Tag Archives: Jewish

NOMAD NOTES – Chapter 5 –Victory is Thriving in Spite of It

NOMAD NOTES – Chapter 5 –Victory is Thriving in Spite of It, on the bus from Vilnius, Lithuania to Warsaw, Poland, September 1, 2016

 

I’m up since before dawn, way before my 7:00 am iPhone alarm, with my mind rolling. I’m on an 8-hour bus ride from Vilnius to Warsaw, at a fraction of the price of flying. The driver is capable of asking for your passport in Lithuanian, Russian, English, and heaven knows what other language.

 

Bizarre_Bus_StationThe grim bizarreness of the bus station reminds me that I am in a city that is still recuperating from the Soviet era. Not so far away deluxe shops sell Italian bags to tourists paying with Euros; Lithuania just switched its currency to the Euro last year.

 

But here in the bus station my shocking failure to learn even the most minimal language is impacting my ability to find food I can eat on the bus. EVERYTHING is surrounded by a nice, glutinous roll, I don’t know the word for eggs or how to form a sentence, and I manage to buy an apple and a banana for the trip.

 

I survive getting stuck – together with my luggage – in a floor-to-ceiling turnstyle (think NYC subways) trying to get into the probable last bathroom on land. I’m out of change (what, you want a FREE bathroom??), can’t get out or in, and I’m saved by yet another compassionate young woman. Thank you, Universe.

 

At this point, my wallet is full of receipts, my bank account is close to empty, my emotional tank is full, and I’m flying back to New York tomorrow.

 

I’ve just been told that the bus I’m on will not be stopping at the stop I booked for, Warsaw Central, where I’ve purposely booked my last hotel. I’ve been offered a Metro ticket to get to my destination. Why? This is unacceptable. Traffic is impacting the schedule. Oh, I see. Thanks a lot.

 

I think back over the last two weeks. It’s incredible that I flew to Israel on August 14; was that just 2 weeks ago? It feels like a lifetime. I’ve cried buckets of tears and learned how much I don’t know, like most of the history of my own people.

 

Prague_Synagogue_namesThe Pinkas Synagogue  is the second oldest surviving synagogue in Prague. It commemorates about 78,000 Czech and Moravian Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The floor of the synagogue is below ground level, so it has been repeatedly afflicted by floods and moisture. From 1955-60, the walls of the synagogue were inscribed in tribute with names of about 78,000 victims. The synagogue was closed after less than a decade, in 1968, with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. After the Soviets were ousted in 1989, the synagogue was reconstructed for three years and then opened to public, but it took another three years to restore the inscriptions of the names on the walls that were damaged by moisture (or whatever). In 2002, an old enemy of the synagogue, flood, proved its power and the inscriptions had to be restored again. You cannot begin to imagine the immensity of this task; walls and walls and walls, floor to ceiling. Restored again and again. By hand, dauntlessly. So that the dead who had no graves would not be forgotten.

 

 

Vilna_Old_Town_street_3594.JPGVilnius is referred to as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. It was a center of Jewish learning, and was near the little town where my Grandfather was born and where other family members lived. While the Russian Czar was still in power, my branch of the family immigrated to New York City, in two groups, around 1900. First the father and the oldest sons (among them Morris, my Grandfather), then the mother with the youngest kids. Some other relatives immigrated as well.

 

Those family members who remained, along with almost all their descendants, were killed by the Nazis on the notorious night of November 25, 1944.

 

Vilna_ghetto_map_3554_LOI arrived in Vilnius from Prague by Air Baltic propeller plane, after some nerves but in good shape. A dear friend (and percussionist in my band) put me in touch with an American violinist who had been living in Vilnius for the last 3 years, and by a stroke of luck we were able to connect. Karen was a fountain of information and good advice and she gave me the tour of the Jewish ghetto.

 

No_there_there_3502_LOBut what ghetto? In Krakow, I had walked into the square and cried with the recognition that I had come home. The restaurants serving Jewish specialties accompanied by live Klezmer music; perhaps it had been diminished by the Holocaust but it was still there.

In Vilnius, there was no center. There was no “there” there.

 

 

Vilna_Ghetto_3510_LOThis great center of Jewish learning, of commerce and trade, where did it go? It disappeared, first under the Nazis and then under the Soviets. The market place, where the Jewish community engaged in vibrant commerce is now a little park in the middle of a road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vilna_choral_synagogueBefore World War II, there were 100 synagogues in Vilnius; now only one remains, known as The Choral Synagogue.

 

 

 

 

 

Synagogue_Relics_3482_LOThe main synagogue was destroyed by the Russians in the 1950’s and only these relics remain, housed lovingly in the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum’s Tolerance Museum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
On the plot of land where the Main_synagogue_3563_poster_LOmain synagogue stood, there now stands an elementary school, all trace of it gone. Just a poster, showing where it was, a photo, a description.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vilna_Jewish_Library_3619I had the good fortune to arrive during the 75th commemoration of the Holocaust, and Karen brought me to a memorable event at the Vilnius Jewish Public Library, one of several that had taken place this week. Family members of victims and survivors (who now live in Israel, the USA, and the UK) spoke eloquently about those who perished, disappeared, or underwent great hardship and cruelty. Commemorative plates have now been embedded in the streets of the ghetto to honor members of the Jewish community.

 

In speaking of their grandparents, they echoed some of my own experiences, acknowledging how difficult it is to find ancestors when the borders of countries changed every few years as a result of conquest. One could live in the very same town but one’s country of origin could change – what country are we living in today – is it Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Belarus? 

 

They also noted a typical psychological phenomenon – that survivors cannot talk about their experiences to their children but feel the need to tell their grandchildren. Another reason that in many cases, the information about the past has gone to the grave with those who knew the stories.

 

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In all the accounts, not just of World War II, but also European history for centuries, I see the theme of the Jews being the educated ones, those useful to assist in transactions between those who could not read (future of the Jewish lawyer?). Jews were successful merchants, prosperous hard workers and responsible members of the community. For this we have been envied, hated, stigmatized and preyed upon. Why?

 

 

When asked how the present generation can help to repair the past, the family members justly said that the first step is knowledge – bringing the facts to light.

 

“Worse than hatred is indifference.” Those who stood by and allowed the Holocaust to happen showed their indifference. Or perhaps they were governed by their own fear of being punished for speaking out or taking action.

 

Perhaps the COURAGE to stand up for justice for all humanity is the primary quality we must cultivate in the present and instill in generations to come.

 

Juditas_Grandparents_Father_B1913_VilnaThe last gift was when Karen introduced me to Judita Gliauberzonaite and her daughter.

Judita’s grandfather, born in 1913 in Vilnius, looks like my father, born the same year in New York, son of Morris from Vilna.

Her grandmother looks like my cousin Barbara. Same side of the family.

Judita said exactly what I have been saying, “Because they lived I am here.” We hugged and cried, having known each other only minutes.

In DNA terms, a long-lost sister.

 

 

As the family members said, “The greatest victory is surviving and thriving in spite of what occurred.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOMAD NOTES – Chapter 4 – Looking It in the Eyes

NOMAD NOTES – Chapter 4Looking It in the Eyes, Prague, Czech Republic, August 28, 2016

Synagogue_Krakow_3051_LOI’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.

 

 

 

Prague_Castle_3232_LOThe 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.

 

Ethnogarden_3083_LOSounds 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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

GUIDE_3102_LOMy 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.

 

 

 

 

 

RAiLROAD_car_3151_LOThe 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.

 

 

WOMEN_CHILDREN_3108_LOThe 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.

 

 

CREMATORIUM_3145_LOI 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Ancestry_mapDNA 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.

 

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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.

 

Nomad Notes – Chapter 1

Nomad Notes will be a series of blogs about and inspired by my meanderings into the places of my ancient past.

Chapter 1  Tel Aviv, Israel   August 16, 2016

It’s 10pm and I’ve just completed my first full day in Tel Aviv, a city I did not visit on my one and only other time in Israel, more than 15 years ago. Then, as now, I came for a cousin’s wedding, and this year that was the only thing that would get me on a plane. I have always reveled in travel, but the terrorist events of the past months have shaken my characteristic bravado.

 

IMG_2730.JPGThe Boulevard de Rothschild reminded me of the Ramblas in Barcelona; a warm night, a European vibe, even on a Tuesday populated with cyclists, walkers, eateries and music, the wide center promenade flanked by passing cars. Not all that easy, however, to find a full bar with food, but I settled into a bar seat at a Georgian restaurant and drank Russian vodka with my chicken dish, lucky that the young bartender spoke enough English for me to quiz her about my food intolerances.

 

IMG_2727.JPG I thought about my reason for being here as I ate the peppery chicken and vegetables. Yes, the wedding got me on the plane, but there is so much more. And as I write it now, I begin to tear up. I am finally strong enough, thanks to my Buddhist practice, to look the Holocaust in the eyes, to embrace my Jewishness, to seek out my roots in Eastern Europe, my destination after Israel. San Francisco is a wonderful place, and it’s so near California! I can’t bear to get on a plane, spend a bunch of money, and come right home. So my plans will finally take me, for the first time in my life, to the lands where generations of my ancestors struggled, survived, laughed, cried and died. After singing everyone else’s songs and learning everyone else’s languages, finally now I am ready to embrace my own culture and my family’s past. I want to stand where they stood.

 

IMG_2685.JPGToday I went to the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora (Beit Hatfutstot) at Tel Aviv University. I saw many images that touched me; brought me to tears like this holy book did, and also at the resemblance of myself and my family to some of the people in the photos, paintings and videos. I am lucky that my branch of the family emigrated to the USA in the early 1900’s. That’s how I am alive today. I saw my DNA in those photos.

 

Did those boys with the stars on their shirts survive? Was the man on the left a relative of mine? He looks like my father did as a youth. The Italian bride and the Polish Jewess both remind me of me and my mother.

 

 

“This is the story of a people which was scattered over all the world and yet remained a single family, a nation which time and again was doomed to destruction and yet out of ruins rose to new life.” – Abba Kovner

 

Abba Kovner was a Jewish Hebrew poet, writer and partisan leader. He became one of the great poets of modern Israel, but I just learned about him today. Pretty much a contemporary of my father, he was educated at Vilna University. My father’s family came from Vilna. His face has the same shape as my father’s did as a youth.

 

“To remember the past, to live the present, to trust the future.” – Abba Kovner

 

Stay tuned for more Nomad Notes, as tomorrow I see the ancient port of Jaffa and drive up to the Golan Heights for the wedding of my cousin.