International Holocaust Remembrance Day was yesterday. I fine-tuned an essay I wrote a few years ago and discovered a few reflective thoughts running parallel with my theme in my memoir, Under the Birch Tree. I hope you take a moment to read my personal account of remembrance.
Sometimes I see my world as segregated, either black or white. My tidy thinking and tendency to categorize allows me to understand and to make sense of things. But segregation is unrealistic because there is gray, the gray of neutrality, of not being on either end of any spectrum. Transitioning from one end to the other is like entering a lighted tunnel, passing through the dark that slowly turns to gray, and then the brightness welcomes you. The gray is the middle matter that becomes the necessity to get to another side, that signals hope and that there will always be a destination, that there will always be light at the end.
It was a bright, chilly autumn day with the sun radiating overhead streaming to the new cement underfoot, illuminating the “Righteous Among the Nations” wall. Gusty winds reached my bones, giving me goosebumps or did my skin prickle because of the many names I read on that wall. I continued walking. Looming ashen gray walls obscured the blackness of the building’s entrance where I noticed a stark contrast of bright sunlight on one side of me with the darkness on the other side. The light and then the absence of it forewarned me as to what I was about to pass through. I was stepping into a piece of preserved history.
My expectations of being greeted with illumination, color, pictures, conversation, and perhaps music, vanished. Once inside the building, the darkness and the quiet made me feel out of place, uncomfortable, perhaps a little frightened. There was no spirit, no energy, no welcome mat underfoot, nothing to offer me a sense of orientation while I made my way to a glass window defined by dim florescence to pay for a ticket. I cleared a security check and headed to a long visitor desk characterized by stark lines with barely any curve to its design. Overhead beams of light on two women who welcomed me, eased my intimidation. Light made me feel safe. But I still could not escape the darkness and disorientation that followed me as if I were entering a tunnel and needed to seek my way out to the other side.
After a brief conversation with the women, I was oriented to start my journey.
“The exhibit begins over there,” the coifed, reserved woman said quietly. “Just stand in front of the doors and they’ll open.” The absence of light distracted me from noticing signs of direction. Dark-glassed automatic sliding doors opened to begin my journey through the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
The museum opened in 2009 in Skokie, Illinois, and I was reminded of its existence when I would pass it on my way to and from my home. I wondered how the memories of millions of people are being honored. Perhaps my answer would be my closure knowing they will never be forgotten. But yet could I fully understand the history and such a wound in humanity?
According to President Emeritus Sam Harris, “We dreamt of creating a place that would not only serve as a memorial to our families that perished and the millions lost, but also where young minds could learn the terrible dangers of prejudice and hatred.”
The permanent exhibition is a series of twenty-nine galleries, masterfully detailed through videos, photos, maps, and over five hundred artifacts. It is well crafted, enabling the visitor to learn a piece of history starting with the world shortly before the rise of Nazism. A dramatic display of the November 1938 pogroms, in a back corner, allowed for ample space to experience Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, the beginning of the Holocaust. I followed the flow of galleries as the world went to war, anti-Semitism spread, and ghettos were created. And then there were the camps.
It was difficult to study every detail nailed in glass enclosures or framed against a dark wall, such as German passports and ID cards stamped with a red “J” because there were so many of them. Reconciling being branded something that is other must have been inexplicable, defying reason, frightening. But it was the details where I saw humanity being stripped away with each piece of story told, through each exhibit. In the dark and the despair, there was no understanding as Jewish life grew harder with discrimination and social barriers. Anti-semitism could no longer be a matter of religion or politics. It became a matter of biology, of race.
Public humiliation was rampant. Men’s beards were cut on the street. Jews were identified by a badge in coded shapes and color, a number. Human dignity no longer existed as Jews were completely stripped. Nakedness. To be human was to value yourself, your identity, from your hair, to your clothes to your first, middle, and last names. No one else shared these things. Your uniqueness was your humanity and when that was taken away, as was for the Jews, you were a no one, a nobody. Jews endured no place, no purpose; they must have felt as a nobody.
Layers of Jewish identity were peeled away until the Final Solution, presented at the Wannsee Conference, removed them from their last source of identification, of belonging: their homes. The self could no longer be defined. The extension of oneself was broken.
What is home? There is nothing like feeling at home, knowing you are firmly planted where you will not be betrayed by the earth beneath you, causing you to lose your footing and be insecure or unwelcome. There is a connection to where you call home. It is where you are from, your identity.
Liberation started in 1944, but not before the deaths of eleven million people; 6 million of them were Jews.
What happens to people after they are liberated?
To be liberated is to be shown that the gates to life are open. Human emotions, like joy and love, are once again there. But so are mourning and sadness.
Where now are their homes? Your home is not where strangers are living or “even your Yiddish existence,” said one survivor.
It is human nature to want a place to belong. Finding firm ground in Israel was the connection for some survivors, a place they could call home. Wherever you found yourself was a new challenge, living day to day while remembering the camps. An overwhelming quest for normalcy was most prevalent among the survivors. For others, trying to become Americanized was a struggle. Going to college, finding a job, perhaps starting a business appeared to be attainable goals where a sense of home, connection, and identity could be regained.
When one survivor starting dreaming, and dreaming in English no less, he knew he belonged.
The reminders of loss were constant during holidays and when in the presence of children. Memory could be reclaimed and defended even though emptiness remained. Emptiness was difficult to preserve. It faded and had limits but as long as the value was remembered.
And then there was the light.
The Room of Remembrance was like an oasis of strength and nourishment after walking through the thick, cloudy environs of death and torture. The Room was round, leaving me with a feeling of endless movement, with no particular starting place or ending spot. It was an homage to six million Jews, representative names of victims finding a place, inscribed in the walls. Beams of bright light cast a warm energy on those names in black letters. Sitting on a wood bench that accompanied the walls was to draw in those remembered and to promise them that they would never be forgotten. I inhaled deeply, counter to my shallow breaths as I walked each gallery. I rested in silent prayer, embracing the warmth of the honey-colored wood. I remembered them. And then I moved on.
How fitting that number 29, the Pritzker Hall of Reflection, should be the last gallery. The light here was bright, blue, invigorating like a beacon in the sky summoning me to feel freedom and connection among all else that lives. In the windows, the light of a memorial candle, symbolic of life, stood in the middle of each square, with each white box set in a row punctuating the curve of the wall. It was a message of hope.
I indeed witnessed the black and the white beginning with the dichotomy of the building’s exterior and repeating in the interior where black spoke as an ominous beginning – a descent into darkness – to white, liberation and renewal of survivors. And I also traveled through the gray. It was the light at the end that signaled the beginning again. For all those who survived the Holocaust, I hope they found home in the light at the end of their tunnel.