Thursday, March 24, 2011

Resistance


Written after visiting the forest of the Tykocin mass grave in Poland

Footsteps
Footprints in snow
March of the living
Sunlight pokes out between thousands of
still, ominous, red trees
Casting shadows on each of us

But what about the shadows of the bodies
beneath the snow?
Where have their shadows gone?

We hear an anecdote
A story
Words that move
That paint a picture

Now that’s all we have
Images in our imaginations
of horrors
we cannot even conceive

Soon, memories will have dissolved
into the ground
Passed on only through records and stories
of innocent souls

I feel them looking down on me
As I retrace their steps
Flesh, skin, bones beneath my shoes

Above, their spirits transcending time
Hovering infinitely between the trees

Our remembrance is our resistance


Arise

It’s 5:45 AM. My field of vision is still blurry as I reach to turn off the buzzing alarm that awakens me from a deep sleep. The room is still dark and the air chilly, causing the hair to rise vertically on my goose-bumped arms. For about half a minute I’m completely disoriented: This doesn’t look like Bat Yam. Where am I? And why am I so cold?
At first I think I’m still dreaming. All is surreal until the bedside light switches on and I process my illuminated new environment: hotel room, Warsaw, Poland.

In hindsight, I see how this sense of disorientation pervaded our group’s week-long journey in Poland. At first, it manifested itself in our physical discomfort - coldness, hunger, and chronic fatigue became a normal and prevalent part of each day. Yet, as the trip progressed, we witnessed our challenges transform from physical to emotional.

In this sense, this trip helped put the complaints of everyday life in perspective. How could we moan about our frozen toes or grumbling stomachs while inside a concentration camp, where thousands suffered fates infinitely worse? All it took was a slight maturation of our minds - and appropriate attitudes - to brave seeing horrific sites in the midst of Poland’s freezing winter.

But like any situation, there are times to be serious and times to be silly. So granted, we did find appropriate moments to let the goofiness we’d been suppressing surface. After long days of soaking in harsh realities, humor proved to be an important, if not vital, coping mechanism for the group of eighty-something young adults.

You may wonder how we could be lighthearted on a trip devoted to the Holocaust? Well the answer is simple: humans seek a state of equilibrium. We naturally stabilize ourselves after extreme highs and extreme lows, to find our functional happy medium. I recall one instance in particular where I had to pull myself out of an extreme low:

I am standing at the site of a mass shooting in what used to be the death camp Majdanek. I stare at my feet, attempting to avoid the biting cold wind, while listening to my group leader read aloud an anecdote of a family murdered at that very site. Suddenly I see faces, bodies, and even voices come to life from within the ground, beneath my boots, and around the desolate camp. My imagination makes the anecdote real - more real than I was expecting. More real than I had hoped. (Yes, this was the reason I came to Poland - to learn, to see, to feel - but nobody can prepare you for the reactions that you have in your own mind.)Suddenly tears well up in the corners of my eyes and I look up at the monochromatic grayness of the sky. At that moment I understand why I came there - to see the lowest point humanity is capable of reaching, so I will never forget it or let it happen again. Yet, my mind relentlessly grapples with the how. How could humanity reach such an unimaginable low?

That is the ultimate question I was left with after my journey.

And after searching tirelessly for answers, I learned that no matter how much textbook knowledge I stuff into my mind, there will only appear more questions.

From what I understand, that’s simply how the universe works. We study topics to learn, to connect neurons to one another, to use that ten percent of our oversized brains. But as we gain knowledge, we learn that there is still so much we don’t know. We see how much of the world we have yet to explore.

That is how I ended up arriving back in Israel, one long week later, still feeling like I had only scratched the surface of such a colossal historical event. Because frankly, only God knows the millions of names, facts, families, stories, lives that exist in the physical realm only as air particles of undifferentiated ash.

That may be what haunts me the most - the thousands of families who simply vanished, as if they never existed at all. No grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, or even grandchildren to continue their legacy. No photographs to be remembered by, no friends to tell their story. Those are the people who become a part of the tragic statistic - because that is all that is left of them.

“Kuma,” the name of the trip to Poland, translates in Hebrew to stand up or arise. Another trip similar to “Kuma” is called “March of the Living.“ Both names almost intertwine in their messages; one of our goals for coming to Poland was to stand up for those who could not. We filled old synagogues on Shabbat with our voices - with our prayers for those who fell. We marched through forests, on the sites of mass graves, to listen to anecdotes and pay our respects.

I will always remember the blueness of the Israeli flag we waved while walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau. I will remember when we sang the “Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem, at Treblinka. I will remember when other tour groups joined us in singing, our voices bouncing off each other in unison, sending chills up and down my spine. I will remember returning to Jerusalem straight off the plane, finding a stone from Auschwitz in my pocket, and carefully placing it in a crack in the Western Wall.

All of these memories have become a part of me. They have left an impression on my being - and there they will remain - so I will never forget.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Daughter of the Sea

The moving truck pulls away from Derech Hebron street early Monday morning. My roommates and I sit in the driveway, watching our lives, packed tightly inside duffel bags, become blurry as the truck fades away into traffic. I look behind me, and am slightly baffled by the spotless, empty apartment. An apartment in which dozens of memories were formed over the course of three short months - memories now lost in time, only in existence through stories and photographs. My reminiscent, fleeting thoughts are interrupted by my counselor's voice: Apartment 3, time to head out. With slight hesitation, I take a step forward, a deep breath, and bid my Jerusalem home farewell.

It was the second time I had to say goodbye to a place I called home, yet difficult nonetheless. Mentally, I was ready for change. I lived three incredible months in the holiest city; I spent Chanukah and Shabbatot at the Kotel, went to Synagogue on Friday nights, volunteered with the most adorable Israeli toddlers, and took thought provoking classes. My Hebrew improved three fold, and it shows. Now I don’t hesitate to initiate conversations with locals, nor do I allow sneaky taxi drivers to rip me off . (But that may also be attributed to genetics, thanks to my very Israeli mother, Shirona.) In any case, It is evident that this trimester has allowed me grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined beforehand. It was during these three months that I learned what it’s like to be an Israeli citizen; I gave directions to strangers navigating the city, bargained on Friday mornings at the jam packed Shuk (market), and helped nurture the future generation of Israeli citizens. It must be the yin and yang, give and take relationship I formed with the city that made this trimester so incredible - and I know I wouldn’t have gotten what I did from Jerusalem had it not given me so much.

Thankfully, this chapter of my year abroad does not end on a sad note. After some inter-section mingling and a hike up north for our last changeover, Section three arrived in beautiful, sunny, Bat Yam. Literally meaning “daughter of the sea” or “mermaid,” Bat Yam's main attraction is its incredible beach. Though the city itself isn’t anything to brag about, the beach, warm weather, and proximity to Tel Aviv is a blessing for us gap-year participants.

We have already begun to take advantage of the beach that is a short forty minute walk, fifteen minute run, or six minute bus ride. It’s possible that our entire section was there yesterday, laying out under the sun, beginning the much-needed post winter tanning process. A bit of Frisbee, football, reading, music and singing added to the simple perfection of the day. And after the stresses of winter classes, finals and projects, Shabbat on the sand was the best way to ease ourselves into the next (and last) trimester of Year Course.

At this point you may be wondering what I’m actually doing here, besides laying out with friends. Well to tell you the truth I can only give you a vague time table of what life is supposed to be like when I return from my trip to Poland (on March 14th). Two mornings a week I will be volunteering, and the other two I have mandatory Zionism and Hebrew Class. I hope to be working with refugees from Darfur in Tel Aviv as my volunteer placement, though it is not yet set in stone. With the rest of my time I’ll either be attending meetings and workshops for the leadership program Year Course has just created, or relaxing in my new home with friends!

And since tonight eighty four of us YC participants are headed to Poland, daily life doesn’t really begin here until next week. So, this first week Bat Yam was mostly spent orienting ourselves to our new surroundings, unpacking, and exploring. My new apartment is one of the biggest - it is spacious, airy, and the most magnificent part about it is my single bed. Goodbye top bunk, hello freedom! I’ve never been happier to roll out of bed in the morning onto a floor, instead of plunging into a vertical nightmare.

I also have an Israeli scout living with me, who has already become a close friend of mine. There are thirteen scouts in total who spend all of Year Course in Bat Yam, but are technically a part of the program. From what I've seen, they all appear to be friendly, energetic, outgoing people. I'm really looking forward to integrating them into our section!

But with all of Bat Yam’s benefits, there are the inevitable drawbacks: I am no longer in a city surrounded by religion and culture - in fact, similar to in Arad, Russians make up a large percentage of the population, and it is likely you will hear Russian just as frequently as you will Hebrew. I guess I will have to look harder to find the religious connectedness that was so prevalent and accessible in Jerusalem.

It's strange to think that Jerusalem, in addition to Arad, is a home of the past. I still feel very connected to both places, but in such different ways. Perhaps after my visit to Poland I’ll see how my experiences in both places have shaped my relationship, perception, and tie to Israel. Though it’s hard to imagine how I’ll think and feel a week from now. I really don’t know what to expect from a country whose history is marred by the genocide of my people.

I can only hope that after returning to Israel, I will have deepened my appreciation for the Jewish state I’ve grown to love.