NOMAD NOTES – Chapter 4 – Looking It in the Eyes, Prague, Czech Republic, August 28, 2016
I’ve been trying to write this for a few days, since my experiences in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, Poland, and my visit to the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau a few days ago. Today I will visit the Jewish Quarter here in beautiful Prague.
The Prague Castle compound is vast and gorgeous, and I sit here in my nearby apartment, hearing the early morning sounds of trams and cars, even on a Sunday.
I take my freedom for granted.
I grew up in New York, where the Jewish population was at least 25% of the city, as it was in Krakow before the Nazis. Krakow is still considered a center of Jewish life in Europe, and as soon as you walk into the Kazimierz district, you can see it and hear it.
Sounds of live Klezmer music pervade the air, as I stroll the square, past shops and synagogues. Tourists fill the cafés, here to see the setting made famous in our time by Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List.
The restaurants offer Jewish specialties like Gefilte Fish, and others that my food allergies no longer permit me to eat, but whose taste I remember.
I feel immediately at home, and tears of recognition fill my eyes. I’ve travelled half the night and half the day to get here from Tel Aviv. I’ve come to the right place.
At home in the suburbs of New York where I grew up, dinner was always served at 6:00 pm. There was no TV on, it was always a full meal, and we talked, discussing different subjects important to the family, what I did in school, even our philosophy of life. I was always encouraged to freely express my views, even as a child. (I notice I’ve used the word ‘always’ three times. That’s how I remember it; that’s how it was.)
Culturally Jewish and a born Buddhist, I believed then (and still believe now) in the equality and essential goodness of all humans; in each person’s capacity to manifest that goodness. This was one of the topics of conversation at the dinner table. And it was a debated topic: Nature or Nurture, or both?
The obvious example, with World War II still pretty fresh in my parents’ minds, was Hitler. Could he possibly have been born innocent?
My parents didn’t want to force their views on me, but they refused to buy a Volkswagon or other German products. I maintained that you cannot blame today’s generation for the errors of the past, which I still believe. Then the day came, in 9th Grade Humanities Class, when I was shown the photographs of piled up bodies taken at the liberation of the camps. I still remember those photos as if it were yesterday; they changed my life.
Growing up Jewish in New York I was not aware of prejudice. Yes, I was a minority in class in my neighborhood, but Leonard Bernstein conducted the NY Philharmonic and the vibrant and prominent Jewish population seemed to define the city. Jews were an important and respected presence, probably like they were in Krakow before the war.
It has taken me all of my life to get up the courage to look the Holocaust in the face. My Buddhist chanting has strengthened me, and a few days ago, with my stomach in knots, I boarded a bus in Krakow for a guided English language tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
The trip there takes over an hour, and they showed a preparatory documentary en route, during which I cried. The driver was friendly, the coach was comfortable, and when we got to Auschwitz, the visitors of all nations were plentiful. Well organized, each group had it’s own channel on the audio system, with a local guide who spoke the language needed.
My guide was wonderful. He was not dispassionate. He clearly deplored the degradation, deceit, torture and death inflicted by the Nazis in the camps. He made it easier for me to bear.
The camps are a UNESCO site, so preservation has been carefully seen to, with delicate artifacts such as human hair, shoes and personal belongings protected behind glass as you walk the camp and inside the buildings, with the guide pointing out both conditions of life and methods of death in the actual setting, telling stories that made it all too real.
The railroad car in which they arrived packed like cattle, the train platform where 75% – the weakest ones who could not do hard labor – were immediately lead off to the gas chambers, the straw mats and bunks where people were jammed like sardines to sleep, the latrines where the guards timed each person 15 seconds, the crematorium.
I mopped my eyes and took pictures and video. If they could bear to live it, I could bear to look at it. And I’m shaking with tears now, as I understand why it has been hard to sit down to write this.
DNA analysis from two different sources (Ancestry.com and The Human Genographic Project) has told me that I am very Jewish. 84% Eastern European Jewish by Ancestry’s count, while results from the Genographic Project link my origins to the very first Ashkenazi Jews.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t know my own people if I don’t look at this. I’ve understood that being Jewish includes having the Holocaust (and the cultural survival of historic persecution, even though as a New York Jew I haven’t felt it) be part of the definition of who you are. Looking it in the eyes is looking myself, and the story of my DNA, in the eyes.
After learning everyone else’s languages and singing everyone else’s songs, I’m hear to learn about my own, to accept my Jewishness into my heart with pride.