#WeRemember: We were all in Egypt. We were all at Sinai. Were we all at Auschwitz?

http://catherinemathenet.com/1174-dtgf90562-rencontre-gay-a-velo.html I began writing this piece for Yom HaShoah last year and it has taken me a year to finish. 

https://www.datulliopizza.it/1427-dtit69572-l'essenza-di-un-uomo-si-trova-nei-suoi-difetti.html As I write, I look at the small black and white photo of an old Jewish rebbe that sits on a shelf in my living room. He is dressed in traditional east European dress and has a long white beard. He looks like every picture of every orthodox rebbe in every Jewish history book.  On the back, in my grandmother’s handwriting, are the words: “my mother’s brother – killed in Auschwitz”. He has no name. My grandmother never knew him. When she died, I found the picture in a pile of old photos and put it in a frame.

szukam kobiety lodz My grandfather came from Warsaw when he was a boy. His fierce hated of Poland never left. He would not talk about it and we did not ask, but it was ever present. In 1993, when I get off the plane in Warsaw I expect to be met by angry peasants with pitchforks and torches. 

http://alpineguide.cz/cs--kontaktOranĹžovÄ‚Ë There are no pitchforks, but there is antisemitic graffiti throughout the city: “Zydow do gazu” – Jews to the gas; drawings of gallows hanging the Star of David. It was a time when politicians attacked their opponents by accusing them of having Jewish blood.  I put the Magen David (Star of David) that I wore around my neck inside my shirt so no one could see. 

I go to Vilna and take an old bus to the forest of Ponary where one hundred thousand Jews were shot. It is winter and cold and the trees are old and tall and bare. The sky is white and high and far away and I can see my breath. I walk down the road and something hits me from behind and I fall forward into the snow and a car full of Russian soldiers pulls up and they are yelling “Zyd Zyd” – Jew Jew. Someone runs up to me and the soldiers drive away waving their guns in the air and screaming antisemitic insults at us. 

I am not frightened until days afterward when I begin to shake and cannot stop.

Later, I am on a bus in Warsaw and an old man gets on and there are no seats. I should give him mine, but I wonder: what did he do during the war? Did he look away as the Jews suffered? Did he betray the Jews who hid? Did he hurt my family? He is old and I must give him my seat but I do not want to, so I simply get off the bus at the wrong stop and walk to my apartment in the rain.

I walk to ul. Marszalkowska, where my grandfather’s family once had a luggage and leather goods store. I wander the few remaining streets of the old Jewish quarter and the ghetto and I look for the Jews. I look for the stories and the pictures I had grown up with. I walk and walk and search and search. I thought that if I just turned the corner fast enough I would find them still there, speaking Yiddish and looking like my great grandmother’s brother in the picture. I never found them. I knew they were gone, and yet. And yet. Every shtetl I visited, every ruined synagogue I wandered, I held my breath and I heard their whispers just around the next corner and I could not find them. They whisper to me now and I feel I am failing them.

At Majdanek, outside Lublin, the camp remains as it was. The wooden barracks line up one next to the other. I enter and it is cold and dark and smells of things I cannot name. I walk down the aisle through the barrack and on either side there is wire mesh from floor to ceiling and behind the mesh are shoes. Thousands and thousands of once Jewish shoes. Old brown leather, dusty and mildewed and decaying. Shoes from the floor to the ceiling that are missing their owners.

I enter the second barrack and it is the same. Thousands upon thousands of old shoes from floor to ceiling and they do not end. I push my nose into the wire and I look at boots and heels fancy and plain and I smell my people.

I enter the third barrack and it is filled with the shoes of children and I cannot breathe. Babies’ shoes and toddlers’ shoes and children’s shoes big and small and I do not know how to live with all these dead children. 

And now I have my children’s shoes saved in a little box in the attic. Beautiful clean little white leather shoes that smell of happiness and the sweetness of my Jewish babies’ skin.

And I am every Jewish mother and I hear the whisper of every child.

When we gather for the Passover seder we read from the Haggadah: Avadim hayeenu biMitzrayim. We were slaves in Egypt. Not THEY were slaves in Egypt. WE were slaves in Egypt. We tell the story as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt.  If we all know the pain of slavery and the joy of liberation, we must know the pain that others who are enslaved feel and the value of their liberation.  If we know their pain, we cannot find it acceptable.

In Hebrew school we learned that Moses went up Mount Sinai and received the Torah and brought it down the mountain to the waiting Jews. The rabbi told us that all Jewish souls – the living, the dead, and the ones yet to be born, were present at Sinai at this moment.  We were all there. Law and ethics and responsibility are not given to a select few of a specific generation. They are given to all and they bind us to one another.

We were all in Egypt. We were all at Sinai. Were we all at Auschwitz? 

All that I come from teaches that we are every one of us connected. If it happens to one, it can happen to another. We must have empathy. We must see ourselves in others. The value of the other is enshrined in Jewish law. 

At every stop in Poland, and every stop since then, I hear the voices whispering to me.  

You are not obligated to finish the work of healing the world, but neither are you allowed to desist from it.

Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot)

But the amount of suffering in the world is so immense, how do I do this and not despair? I used to remind myself of the saying in Pirkei Avot: “you are not obligated to finish the work of healing the world, but neither are you allowed to desist from it.” And that was enough. I could work on my own little piece of the world and believe that it was valuable, life-affirming, faith–affirming work. I could somehow fit my belief in with all of the awful things I saw happening in the world that I tried to fix, however incompletely. I could see my work as trying to make change, trying to honor the lives of those who had died. I could accept – this is the wrong word, but I haven’t got another one – the suffering of human beings at the hand of other human beings. I cannot accept it; and still, their voices whisper.

It sometimes becomes too much.

I consider Job, and Abraham, and Lillith and all those who raised hand and voice in anger and defiance and questioning of what and who we do not understand: those who believe not because of, but in spite of our actions. 

So I listen as they whisper of the time when it was Simchat Torah in one of the camps. A day of joy to dance with the Torah and celebrate the law. There was no Torah in the camp, but there was a young boy. A young Jewish boy not yet old enough to learn Torah, but who knew the Shema. “Enough,” they said, and they held him aloft and danced. 

They whisper of the mother in the Janowska camp who begged for a knife as the deportation of children began. And who, upon receiving a knife, circumcised her newborn son before the Germans took him away.

They whisper of the Vilna ghetto where they melted the lead typeset from the Holy Books into bullets. “A line from Babylon, a line from Poland.” Letter after letter. 

I do not know what to do other than to continue teaching. To accept that many days I will teach from a place of despair. But other days I will teach from a place of joy or sadness or anger. And perhaps, as long as I work from a place of feeling, that is enough.

Erica Nadelhaft

Erica Nadelhaft

Northern Maine Educator Erica Nadelhaft was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but grew up in Maine and Scotland (United Kingdom). She is an adjunct professor of World and European history at the University of Maine at Fort Kent and received a BA in History from Brandeis University and a MA in Contemporary Jewish Studies with a specialization in the Holocaust from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her article, “Resistance through Education: Jewish Youth Movements in Warsaw”, was published in POLIN: Studies in Polish Jewry (Oxford University Press). She has also worked as a book group facilitator and program evaluator for the Maine Humanities Council and as a Polish and Hebrew translator for POLIN. She is a regular lecturer for the Fort Kent Senior College. She has three grown daughters and lives in Fort Kent, Maine, with her husband.
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