto wall.

Our tour guide, Michael, talked about a Holocaust landscape, the idea of a city that was once crowded with historical locations that have since been replaced with modern facilities such as McDonalds. There’s something sadly scandalous about something that important being replaced to dispense more Big Macs. Yet the history is still here, sanctified and made into monuments; monuments that tell the story people need to hear.

Monument at the Umschlagplatz.

Monument at the Umschlagplatz.

The monuments tell a story of sacrifice, of life, and of death. They tell a story of heroics and victimization. And they tell the story of the changing Jewish opinion of how to speak of the holocaust.

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The Warsaw Uprising

The Warsaw Uprising

The monuments tell the story that people want them to tell and one that some don’t expect. At the Umschlongplatz monument, where Jewish people would be loaded onto trains for to complete their journeys, it was hard not to notice the people passing by without even looking at it. I wondered if they knew what it was, and if they did know, did they care? People did seem to look at us as if surprised that we were showing interest in such dusty old things, but perhaps that’s just me.
It’s been a long first day, but it’s been an amazing first day.

On the Paper (Part II) [A Work of Fiction]

Read Part One here . . .

Dinner out with Stacey, two days after the phone call with Vic that had said much and achieved nothing.  Neil’s head still ached from staring at sheets of paper, willing himself to just touch the pen to the paper and write something, anything.  His cuticles were jagged, torn as he picked at them.  Stacey, on the other hand, looked good, as she had every moment since the day they had met.

“You are not here tonight,” she said as she sipped from her beer.  God, he loved that she was a real woman who was unafraid to drink real beer; none of that Bud Light water for her.  “You’ve adopted a thousand mile stare for the majority of the night.  I know you’re not checking the game over my shoulder, so why don’t you tell me what’s going on with you.”

Neil sighed and gently spun his glass around between his hands.  She had put up with the hollow version of him for well over a year; things must have come to a pretty pass for her to call him on it.

“It’s just . . . nothing, I suppose.”

“Or something,” Stacey said.  “Something’s been eating at you.  What?  I’m afraid if you want a divorce, I won’t be giving you spousal support.”

“Heh.  I have gotten used to a certain life-style, but no, not that.”

Neil took a long sip, gathering his thoughts.  He had been thinking them for the better part of two years, pondering them while his hands refused to write.

“Do you know,” he said abruptly, “that feeling you get, driving down 20, just as you get to Dowdy Ferry Road?”

“Maybe not the same as yours,” Stacey said.  “I’m usually asking myself what the hell I’m doing out by Dowdy Ferry.”

Neil laughed, which Stacey took as a good sign.  If he was still laughing, even at jokes as bad as that, then his thoughts, while undoubtedly heavy, were not yet dire.  Yet.

“No.  I mean, you’re at Dowdy Ferry, and you’re thinking, ‘I could just keep going.  I could see what’s further along down the road.’”

“This is not sounding good for me.”

“No, it is,” Neil said.  “Because I think, ‘I could keep driving.’  But then I think, ‘What?  And miss all of this?’”

He waved his hand vaguely, taking in Stacey, the bar, the entirety of the world it seemed.

“I’d never keep going, cause I couldn’t give up all of this, couldn’t turn my back on my real life, you, Harper, any more than I could wake up tomorrow and fly.  Wouldn’t want to even if I could.”

Stacey took a sip of her beer, gathering her thoughts.  “I see what you mean, Neil.  I truly do.  We all have that fleeting thought of just taking off that we ignore because deep inside it’s not what we really want.  I just . . .” She clenched her fists, dreading this moment, knowing that it needed to come now.  “I don’t understand what that has to do with your recent problems.”

Neil had a hunch as to where she was going with this, but if he was actually going to respond, he felt it was only fair that she had to actually ask.

“What problem?  What problem do you think I have?”

Stacey had one of the most beautiful smirks that Neil had ever seen.  One side of her mouth would poof out just a bit, in a half smile/half sneer, her left eyebrow arched up.  She was so very good at saying so very much with that expression.  He wondered, not for the first time, how many thousands of times he had seen that expression during their years together.

“The writing problem,” Stacey said.  “That problem.  When was the last time you actually wrote something?”

Neil looked away, wishing for a moment that he had a cigarette.  He hadn’t smoked in five years, and wasn’t even craving the nicotine, but there was something to be said for the long pause that a deep drag on a cigarette afforded.

“Two years, or so,” he admitted.  “Which seems a lot worse when you say it out loud like that.”

“I’m sure.  You once told me that it’s harder to write when you’re happy.  I hope that’s still the problem.”

“Oh, honey,” Neil said, giving her her favorite grin.  “I’m happy as hell, never worry about that.  I’m fairly certain I was wrong about happiness making it harder to write.  But it is the happiness that gets in the way, the desire to be happy.”

“I’m wanting to follow you, but I’m clearly going to need more words.”

Neil drummed his fingers twice, a quick roll, thinking.  Then he pulled a small, battered memo-pad out of his pocket.  “Here’s a thing.  I come up with ideas, all the time.  Like this one,” he said flipping open the book, “a sad little short-story about a marriage breaking up after their child dies.  I hear their voices in my head, I know the first line: ‘He could tell by the tilt of her head that she was trying not to cry.’  I know the plot and the characters and . . . and . . .”

Neil trailed off, dropping his eyes to the table.  His hands suddenly balled into fists, the memo-pad taking another beating.  She could tell, by the tilt of his head, that he was frustrated, not angry.

“And what, baby?” she asked, sliding her hand over his, forcing his fist to unclench, relax.  “What happens?”

“I pick up a pen, and . . .  I’m scared, scared to write those horrible things down.  What if by writing it, I somehow make them happen in reality?  What if the act of me writing them gives the universe an idea?  What if I write about a baby dying, and Karma will cause it to happen?”

“I don’t think autobiographical writing works that way, baby.”

“You laugh,” Neil said, but a smile played over his lips.  “And I know it’s a crazy thought, but it doesn’t mean I can stop it.  I worry that just by writing about a man having an affair, you’ll start to think I’m having an affair, and just-“

“You know better than that!”

“-write the words.”

He stopped, trying to catch his breath.

“Baby,” Stacey said.  “I want you to know, I understand what you are trying to say.  I get it.”

“I know honey,” Neil said.  “I always knew you’d get it, that you’d understand, but I didn’t want the problem on you.  I’m scared to write, just scared, ‘cause sometimes I think the bad things will come true and all the good things will stop.”

“That you’ll keep driving past Dowdy Ferry?  ‘Cause that’s what your story does?”

He nodded.

She squeezed his hand.  “Honey, you know we’re good.”

“I know.  There’s not a doubt in my mind about us.”

She laced her fingers between his.  “Then understand this, nothing you write can change us, because I know what fiction means.  I know that your stories are just that: stories.  They’re not things you’ve done, or even things you want to do, they’re stories.”  She gave him the delightful smirk again.  “Now, that isn’t to say that if you ask me to proof-read a story where a guy named Neil starts having a torrid affair with his sister-in-law Amber that I won’t be a little concerned.  But beyond that, I know how to separate fiction from our real life.  Fiction from fact.”

She leaned back in her chair, sipped from her glass.  “I’ve had a thought.”

“Share, please.”

“About four years ago, you wrote a story about a man who fell out of an airplane.  The whole story revolved around those moments before he hits the ground.  You remember that one?”

“Of course, yeah.”

“See, the thing is,” Stacey said, “you told me the idea came to you after a nightmare.  You said that there was something so terrifying about it to you, because the situation was inescapable.  You were scared of it.”

“Yes . . .  So?”

“Have you ever, for even one moment, beyond the writing of that story, considered the idea that you might fall out of an airplane?”

“Do I actually need to answer that?”

“Yes.”

“Then, no.  I’ve never considered it beyond that.”

“Exactly,” Stacey said, a superbly smug grin on her face.  “You were scared of something, because of a dream, something you knew in your heart would never happen.  And you wrote it down, without ever considering that it might happen because you had written it down.”

“I already told you, this feels different.”

“Baby,” Stacey said.  “That’s just the point.  Now you’re afraid that what you write will come to be, that the very act of writing will cause it.  Back then, you put your fears on paper, showing an acceptance of what could happen.”

Stacey felt a huge smile break over her face.  Neil’s eyes were almost on fire they had lit up so much.  Excitement was pulsing off of him in waves.  She could practically taste it.

“You gave truth to the fear and called it out.  And when you did, you took away whatever power it may have had over you.  That’s what your writing is in a way.  Calling out the fears so that you face them, putting them on the paper.  Same reason people see scary movies and read scary books, they face the fear head on.  You haven’t been facing those fears, you’ve been hiding from them, and that’s why you’re having so much trouble writing them.”

Neil drained his glass in a single gulp.

“Will it work?”

“Guess you’ll have to try and see.”

Neil leaned across the small table and kissed her full on the lips, lingering long enough to get kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight.

When their lips parted, he whispered, “Goddamn, you’re the best of me.”

“Damn right I am.”

***

It was well past two a.m., and the house was asleep.  He leaned back in his chair, lightly drumming his fingers on the glass of whiskey on the rocks.  A college ruled notebook lay open in front of him.  He twirled a pen loosely in his other hand.

He paused for a moment, inhaling deeply, as if he was about to dive deep into the ocean, gathering himself, drawing the world into him.

He exhaled, and leaned forward over the paper, pen raised:

“He could tell by the tilt of her head that she was trying not to cry.”

-For Emily