Before you start reading today’s post below, I must admit that I didn’t think I would write another blog entry about yet another difficult place to be. I was feeling pretty done. I was looking forward to sharing the other side of Poland, its sheer natural beauty, its youthful people filling the streets and the cafes, its incredible museums etc… But, once again today, a mournful place connected to the Shoah surprised us by its simplicity and its power. Though I share some of my thoughts about “tomorrow” at the end, I confess that the place I find myself in reaction to being in the camps, the Ghettos or (as in this case) the deportation stations in particular, or to talking about the Shoah in general is a resounding “I don’t know.” The meaninglessness of it all, the emptiness one is left feeling within, have yet to allow any kind of conclusive “next step” if such a thing is even possible. It is from this “not knowing” that I write the following few words.
It would be easier to hate. When I was in my early teens growing up in France and started to learn about the Shoah, the Holocaust, I became angry and hateful towards the Germans. I promised myself never to go east, never to visit Germany, Poland or all these other countries with peoples I held responsible for the atrocities of the Shoah. Every time I met a group of German tourists of a certain age, I wondered about their role during the war. I hated them. I took this hatred all the way to Israel when I emigrated there from France (France didn’t have a clean record when it came to its Jews either) and channeled it into a virulently right-wing Zionism. I know that a lot of my French friends in Jerusalem felt the same way. I have found in my aging, however, that this capacity for hating was, at some point, left behind. Hate and the desire for revenge make things easier. It paints a more black-and-white picture of our interpreted reality about who the bad guys and the good guys are, and gives the hatter the illusion of control and power, which in the reality of the absence of both is deeply satisfying. A part of me wishes that I could revert back to my impassioned youthful hateful self, right now. It would have made being at the Lodz Ghetto deportation train station simpler and, perhaps, more tangible.
But I can no longer hate the Nazis. I am the Nazis. The Nazi part of consciousness that allows for this train station is part of my own make-up and, under the right circumstances, could easily be re-activated. I can’t hate the Poles either. I don’t know what I would have done living in fear under Nazi rule all these years. Besides, so many of them risked their lives and their children’s lives to save Jews. Additionally, I felt in all our traveling and being in so many places where the events of the Jewish mass murder took place that they have done an incredible job making sure monuments are built, sites are preserved and schools take their students there. I wonder what it would look like if, in the good US of A, we would have done half as good a job commemorating the native-American genocide or African-American slavery.
This remarkably preserved train station had a little museum inside its walls about the history of the Jews of Lodz in part but, mostly, about its WWII Ghetto. Around the deportation station was a tall concrete wall with different commemorative inscriptions engraved. The concrete wall behind the station was in the shape of a series of giant Jewish tombstones each bearing the name of one of the camps those who came through this space were sent to. All that I missed at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw was here in Lodz’ Umschlagplatz: the platform where Jews were gathered before climbing onto the train, the rail tracks themselves, as well as three well-preserved war-era cattle cars still waiting. One of them was left open and the public was welcomed to step into it. For some irrational reason my first reaction at the site of the open cattle car was fear, and the impulse to run away. “I could never do that,” I thought to myself, “that’s beyond where I am willing to go.” But I looked around and, this time, there were no yelling Nazis and no barking German shepherds. A few of our group had already gone in and were able to come out unharmed. Now I wanted to get in, I wanted to wrap myself in the four wooden walls of the rusty car. I went to one of the corners of the car and began to look at the beautiful green grass on this rainy day through a little whole between its wooden slats. In a moment as more and more people would crowd around me, the car would begin to move. I could still see, through my little hole, on my way to death, the green grass of life continuing to grow without me. Soon I would be naked in a cold barrack awaiting my faceless assassination. I could hear them around me stepping on each other in this too small a car with their heavy bags full of hope or denial. Two hundred plus of us, squeezed into the 21.3 m2 car, standing here suffocating with no room for our body to find rest. There are places like this one, where you can hear the past.
I wanted to hate the Nazis. I really did. But I couldn’t. The Shoah is both horribly human, and completely beyond human understanding at the same time. To me it represents the darkest expression of the conditioned ego; this same ego which, especially at such times as these, is also capable of expressing as the greatest human light. A part of me naively believes that “never again” can only be true if most of humanity manages to wake up from ego-consciousness. Our tradition calls this the messianic age, when most of humankind will reach Messiah-consciousness. But short of that, as this might take us many more generations, at the level of your and my everyday life of ego-consciousness, we need to begin telling a different story about what defines us as human beings: a story of collaboration instead of competition, a story of preservation instead of destruction, a story of oneness instead of separation, a story of recognition instead of exclusion, ultimately a story of pluralism instead of racism, prejudice or intolerance. This is the story we need to tell, the story our world is in dire need to hear. The narrative that currently guides our decision both locally and globally, is leading us down a path of planetary destruction. It is barely a notch above Nazi consciousness. But it is just a narrative. We don’t have to subscribe to it any longer. The Shoah demands of us that we evolve our human story.
The Jewish prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau whom we remember each year at our Yizkor service on Yom Kippur, used to sing a song our group sang when we were there: “Ani Ma’amin. I believe with complete faith in the coming of Messianic-consciouness; and even though it may be delayed, I will wait for it with every day that comes.” May we find the strength to write anew, and before it is too late, the human story of tomorrow.