My Jewish experience, I had always thought, was pretty rich. I never remember a time when I didn’t know Jewish people. I grew up in a very wealthy North Jersey suburb and I would say about 10 to 15% of the population was Jewish. I can’t remember a time when I was comfortable saying “Merry Christmas” for the winter holidays – so many people I knew were Jewish! It was always “Happy Holidays”. In my grammar school holiday concerts, we sang: ‘Oh Hanukkah’ and ‘Dradle, Dradle’ as well as “Deck the Halls”. As I grew, I made several Jewish friends and went to several bar/bat mitzvahs. I remember being amazed by the way they would lift the honoree up on a chair and dance with her! My last serious boyfriend (before André) was Jewish as well. His parents had luckily escaped Germany before the Third Reich came into power. I had my first Seder with them. One of my roommates in college was half Jewish – and I had Seder with them as well.
Of course, I also learned a bit of Jewish history in school. One of my favorite books as a kid was about a poor Jewish family living in NYC (“All of a kind Family”) and as I got older, I read The Diary of Anne Frank and many other holocaust stories. The school play my senior year was Fiddler on the Roof. I cried with André as we visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. when we were dating.
As adults, we moved to Mount Airy. I was thrilled to see there was a thriving Jewish population. I made lots of new friends (some of which were Jewish) and even got invited to a bris and a naming ceremony. As my loyal readers most likely know, I love to learn more about new cultures and experiences and, if possible, understand them. Before I left for Europe, I thought I understood the Jewish experience pretty well, for an outsider.
I was wrong. When I got to France, to Besancon, I saw there was no noticeable Jewish population. In fact, I have yet to meet a French Jewish person (that I know of—we’ve met people with Jewish roots, but non-practicing). As we have traveled over the past few years, we have learned more about how the history of pograms has effected the Jewish people throughout European history. I remember learning about the persecution of the Jews in small towns like Colmar and Ribeauville and in many larger ones as well. We visited the Anne Franke House in Amsterdam and I read Number the Stars to Zander. In Germany, we visited the Sachenhausen Concentration camp and went to the Jewish Ghetto in Prague. These experiences changed me – they have left me with a deep sorrow. I realize, that the events of the Holocaust are over now – but, it seems to me, there is still this great psychic wound that bleeds over the historic persecutions of these people. It seems that the maltreatment of the Jews leaks into the story of practically every town we visit – if I just look around a tiny bit.
One memorable night, André and I took Zander to the community center in a local town. The reason for this was that there was to be an Auschwitz survivor talking to us about her experience. Zander was, by far, the youngest member of the audience and some may question our judgment in bringing him to hear such a story. (Although no one there did.) For us, the decision was fairly simple. We know there are people who deny the Holocaust happened. We want Zander to know the truth, to be able to say, someday, that he knows the Holocaust was real because he met someone who survived it. Fact is, there aren’t many survivors left. The person we met must have been over 80 years old, but she was still strong and articulate and talked to us for over an hour. As a young 18 year old living in occupied Paris, she did all the normal things an 18 year old would do – go out, dance, try to alter her Jewish ID card so she could have more freedom. She eventually was sent to a work camp, and later, Auschwitz. She lived there for over a year, using her wits and incredible spirit to survive, until the camp was liberated. She was so emaciated, her body weighed less than what the total of her bones should have been. She had a long recovery, but now seems totally happy with her life. In fact, even as she told her story, showed her tattoo to us and spoke about the horrors she had experienced, she said, several times, that she also remembered the joy. She said the Nazis tried everything to take away their individuality, their spirit – to make them into animals. But the ones who survived held on to their dignity – they told jokes, they sang songs, they learned each other’s stories – this, more than anything, is what kept them alive. It has been about 3 months since we met her – and here is what Zander remembers:
Well’ she was sitting around in her house one day and her dad went to work like usual and then he didn’t come home that night or after that or the night after that, and then, the day after that, someone knocked at the door and they said: “Come with all your rich stuff, your clothes and your shoes and come with me, tomorrow at the police station.” And then she arrived to the police station she talked a bit and then they said: “You can go back home, but tomorrow you have to go to the train station.” And then she got to the train station, she got on the train and then it was not a comfy train. It was like you were in an animal box, with like 50 people, you were all squished, squished, squished! And then she arrived to a place, it was the winter, it was snowing, and then some people said: “Go and gather up rocks and bring it in here!” And then that night they went into a room they slept – so, like in one bed like as big as a cot, there would be 3 people. And that morning they said: “Tea Time!” Which they translated it into lots of languages so people would know. Then they came in, and the younger kids got to get a lot of tea, but the big ones just got what was left. Then at lunch there was salad and so, the salad, the younger people got it, and all that was left was like 5 leaves and you were like: “I want it!” “I want it!” “No, it’s mine!” “No it’s mine!!!” So it was hard to get enough to eat. In the night they would have soup, and all the young ate a lot of the soup, but once it arrived into the old room, there was barely nothing left. And there was a gas room, it was pretending to be a shower, but instead of water coming out, gas would come out. They would put the people in there – they closed the gas proof doors and sppppppppppppshhh – and then everyone would die. And when everyone was died, dead, they would put them in a place underground and let the next group in. Sometimes people would just die because they were so hungry too – so what they would do with that, was that there was a moat around the place, with lots and lots of rats and the old people would throw the dead person down there and the rats would devour it. And they just continued their life like that for 3 or 4 years – until one day “BOOM, BOOM, you can come out now!” The Americans came and saved the people Then they were giving them yummy things to eat and a lot of them just died from having yummy things – they were so used to having yucky things! They took a bite and were like “Uck, what is this? Is this like ice cream?” and they tried to eat it and some of them died, but after that, and then after a bit they got used to it and were like “yummy food, yummy food” and they started eating more and more and faster and faster so fast they could barely chew – like a chicken leg in one minute! But then they went back to their homes and there were other people living in their homes – so they had to find houses to share they lived poor. Then she got married and she got kids because she was only a kid when she went to the concentration camp. And that’s it.
But what does all this have to do with Vienna Zentralfriedhof? This cemetery is the second largest in all of Europe, it spans 2.4 km and has interred not less than 3.3 million souls. It is the final resting place of many famous people including Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert and many, many more. But the reason we visited was to see the Jewish section. Now, this Jewish section of the cemetery was at least 5 acres. Austria had a huge, well off and quite influential Jewish community before World War II – one that either escaped or was eliminated. Most of the remaining Jewish families were wiped out, and those that survived moved away from Austria. The result of that exodus, on a graveyard, is remarkable. Here is what the graves and building looked like in the ‘Christian’ sections of the cemetery:
Pretty normal, right? There are people who remember these people, who come back to visit, lay flowers on the gravestone, pull the weeds or just pay the maintenance fee for the plots. Periodically they visit, to inter a new loved one or to remember an ancestor. I will never forget the day that my father took me to visit his mother’s grave. In fact, I don’t really remember the grave itself, but more the way my father held my hand as we walked over, and the emotions he had when he showed me her grave, his momma. He was crying and I remember him saying he wished that I had had a chance to know her. I wished it too – and still do. That memory still makes me cry. I knew, then, how important this person had been to my father, and how much he loved her. But here is what the Jewish section of the cemetery looks like in Zentralfriedhof:
Who remembers these people? Who makes their recipes or has their laugh or a bit of a crooked nose? Just today Callie asked me “Mom, why do you have a bump on your nose?” I said it was from the American Indian blood of my grandma. She was amazed to feel that, she too, has a slight bump on her nose, which the boys don’t. It is a link, one of many to my wonderful grandmother, who also gave us our creativity, our loving kindness and so many stories galore to share. As I looked at this graveyard turning to wilderness I thought. Who tells their stories? Is there anyone left who even knows them? I feel outraged at the desecration of this holy place. Some of it is from the weathering of 60 or more years of neglect, but the damage is especially extreme because, on Kristellnacht, this entire section was bombed. We came upon this pile of rubble and, at first, I thought it was just broken rocks. Then I saw some Hebrew letters, some names, tumbled and cart wheeled into each other in an indecipherable mélange. The carvings and images all pock marked, shattered or intentionally cracked. I realized that these were the remains of hundreds of tombstones. They must have been ripped from where they fell and tossed here at one point or another. Most likely to facilitate the annual mowing of the plots. (I think it must happen at least that often or the place would have been utterly consumed by now.)
I can’t help but compare this wreckage to the experience of other damaged holy places we have seen. I cannot count the number of cathedrals that we have been to by now, but I don’t remember any that weren’t damaged in some way by either fire, or bombing or war. In each case, the community rallied around their church, the home of their faith and their ancestors. They rebuilt. Yet who rebuilds after a community has been erased?
We did see this plot (at left). It has been maintained and cared for in the middle of the jungle. Someone, somewhere must remember the Elias family. I guess they were the survivors, one out of so very, very, very many who were lost. They are what is left of the community of Jews that used to live here, the ones whose lives were snuffed out, whose stories were lost and even whose ancestors gravestones are not being given the respect due to them.
I realized that a graveyard, in fact, is NOT a place of death – a graveyard is a living place as long as there are people who remember the people laid to rest there. This place forced me to see that all those grandchildren and great grandchildren who would be alive today never even had a chance to live. The immensity of that loss of life touched me here more than any other place. This wound is not healed.