A Jew Among Jews Revisited: Eastern Europe 2005

A Jew Among Jews Revisited: Eastern Europe 2005

Never being one to shy from intellectual exploration and and possessing the unselfconscious ego to situate my own experiences at the center of my adventures in awareness, in college I majored in sociology and wrote an honors thesis on the experience of being non-Jewish in a Jewish majority.  Postering the campus with flyers seeking interviewees from the student body, I quickly became known as the non-Jew writing that thesis (no defensiveness included in the italics).  Capital N, capital J.  By the time I finished, I was emotionally exhausted from examining my differences from my group of best friends, yet nonetheless followed my cohort of Tri-State Jews (5 women reared in Westchester, Great Neck, Riverdale, NY and Bergen County, NJ, in yeshivas and Camp Ramah) to Manhattan post-college.  I wanted out of Boston (for the first time in my life), and New York seemed close yet different enough for me to spread my wings without sacrificing quick access to my large, boisterous, generous family.  One of the beauties of being reared in college by a group of highly educated Jews is my extraordinary degree of comfort and knowledge of Judaism.  While I know the “rules and regulations� pretty well – some friends used to proudly boast better than the average American Jew – where I really excel is the cultural ease with which I interact with Jews.  Moving from Brandeis to New York, the latter no slouch in its own vibrant Jewish community, I transformed my Brandeis experience to my real world experience, now with more porous boundaries to be infiltrated by other groups of friends.  As new Jews enter my life, I always pounce on them with a sort of intimate affection that seems to make them uncomfortable while I relax in their familiarity.  They never know what to make of this blue-eyed freckled Irish redhead from Boston acting as if we’re long lost relatives.  How she’d learn the secret handshake?, they wonder.I recently attended an academic conference in Budapest, Hungary.  Adding some time for travel to my first trip to Eastern Europe, I almost went to Prague, per many people’s urgings.  But as I leafed through my Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, I came across Poland.  And Krakow.  And Auschwitz.  A train ride from Budapest.  I didn’t know much about Prague, but I knew a lot about Auschwitz.  My best friend was force fed so much about the Holocaust in yeshiva growing up that it is her policy to avoid any available reference to it if she can help it.  It’s scarcely a head in the sand type of strategy, there’s little new for her to learn.  She’s not unusual in our crew, and thus I knew I could go to Auschwitz on behalf of all these girls who may never have the emotional stamina nor desire to do so.  I informally planned my vacation as a Jewish heritage tour, dedicated to my girls and larger Brandeis universe.  Excitedly, as odd as that sounds and feels, I set off.  Oswiecism (sp??) Poland, the town of Auschwitz and Birkenau, is a 90 minute bus ride from Krakow.  One my second day in Krakow, I ventured out in 55 degree rainy weather to make the trip.  For about $8, a three and a half hour English-language tour takes you through Auschwitz for two hours, and Birkenau for an hour, shuttling the group the two miles between on a bus.  With the weather and the summer tourist season in full swing, the two camps were cold and muddy outside, and hot, crowded, sweaty and stifling inside the buildings.  Somehow fitting.  Auschwitz, for those not familiar with the intimate details, was a former Polish army barracks, and at ignorant first glance it is a pleasant, orderly layout of sturdy, tidy brick buildings that I wondered were similar to anything my U.S. Army veteran father might have lived in during his service.  Its design, despite the Nazis’ fastidious approach to genocide, feels at complete odds with the atrocities that occurred within.  The tour is thorough, and mine was delivered at an efficient, stoic clip by a Polish guide.  Having found warmth lacking in most of my abbreviated exchanges with service personnel in Eastern Europe thus far, her style didn’t strike me as unusual, but her employment as a tour guide at Auschwitz struck me as one of the more bizarre occupations in the universe.  (Over the course of the three hours, I saw the softness in her eyes, and the sad way she had a detailed answer to every additional question, and I perceived a nationalistic commitment to educating visitors fueling her work.)   Translated English is always an entertaining, curious, abbreviated form of speaking, and this was no different.  The information is synthesized in a form easiest for the translator to dispel, so the nuances of how fascism grows and ethnic cleansing follows are boiled down into “First the Nazis killed the Poles.  Then they killed the Jews.  These were their trading partners for the remains of the exterminated.  These are the countries who knew and did nothing.   This is when and where it happened.  Any questions?  Thank you for coming.�  Details are inserted as necessary, and artifacts and photos adorn the original and recreated camp grounds. The brutal, unbelievable reality of the Holocaust unfolds in a numbing monotone amidst garish Western European and North American crowds in brightly colored $3 ponchos and video cameras shuffling from room of human hair to execution wall to prison cell to gas chamber, signs in Polish, English and Hebrew supplementing the voices of the guides drowning one another out in the poor acoustics of the army barracks cum death camps.  I spent some cognitive time debating the distaste of museum crowds at Auschwitz with the obvious need to never ignore what had occurred.  I hung in for awhile, my intellectual curiosity and sheer lack of ability to relate to starvation chambers overriding the growing horror and awareness of what I was walking through.  Then we came to the exhibit of artifacts retained from the exterminated populations.  In one room was two tons of Jewish women’s human hair, sold to a German company for textile purposes.  One long hallway was lined from waist to ceiling with shoes of the murdered.  Combs and brushes were in another room.  And slowly, it started to wear me down.  An exhibit of suitcases from Jewish families offered up all the names I’ve come to know since the days of Brandeis – Neumann, Rosenfeld, Weinberg.  Another room of pots and pans devastated me from the hope implied in lugging your pots and pans with you to your anticipated “better life�, as the guide explained.  (It’s one thing to pack combs, pomade, your eyeglasses, and shoes.  Pots and pans don’t sit so easily in a valise or suit pocket.)  I recognized the prayer shawls as the guide was expla
ining their meaning to the group.   And finally, pictures of the numbers tattooed on prisoners, and walls of photographs of prisoners (almost none Jews, btw.  By the time they started transporting them in large numbers to the camps, the practice of photographing was dropped as too expensive, and, I believe, a waste of time/effort for Jewish prisoners.)  I began to cry, with difficulty quietly, thinking of the grandfather of one of my best friends from college who survived Auschwitz.  I never knew what that meant, the kind of maze he got through, with so many ways to die built in at every turn.  It’s my understanding this grandfather is not an easy relative to bear, but in this moment and forever I forgive him all the grief of his grandson, though it’s certainly not my place to bestow any such tidings.  But having laid out for me how exactly so many died, the multiple creative ways the Nazis went about determining how to kill Jews, Poles, Gypsies, gays with the greatest of pain and suffering, and knowing that one of my favorite people in the world is exactly that because his grandfather eluded this web is truly overwhelming.   I am in some version of love with this friend at the moment, so grateful and overwhelmed am I that he is with me today. 
The 30 minutes spent waiting for the shuttle bus, boarding the bus, riding the bus, disembarking at Birkenau, breaks the spell of Auschwitz’s horrors, and I found myself reluctant to continue the tour.  Why am I doing this?  I wondered to myself.  I think I get it.  Thus, while the guide books claim Birkenau, with its eerie, sheer size, is more traumatizing for many visitors than Auschwitz, I found myself somewhat numb by the time we were trekking across the former “Jewish platforms� next to the railroad tracks to the two decimated gas chambers at the end.  In my MBA way I have a tendency to interpret everything in language more suitable to corporate boardrooms.  And more than the lack of ability to process any more information by the time we reached Birkenau, was my interpretation of the relationship between the two camps.  Birkenau is often referred to in the tour and in photos as Auschwitz II, as it was built several years after Auschwitz (I) was in operation in order to carry out the Nazis’ plan to exterminate the world’s Jewish population.  As a former manager of new business development, what I saw in Auschwitz was a training ground for the Nazis to perfect their arts of death, torture, and sadism, and Birkenau as their effect to bring economies of scale to their operations.  Auschwitz was where they worked out the kinks in their systems, established their trading partners/business relationships, and prepared for the launch of their system in a wholesale fashion. Although Birkenau was sickening in its finishing touches of inhumanity (scant wooden cabins, atrocious, humiliating “bathroom� facilities, etc.), Auschwitz was more profoundly disturbing to me as the Nazi’s testing ground to make sure they got genocide right.  Fucking sick.  I had made a mental note to go back and see the exhibit of Czech Jews when the official tour was over (in tribute to my friend’s grandfather), but when it finally ended, I found myself running for the bus.  So anxious to get away, I fell asleep immediately on board, and didn’t wake until we were just outside the train station in Krakow.I’m alone on this trip, and while e-mail access was easy in Poland, I had a terrible time navigating international phone calls.  In bits and pieces over the next few days, I began to send out spurts of this experience to friends via email.  While I loved Krakow and would love to explore more of Poland and Eastern Europe in the future, I couldn’t quite recover from the enormity of the history lesson that day.  Attempts to visit the Jewish quarter in Krakow the next day were foiled when I couldn’t bear how every exhibit summarized its Jewish history with “and then it ended because our population was decimated in the Holocaust.   Thank you for visiting.  Please donate.�  Every exhibit, the same ending.  It was too much, too depressing, too awful, and instead I wandered among art galleries and avoiding the flourishing antique business in this country where 6,000,000 of its population was exterminated 60 years ago.  I didn’t need to view anymore pomade cans, nor purchase any, what with their suspicious availability. When I was at Brandeis, I dated actively and frequently ran up against rejection from Jews uncomfortable with dating non-Jews.  While I filled out surveys on my knowledge of Yiddish for doctoral thesis research at Brandeis and knew not to mix milk and meat in certain dining halls, I’ve never been to Israel, and have only been to synagogue once.  Whenever more than one of us is in a majority of Jews, my few non-Jewish Brandeis friends and I always acknowledge it.  (“Hey, four G’s,� a friend remarked last fall at a Jewish wedding when the two couples we comprised waiting in the hotel lobby were all Gentiles. Wondertwins Power – Activate!)  Finally reaching maturity and comfort levels to be okay with this enduring oscillation in and out of this world, I’ve repositioned what often felt like a marginal role to more of an ambassador of sorts.  I adore that I am so intimately familiar with this small, private universe (since Brandeis, I’ve been in an Orthodox Jewish wedding (in addition to attending five others so far), and stayed with Lubovitchers when traveling through South Africa.) and I rely heavily on it as a safe haven for aspects of my identity I feel are not in sync with my own ethnic history.   My secondary education was steeped in American history, particularly the Revolutionary War period, given our centrality in the event, and while I learned about the Holocaust and World War II, I can’t even recall what I learned.  I remember reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and John Hersey’s Hiroshima in an accelerated freshman English class, but generally, lessons of WWII, the Holocaust, genocide, mass atrocities against humanity, somehow faded in comparison to my sophomore year American History teacher hoofing it around our town in the wee morning hours to try to photograph historic squares and greens without any cars in them, so we might think we were transported back into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  I have a hard time absorbing information without a frame of reference, and thus internalizing the specific ethnic devastation of WWII was virtually lost on me without actually knowing more than a few Jews, liberal divorcees like my mother, her colleagues.  Coming to Brandeis and befriending/infiltrating t
he worlds of Camp Ramah and USY came with all sorts of information, but at 18, 19, even the wise old age of 21, it’s rarely couched in large historic, global terms.  I remember my friend Denise telling me she was a Zionist, and I still think of her as one to this day, but I remember not really knowing what she meant about the affiliation with Israel, and I’d probably benefit from her reviewing her position with me now.  And my best friend Leah (as in Princess), a bible scholar in early adolescence, and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met (I think her brain may literally be a sponge, though she’s too smart for Trivial Pursuit), has been my key informant on all subjects Judaica.   I’ll never forget the two of us in a bar at Logan Airport our senior year en route to St. Louis, likely thrilled to be drinking at the airport now that we were 21, but what we were talking about was the history of Israel (she was teaching it to me).  I’ve watched my peers recite prayers before taking a bite of food, I’ve had brunch to the tunes of Orthodox prayers on Saturday mornings, and I was a bridesmaid in an Orthodox Jewish wedding, but marrying the historical significance of Judaism, the Diaspora, Israel, so on and so forth, when I’ve been in a synagogue once, never to Israel, haven’t had a long-term romantic relationship with a Jewish man, the day to day reality of moving in a Jewish universe and the global significance of the Holocaust and why my guy friends wouldn’t date me were never married before.
Until now. Ironically, it took a break up over cultural differences with a South Asian for me to really begin to understand the Jewish preference of dating only Jews prevalent in my Brandeis world.  I recognize its merits, and at this point am wary of dating Jews for fear this topic will ultimately arise.  Spending the last two weeks in Eastern Europe – headquartered in Budapest, Hungary, with the largest European Jewish population and second-largest synagogue in the world and traveling to Poland with its former Nazi back office existence and virtually nil Jewish population today and visiting Auschwitz, the proposed center of European Jew extermination – has been a revisit to all that mires me to this brilliant and insular world of which I firmly consider myself a part.  I hung out with an Israeli for a few days in Budapest, and it was days before he realized I wasn’t actually Jewish with my explanations of visits to Auschwitz and Jewish history, etc.  Especially, I see more than ever the enduring if subtle pain and more explicit sense of responsibility, pride and commitment of my friends to continue to raise strong, healthy, proud Jewish families in a world that should only be described with the same adjectives.  Studying cultural and ethnic sociology in my graduate program, I formally learn that Jews are a true American success story in terms of minority achievement, and I am able to put theory behind my first-hand experiences.  But this trip to Auschwitz, with its acknowledgement of the survival of my friend’s grandfather, it’s confirmation of the sanity of my best friend to resist traipsing through death camps that at least her grandmother avoided by fleeing Krakow, and it’s unsettling of me in less than three hours such that I spent the rest of my trip shopping and drinking and have sat for the last three hours inside my Budapest hotel room writing this as the Non-Jew (Capital N, Capital J) with the American Jewish community as my reference group all over again…


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