We are nearing the end of our ancestral pilgrimage now. Here I am in front of the Volksopera in Vienna between the feet of the Wicked Witch of Oz, proclaimed dead and powerless amidst bells and revelry.
But the Witch is not dead. Evil is still afoot.
We saw many commemorations to the dead on our short journey through Central Europe. At each stop on our way—Prague, Terezin, Uhersky-Brod, Slovakia, Budapest, Vienna—we learned how lives much like our own were disrupted, how unfathomable atrocities occurred. Decades later, museums and commemorations arose. Iron shoes nailed on the shores of the Danube, walls filled with carefully calligraphed names, gold-squares set at the doors of houses—all beautiful attempts to ring the bell of awareness, to awaken us to cognizance, to give a semblance of honor to those who could not be saved.
Is this human cycle inevitable, I wonder? Deport, Kill, Remember, Repeat.
Will we be doing the same in twenty years time for the Muslim families who are currently crossing continents looking for sanctuary?
My sister and I have seen a lot. But as I walk the streets of Central Europe looking at historical markers, I have found myself asking: What are we not seeing here? What is not in this picture?
This morning my head is swimming at the remarkable events that unfolded yesterday in Uhersky-Brod—a verdant, sweet-smelling town in the Carpathian Mountains of the Czech Republic. This is where our great-great grandparents Moses and Tzilka lived and bore their children, so we rented a car to come see what we could find.
My sister and I were happily taking photos of ourselves in front of town hall (notice the splendid countryside in the background) when a man named Michael approached us. A native of the place, Michael not only knew English but was familiar with the history of his town. On our map Michael showed us where the old Jewish neighborhood and cemetery once stood. “Of course there is not one Jew left,” he said, “but across from the big Janacek brewery is where they once lived.”
Sure enough, in the woody hills across from an enormous beer factory we found a country synagogue, with a big padlock on the door. Through the window we could see an empty floor, on the wall a photographic exhibit behind glass.
I write this from a train, rumbling through the Czech countryside on our way to the tiny towns where our grandparents and families lived and died.
Yesterday, a day spent at Terezin, the Ghetto/Concentration Camp Terezin that held over 55,000 Jews. Terezin was not a death camp, per se. And there is no way to compare Terezin to say, Auschwitz or Matthausen, where hundreds of thousands were brutally tortured and gassed. Terezin was its own special animal—a transport center from which “unusable” Jews would be shipped east to their death. But it also provided the Nazis with a propaganda front to show the world (like the Red Cross) reasonable Jewish habitation. (It actually looks like a little village, and indeed it is a fortress originally built in the 1780’s to house political prisoners.)
But the place still reeks of suffering. Behind the pretty façade, the living conditions were horrendously cramped, full of lice and bedbugs, typhus and dysentery. 58,000 people were stuffed into the space of 7,000. Hygiene, food, and medical care was so paltry, that 33,000 died there. And 8,700 of these were children.
My sister and I had an exuberant day in Prague today, on our feet for nearly seven hours as we drank in the sumptuous sites of the Prague Jewish Quarter. Jews lived here in the thousands from the Ninth Century, with an abundance of synagogues—six beauties still stand—and a rich culture that seems to still vibrate with life along the cobblestone paths. Seems to. So much life abounds: thousands of tourists from around the world—kids in baseball caps and elegant Asians, Spanish speakers, Italians, and Brits pour in to see the gorgeous tile work of the Spanish synagogue, the Chevreh Kaddisha (sacred burial society) and most famously, a courtyard where 12,000 gravestones stand and lie at all angles demarcating Jewish culture that thrived here from the 1400’s.
This is a picture of my little girl. Her name is Emily and she just turned 30.
I remember looking into these eyes for hours at a time. They were like windows into some heavenly place, a clear and unfettered world that I myself once knew.
Our wide-eyed world gets clouded over all too soon. There are family narratives to contend with and unspoken secrets that we inherit. The world that is wide and endless and full of possibilities begins to shrink.
When I arrived here, the Holocaust still loomed like a cloud of terror over our house. It did not take long for that unnamed fear to coagulate into attitudes and stances. In a thousand ways we were taught to resist, refuse, reprove an untrustworthy world out there. Yet still, to do well in it, to outsmart it, and never to allow Hitler a posthumous victory.
All of this translated into our little bodies. My siblings and I adopted postures that variously defied, defeated, or caved to the odds that awaited us. Like plates of armor many layers of effort veiled our childlike brightness.